Friday 7 August 2015

Is KM culture a KM input or a KM output?

Culture is a vital element of Knowledge Management, but it is also a result of Knowledge Management. So is culture an input to KM, or a result?

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The question may seem academic - the sort of question where you can answer "Yes and No" or "Both" or "It doesn't matter", but its not so academic when it comes to defining your KM Framework.

For years we understood that there were three pillars of KM -  People, Process, Technology  - but we also knew that there was something else as well. You can have the best technologies, the most robust processes, and the clearest role descriptions, but still knowledge will not necessarily get managed.

It's that "build it and they won't come" - no matter how well you build it, they still won't necessarily come and use it. If people don't want to share and re-use knowledge, or don't care two hoots one way or the other about share and re-use of knowledge, then the roles, processes and technologies will remain unused and unfulfilled.

So then we started to discuss, what's the missing element? What should we add to People, Process and Technology, to ensure KM is actually applied?

The first thought was to add "Culture". If the Culture is right, then the tools will be used, the processes applied, the roles adopted.  But then this implies that you cannot start KM until you have the right culture, which we know to be the wrong answer. We thought perhaps we could include "Behaviours", but they also are something that emerge through KM implementation.

So then we asked - what drives culture? Culture is not a thing that emerges spontaneously - culture is created, and co-created, in organisations. Culture is an output, not an input. Culture is an effect, not a cause. There are input factors that cause culture, and we need to know what they are, if we are to effect the output of the culture change that Knowledge Management needs.

We decided that there were three main factors that drive culture.

1. The written and unwritten "rules of behaviour". 

People do what they believe is expected of them. People are generally good workers, they want to do a good job, and if something is expected of them as part of the job, they generally do it. Expectation can be explicit or implicit - part of the written or unwritten rules.

These can be rules such as "follow the company taxonomy", "We always do our lessons learned at the end of projects", "Communities of practice should have a coordinator" and so on.

Expectation comes from leadership, and from peers, and these two sources of expectation need to be aligned to be effective (there is no point in the boss saying "I expect you to learn from others" while the rest of the team has no interest in sharing knowledge with you). So knowledge management needs to become an expectation, from management and from peers. It needs to become written and unwritten expectation that you will seek, share and re-use knowledge.

For these rules to be long-lasting they need to be enshrined in a KM Policy or similar document.

2. Feedback and reinforcement 

People do what they are recognised and rewarded for, and don't do what they are not rewarded for. I don't just mean money when I say "rewards" - I mean other more subtle rewards such as praise and acknowledgement, "fitting in" and not being teased, all sorts of things. This feedback and reinforcement comes from leadership, and from peers, and these two sources of feedback and reinforcement need to be aligned to be effective (if the community of practice is saying "well done for helping out with that problem" while your manager is saying "I want you to spend less time on that community stuff", that just sets up unhealthy tension).

So knowledge management activities need to be recognised, there needs to be positive feedback on them, and this needs to be linked to job rewards. And if people ignore or shirk their knowledge management expectations, there needs to be feedback and reinforcement here also - negative feedback from management and peers, and negative impact to your salary or job prospects (see my post on KM motivation).

3. Support.

KM at first is new, and people will need support. This support will come from leadership, and from peers. Support from leadership may take the form of coaching, training, reference materials, help with the one-off tasks, and just allowing the time for people to do their KM activities. Support from peers will also be allowing the time and space, as well as helping each other with the tools and processes.

The emergence of KM Governance

With clear expectation, feedback and reinforcement, and support, the culture will change, behaviours will change, and that change will be sustained. These three are the inputs, culture is the output. These three are the causes, culture is the effect.  Collectively we can refer to thse three as "Governance."

However there is also a feedback loop in play. The more the culture changes, the stronger the unwritten rules, feedback and peer support become.  And once they become strong enough to be self-sustaining, you have reached the tipping point.

So when we finally decided on the enablers for KM, we added the element of Governance to People, Process and Technology to make the four legs on the KM table.

If you work on these Governance elements as part of your KM culture change program, and get them embedded into the business fabric, you will introduce the drivers that will make sure the people fulfil the roles, apply the processes and use the technology.

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