Monday 10 January 2022

Why "Top down vs bottom up" is a false dichotomy for knowledge management implementation

There is a bit of a philosophical divide in KM circles - those who take a top-down approach to implementation, and those who prefer bottom-up.  The truth is that neither are right.

Image from wikimedia commons
The bottom-up view is that if you provide people with the KM tools, then Knowledge Sharing will naturally emerge. They point to Wikipedia as a prime example of this - the wisdom of the crowds spontaneously emerging as documented knowledge. They point to Twitter, to Linked-In, to many of the global social networking tools. They believe that Knowledge is organic, and that too much management will kill it. This was certainly a very prevalent view a decade ago, particularly where communities of practice were concerned.

The top-down view is that knowledge is an asset to an organisation, and that assets cannot safely be left to manage themselves. They believe that if there is an area of knowledge which is important to the organisation, then there should be a community of practice that looks after that knowledge. They delegate a chain of accountabilities for KM, starting from the very top.

ConocoPhillips is a prime example of the structured knowledge company - they divide their business into areas of competence, and for each one they make sure there is a community of practice and a network leader, who is also the editor of the relevant wiki page. The network leaders are given training, and the communities are nurtured through a growth process until they become very effective knowledge-sharing mechanisms. Each network leader reports upwards through functional excellence teams into the functional leadership of the organisation.

However, maybe there is no dichotomy here: 

  • Nonaka and Takeuchi list "top down/bottom up" as one of the 7 Western polarisations which you should not get hung up about;
  • The top (management) and the bottom (knowledge workers) are both stakeholders for knowledge management, and to focus only on one is a common implementation trap;
  • Knowledge is an asset both for the organisation, and for the knowledge workers.
Knowledge Management therefore has to work both for the top and for the bottom. You can neither implement it from the top or from the bottom - nor, for that matter, as a middle-up-down approach.

Knowledge Management needs to be implemented holistically - including top, bottom and middle. All three layers have to be involved, and all three have to see value being delivered for them.

Because you cannot implement KM holistically for the whole organisation all at once, you need to take a piloting approach to Knowledge Management implementation, introducing it holistically for one practice area to solve one business problem. Once it is working here, delivering value to top, middle and bottom, then move to the next practice area, then the next, until the job is done and implementation is complete.

This is implementation not from the top, nor from the bottom, but from side to side; from wall to wall.

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