Friday, 12 October 2018

Why hasn't knowledge management caught on? Wrong question!

Very often we hear people talking about the failure of KM as a discipline, and asking  "Why hasn't it caught on after all these years?" It's an interesting question, but it's the wrong question.

It's an interesting question, but it's the wrong question. People asking the question are often in government or the public sector, and there KM has not yet "caught on". However there are other sectors where KM has caught on, and has delivered sustained value for a couple of decades.

The consulting sector, for example - early adopters of KM, where KM is embedded, institutionalised, and part of the unconscious fabric of working. Or the legal sector, who's own document-focused brand of KM is well established. Or the oil and gas sector. Ot the construction sector. Aerospace. The military. etc etc.

Data from the publicly available Knoco global surveys of KM

The plot above shows the maturity stages of KM in various industries, with far more examples of KM fully embedded in legal firms, for example, than in education and training firms. The plot below also shows that the larger the organisation, the more mature KM is likely to be.

Data from the publicly available Knoco global surveys of KM


So the question is not "Why hasn't KM caught on" but "Why hasn't KM caught on in my organisational sector, and in organisations oy my size".

I think there are several reasons why KM has not yet caught on in the public sector in particular, and many of these can be related to the presence or lack of the components of organisational learning culture.

  • KM catches on most easily where knowledge has the biggest and most immediate impact on performance. If you can see, and measure, the added value of knowledge (on cost, speed of delivery, bid win rate, whatever) then good KM, leading to an improvement of the delivery of knowledge to the decision makers, delivers immediate and visible value. In the public sector, performance is a very difficult concept to work with. What makes up "good performance" for a public sector organisation? How easy is that to measure, and how easy is it to tie back to knowledge?
  • The value of KM certainly is more visible in larger organisations. Big multinationals have the most to gain from KM, and learning from their big-money decisions in multiple countries can deliver big benefit. In smaller organisations the benefits are correspondingly smaller and less visible, even though the proportional benefit may be the same.
  • Where I have worked with public sector institutions, one of the things that struck me most forcefully was the way messages were managed. There seemed to be a lot of reworking documents, to make sure they said things in the correct way. Now there's nothing wrong with that per se, but it introduces barriers to empowerment, to transparency, and to other elements of the required organisational learning culture. 
  • There is a distinct lack of "no blame" in the public sector, this time due to external pressures. All over the world (or almost all over), there is a hungry press waiting to pounce on anything that looks like a mistake or a failure from a government body or a national health service. This makes "learning from failure" a very risky affair. Indeed, the default approach to learning from failure is the dreaded "public enquiry", after which someone will be sacked, someone will retire in disgrace, and the true reasons for failure will remain unfixed. The "just culture" is very hard to apply in a situation like this.
So there are some real structural and cultural reasons why KM is not so easy in the public sector. In addition, where I have seen it, it tends to be focused on the tactical issues, and seldom on the strategic issues.

However, whether you sit in the public or private sector and are pondering "Why does KM seem to be dead? Why hasn't it caught on?", then you are asking the wrong question, because in other places KM has caught on and is alive and well.  You need to learn from where it works, and see what's different about your own context. And make adjustments as needed.

The question should be "why hasn't KM caught on here yet" and "how can we learn from others, where it has already caught on?"

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