Thursday, 9 January 2020

"Pendulum swings" in Knowledge Management - a story

Knowledge Management often involves balancing two forces - Connect and Collect, for example, or value to the individual and value to the firm. If you are not careful, this balance can turn into pendulum swings from one factor to the other. Here is a story of this happening.


Typical cycles in the balance between predator and prey
This is a story about how KM activity and support, in one organisation, has fluctuated wildly on an 8-year periodicity. It is also a story about why this happened (with reference to predator-prey cycles) and how other companies can avoid it happening to them.

The story


In the mid 80s, the company in question first realised that the various factories around the world were failing to learn from each other, and that there was a massive efficiency gain to be made by sharing best practice. They started a series of Global Practice Groups, and immediately began to deliver some quick wins in terms of business value. 

Over time, the members of the Global Practice Groups found that they were also getting personal value from being part of the group. The groups were seen as an excellent opportunity for personal networking, and membership grew and grew. New GPGs were formed, and they grew as well. After a while the management of the organisation began to think that people were spending too much time on the GPGs. They were seen as too many, too costly to the business, and too time consuming. Management closed them down in the mid 90s, and started a different system - Performance Improvement Teams

These immediately began to deliver some quick wins in terms of business value. Over time, the members of the PITs found that they were also getting personal value from being part of the group. The PITs developed into networks, and were seen as good value for money. New PITs were formed, and they grew as well. After a while the management of the organisation began to think that people were spending too much time on the PITs, which were seen as too many, too costly to the business and too time consuming. Management closed them down in the early 2000s, and started a different system - Communities of Practice.

These CoPs were a lot like the GPGs but initially there were fewer of them and they now had more effective processes, better KM systems and designated leadership teams. They immediately began to deliver .........you can guess the rest. Delivery of business value, declaration of victory, growth in popularity,  eventually deemed too expensive, too numerous and too time consuming. Management closed them down in the late 2000s and replaced them by Continuous Improvement Forums. The story continues.

Why did this happen?


The GPGs, PITs, CoPs and CIFs started off small and focused, working on organisational problems. The members then found they also were gaining value, the groups grew, and the pendulum swung from "value to the company" to "value to the members". The company saw costs growing and value diminishing, and restarted the cycle with a fresh swing of the pendulum.

These cycles happened on about an 8-year periodicity.  In a way, they are reminiscent of predator-prey cycles such as the one in the picture, where an increase in prey population causes an increase in predator population, which then causes a subsequent crash.

A predator prey cycle, and the KM cycles seen above, can both be thought of as a balance swinging between two extremes. In the predator/prey cycles the extremes are
  • many prey, increase in predators (growth)
  • many predators, decrease in prey (crash)
In the KM cycle, the extremes are
  • much value to the organisation, less value to the members (growth)
  • much value to the members, less value to the organisation (crash)

This imbalance was referred to by Siemens as "the customer trap"; the need to balance the expectation of the business, in terms of delivery of the KM program, with the expectations of the user.  Knowledge management often requires attention to two forces, which we (or at least those of us in a western dualist mindset) see as opposing:


Where forces are seen to oppose, then rather than finding a balance, the pendulum may swing from one side to the other, as in the story above. We need to avoid this dualist trap, and see KM in a systemic way, where these forces form part of a system, just the lynx and hares do on the picture above.

How do you avoid the pendulum?


What we really need is a balance -

  • sustained value to the business
  • sustained value to the members

Setting this balance is a governance issue, which would result in long term stability.

Both the leadership of the groups and the KM leadership of the organisation need to ensure that the CoPs/GPGs are focused on both value propositions. They need to:


  • help the communities develop charter that stress the need for value both to the organisation and the members;
  • track and report the value to both sets of stakeholders;
  • intervene when needed to balance the two value propositions.


Without such governance, communities of practice in any organisation may suffer from the same problem of radically fluctuating support, and constant 8-year cycles of growth and crash. 


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