Tuesday 15 March 2016

Why KM is not "all about people"

The phrase "Knowledge Management is all about people" is a common one in the KM industry. But how useful is that phrase really?

I think the concept that "knowledge management is all about people" arose as an antidote to the idea that "knowledge management is all about technology", and as such it may have some use in countering an even more pernicious fallacy, but as a phrase I think it is at best unhelpful, and at worse misleading.

For a start, you could say the same about almost any other branch of management.
  • Safety management is all about people
  • Risk management is all about people
  • Talent management is all about people (this one actually is probably true!)
  • Quality management is all about people 
  • Project management is all about people
In fact, at the heart of everything, Management is "all about people" because people do things in organisations, but then the Management word and the "all about people" come to mean the same thing. "Knowledge management is management".  Well, duh.

It is often claimed that, because knowledge is created by and applied by people, this makes knowledge a "people property" and that knowledge management therefore equates to people management. Again, there is some truth in here, but that's not the whole story, by a long way. 

The idea that knowledge is created and applied by people is often assumed to mean that it is the property of individuals. This leads to a focus on training and individual learning as an approach to KM, which sort of misses the point. Knowledge is held as much by teams, departments and organisations as it is by individuals. Knowledge can be;
  • collectively held by the members of a high performing team, working as a single unit. It is quite valid to say, for example, that Real Madrid knows how to win football matches. 
  • embodied in the routines and practices of a competent organisation
  • codified into checklists and procedures
  • co-created by a community of practice
  • etc.
So even if KM were "all about people" it certainly isn't all about individual people.

One step in the right direction is to say that knowledge management is about the interactions between people. Much knowledge is identified, shared and learned through conversation. Here the people are important, but even more important is the way they interact and interrelate. That's why so much of successful knowledge management is about Processes - specifically the conversational processes such as After Action review, Peer Assist and so on (see here for complete list).

However we cannot escape the fact that knowledge management also needs to address content. This is not to say that KM and content management are the same - far from it - but some knowledge is transferred, however inefficiently, through the use of knowledge content such as guidance, instruction, tips and hints, recorded stories, lessons, and so on. Again processes come into the picture - the processes of codification, recording, writing, synthesis - and also technology plays a part; technology not just to enable the conversations that can't happen face to face, but also to host and to make findable (and also make co-creatable, if that is a word) the knowledge content.

Then there is a school of thought that "all about people" actually means "all about culture and behaviours". KM certainly will both encourage and require new behaviours and attitudes towards knowledge, but this is not "all about people" as much as it is about leadership, expectations. incentives, metrics, and all the other elements we put under the term "governance". These are the elements that set and sustain culture and behaviours, and to lump these under the cliché "all about people" is not helpful. 

The one area where knowledge management truly is about individual people performing individual tasks, is, ironically, the component of KM that is one of the most common blind spots - and that is the area of Roles and Accountabilities

Knowledge Management will not work without individual people being given specific KM roles and accountabilities, for example
  • The CoP leader role, with accountability for stewarding a vibrant and effective community of pratice
  • The Process Owner role, with accountability for stewarding corporate knowledge in a particular topic
  • The KM facilitator role, accountable for the effectiveness of KM processes
  • The KM Champion role, accountable for the development of KM in their part of the business
  • The KM team, accountable for effective KM across the organisation
  • The project leader, accountable for ensuring the project complies with expectations for project-related KM
  • etc.

So knowledge management is not "all about people" in any simplistic sense. 

It is partly about KM roles and accountabilities, partly about KM processes, partly about Technology, partly about Governance. It results in regular and routine knowledge conversations, the creation and re-use of knowledge content, and a new set of behaviours and attitudes.

It is as much "all about people" as any other management system, in that people will be involved throughout, but its about more than people as well.  It's about how the whole organisation learns, in a routine, systematic and strategic way. 

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