Monday 31 October 2011

KM - emergent or structured?

Emergent There is a bit of a philosophical divide in KM circles - between the Emergent and the Structured camps.

The Emergent people believe that if you provide people with the 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 Structured people believe 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. 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.

There seems to have been a change over the past 10 years, with the Structured view becoming more dominant, at least for KM within organisations, and the Emergent view less dominant. This was clear to me a couple of weeks ago, listening to a presentation from Harry Scarbrough about his research for the KIN network. I think this change has come through experience with working with knowledge sharing within organisations, and the need to adapt and structure the Internet free-for-all.

Unstructured networking on the internet is not a great model for knowledge sharing in organisations, for several reasons.

  • The emergent discussion forums in Linked-In very quickly fragment into multiple parallel conversations, which often deteriorate further into silos. That would be a disaster in an organisation where there needs to be one place to go to tap into a network, not 422 places.
  • The 90:9:1 participation model of Wikipedia is fine if there is a massive pool of potential contributors, with redundancy in knowledge. Tapping into what is effectively 2% to 3% of the available knowledge is fine, if the available knowledge is global. In a company, it just isn't enough.
  • The diversity profile of Wikipedia is highly skewed. If your company knowledge base was disproportionally populated by the knowledge of unmarried males under the age of 30, you would think something was amiss.

For me, KM is a strategic business tool, which needs to be focused on business issues. Knowledge is too important to be left to chance, and to have no steward or guardian. It needs structure and support.

But there is a middle way between structured and emergent. Sure, knowledge is organic, but "organic" does not mean "unstructured". 

The classical structured organic enterprise is the Garden - the flower garden, the vegetable garden, the market garden, the allotment. The vegetables grow organically, within a structure. And anyone with a garden will know that if you want to produce flowers or vegetables, then "organic" is hard work, and requires a lot of management. You don't just "create the conditions so anything can grow", because all you get is weeds. If you "let a thousand flowers bloom", then most of them will be dandelions, and few if any of them will be tomato plants. Instead, you create the conditions, fertilise the soil, plant the seeds, remove the weeds, deter the pests, tend and water and fertilise, and eventually your flowers and vegetables will grow. If knowledge is Organic, then KM is Gardening. There's your mix of structure and emergence. 

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