Friday 4 December 2009

Pull together please, not apart

Originally uploaded by UNC - CFC - USFK

Knowledge management is at a crossroads.

Not only has KM spending been slashed in many enterprises as a short-term reaction to the recession, but also the core identity of the topic is becoming blurred as competing factions bid for ownership of the term. KM is a fuzzy term to start with, and is also a term that can be looked at through many lenses – the lenses of people, of process, of technology; the lenses of tacit and of explicit; the lenses of Connect and Collect, of Push and Pull. The risk of a fuzzy field which can be viewed in many ways, is that people can assume that their view is the commanding view, if not the only view.

So there is a view that KM is now about the management of content and information; a new term for librarianship for example (I note that the KM section of the International Federation of Library Associations call themselves “the voice of global KM”). This is a view of KM through the “Collecting" and "Explicit" lenses, focused on Collections of Explicit knowledge.

Or there’s another view that KM is dead, and that social networking is doing what KM was supposed to do - “social computing is the new KM”. Someone passed me a business card the other day that said “Web 2.0 = KM”. This is a view through the “Connect” and “Technology” lenses. Yes, it involves people, but the solutions to people issues are claimed to be technology solutions, and the view focuses on Connection technology.

Or there’s still a very strong feeling that KM is a content-technology field, whether it’s SharePoint or KM platforms or some new version of user-populated portals. This is a view through the “Collect” and “Technology “ lenses.

Or there is a view, coming from the training field, that KM is a component of blended learning, and therefore an offshoot of L&OD. Taking this to its limit, the government sees Knowledge as the province of the Universities; for them Knowledge Transfer is about university partnerships and spinoffs, and about smart people with smart ideas which can be commercialised. This is a view through the “Connect” and “People” lenses.

Or there is the view that KM is a mindset, that knowledge cannot be divorced from the knower, and that KM is all about people and about behaviors and culture. This is a “People” “Tacit” view.

Or there is a view that KM is linked to performance improvement, and to learning from experience, and to disciplines such as 6 Sigma, Kaizen, BPR and After Action review. This is the “Process” view, sometimes taken into a "Process, Technology" view by those who offer workflow technology under a KM banner.

At best some of these viewpoints overlap, but at worst they pull in opposite directions. At very worst, people start to claim their viewpoint as the only viewpoint for KM – “Web 2.0 is KM”, “Content ownership is KM”, “KM is culture” and so on. This is where the reported “Wars” come from (see here for example).

There are no one-size-fits-all solutions in KM; we all know that. But there is a set of principles around which KM can consolidate, and around which it needs to consolidate if the field is to survive. One of the most basic of those principles is that KM is a holistic field rather than a polarised field. It’s a field of “both/and” rather than “either/or”. It’s a field where we need to address both connect and collect - connection of people, and collection of content. We need to address people as well as technology as well as process as well as culture. We need to look at push as well as pull, and tacit as well as explicit.

You cannot take one aspect of KM and claim that it's the whole field. That's like saying "Building houses is all about roof tiles". "No it's not, it's all about retaining walls". "No it's not, it's all about foundations". Building a house is about all of these things, fitting together, to provide a secure and stable structure which is fit for the inhabitants' purpose.

By the same token, KM is about all of these things, fitting together, to provide an effective and efficient structure (or system, or climate, or ecosystem - call it what you will) which is fit for the inhabitants' purpose.

KM is simple but not easy, and it becomes impossible if connect and collect, technology and people, tacit and explicit, pull in opposite directions. I look forward to a future where the social computers, librarians, trainers and technologists will come together to develop the whole field, working as a team in a holistic approach to knowledge. We have to ensure that all elements are addressed in a coherent approach to delivering value through knowledge, if it is to deliver its real value.

The forces that pull KM together are the forces driven by business need. Rather than starting from solution-focused questions like “how can I introduce SharePoint” or “What is my Social Computing/Content management/eLearning strategy”, KM will need to start from outcome-focused questions like “how do we spread our sales knowledge from the old markets to the sales-teams in emerging markets”, or “how do we ensure our projects never repeat a mistake or inefficiency”? In almost every case, the answer to that question will involve a blend of technologies, a focus on people as well as content, new processes, push and pull of both tacit and explicit knowledge, and a hefty dose of culture. It will require us all to pull together, rather than to pull apart.


Allan Crawford said...


I couldn't agree more with your assessment of the need to, as Steven Covey would say, "start with the end in mind." KM will only succeed if it is about solving business problems..not about can I use this technology or apply this process."

Based on my experience teaching in a Master's in KM program and in consulting I've seen so many cases where people bring a narrow view of KM - as you have described above -- which limits their ability to help an organization improve performance.

Perhaps we can work together to help - pull together ... vs pulling apart....

Nick Milton said...

Just to illustrate this "people assuming that their view is the commanding view, if not the only view"; I read a blog post today that was entitled "Good search IS knowledge management"


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