Friday 18 November 2016

The case for KM standards

The ISO Knowledge Management System Standard continues to be developed. but do we need an ISO standard for KM?

According to the ISO website, the ISO KM standard has reached the final step of the committee stage, and will soon be released for general review as a Draft International Standard. This does not guarantee that the standard will be published, but it opens the document for general review and comment.

However, do we need a KM standard at all? Is there any merit in people being able to qualify or accredit  themselves against a standard for KM?

There are certainly dissenting voices. Some people feel that Knowledge Management is more a philosophy than it is a management system, and that you cannot have philosophical standards. Others feel that the need for accreditation is unnecessary and would add administrative burden without adding value. Others think that KM is too broad a field for coverage by a standard.  And other feel that accreditation will be a tick-box exercise.

I certainly agree that a KM standard would not work if they tried to impose a uniform approach to KM on organisations, but a KM standard will work if it helps people avoid the common pitfalls that still plague the topic. I see the following three key arguments why a KM standard would be a really positive addition to the KM field.

Knowledge Management is a very poorly defined field, for which a standard would add clarity.  

It has been for a long time, and the main confusions have been with content management, information management, innovation management, training and development, and data management. One organisation can talk about a KM program, which to another organisation is not a KM program at all. 

When a client comes to Knoco and asks for help with a Knowledge Management program, we first have to ask "What do you mean by Knowledge Management?"  In some cases we find they want to put a corporate training program together, in other cases they want a whole lot of documents digitised, and in other cases they want to optimise the value of knowledge. To them, all of this may be knowledge management, even though to us much of it falls under already established alternative fields. 

There is no single body that talks for Knowledge Management, and which can help with establishing a definition. There are almost as many definitions as there are practitioners, which is unhelpful.

ISO, on the other hand, is a recognised international authority. It already has a set of published standards (or standards under development) for various disciplines, including Records Management, Information Management, Innovation management and so on, and still a "white space" remains into which Knowledge Management neatly fits. 

An ISO KM standard would at last provide a definition, from an international body, of the scope of the KM field. We may not all agree with this scope (and we will be able to comment during the review phase) but at least we will have an international definition to refer to. 

Knowledge Management is prone to common and persistent errors, which a standard would help avoid. 

I am sure we are all aware of the high failure rate of KM projects, and of the common reasons for failure. I list 7 common failure reasons here;

  1. KM is not introduced with a business focus
  2. KM is not introduced as a change program 
  3. Only parts of the KM solution are implemented (usually only the technology parts)
  4. There is no effective high-level sponsorship 
  5. The KM team does not have the right people to deliver change 
  6. The KM team engage only with the enthusiasts 
  7. KM is not embedded into the business 
These and other errors have persisted ever since KM was invented, and you can read warnings against them in the old classics such as "Working Knowledge" by Prusak and Davenport.  They persist to this day. We are constantly approached by clients who think that simply buying a KM technology will result in effective KM, for example, or who feel "KM is a good thing to do" but with no organisational rationale behind it.

The Knowledge Management standard should guard against all of these pitfalls. An organisation should not be able to certify, or self-certify, against the standard without a clear link between KM and the organisational objectives, a complete working solution (appropriate to the organisational scale and context), a change management plan, a high level sponsor, a skilled and accountable KM individual or team, etc.

A standard would give a way to ensure your outsource partners manage your outsourced knowledge

Sometimes organisations don't manage their knowledge themselves. Sometimes they outsource it to partners or contractors. Say you have an outsource partner managing your customer support, for example, or your tax preparation, or your website design. You want them not only to provide a good service, but to manage their knowledge about service provision, tax preparation and website design.  But how do you do this, without a standard to judge them against?

If the KM standard makes it through the review stage and is finally published, then the outsource partner can demonstrate, through certification (provided the certification is good), that they have a complete KM system and have not fallen into any of the common and persistent pitfalls.

To address the other objections:

  • Yes, Knowledge management is a philosophy as well as a management system, but so is Quality management, and the ISO quality standard has been hugely successful. The standard should explain how the philosophy can be defined, communicated and supported.
  • You do not need to apply for accreditation against the standard. You can use it as a guide, without the need for accreditation. The option for accreditation, however, becomes useful when an organisation needs to demonstrate to others that they manage their knowledge in a recognised manner. You can't just say "trust us - we manage our knowledge", especially with KM being such a poorly defined field; instead you ask for external accreditation against the standard.
  • KM is potentially a broad field for coverage by a standard, but not once you look at the coverage of all the other ISO standards.  The remaining white space is relatively well defined, and neatly addresses a coherent field.
  • Self-accreditation will be a tick-box exercise. Independent accreditation should not be. Thats the value of the ISO system. A third party comes and checks what you claim, and looks for evidence. 

All in all, I am very positive about the ISO KM standard.  There remains a huge amount of consultation and discussion before anything can be published, but the end result will be worth the work.

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