Friday 22 January 2021

Why incrementalism doesn't work for KM change

Incrementalism will not work as a way to introduce Knowledge Management. KM is a mindshift - a giant leap - not a series of small steps.

Incrementalism is a method of working or changing by using many small incremental changes instead of one giant leap. Logical incrementalism implies that the steps in the process are sensible, and together each small step makes progress towards large change.  It is a preferred approach in many organisations, because it doesn't upset the status quo too much.

But Knowledge Management has to upset the status quo!

The status quo in most organisations is that the value of knowledge is unrecognised, people treat knowledge as personal asset not a valuable corporate asset, and knowledge work is not seen as "real work".

This status quo generally results in knowledge mismanagement.

I have already talked about the culture leap for Knowledge Management - the 8-inch shift from "Knowledge is MINE" to "Knowledge is Ours". This is a jump across a chasm, a polar switch in attitude, not a series of shuffles from one state to another.  Knowledge Management cannot effect this culture change in incremental steps, it requires a paradigm shift.

We see the same effect in our Bird Island exercise. People build a tower, and then start to think how they might improve the tower. They think, they discuss, they conduct after action reviews, and decide that next time, their tower could be 20% higher. They think they can improve incrementally.

Then we show them a picture of the World Record tower, which is often 3 or 4 times the height they have managed. They realise that a big leap is needed, not a series of little steps. As one of our participants said:
"That's the difference between the top learners and the rest: it will take the incrementalists all eternity to catch up with the best learning organisations. A shift from an incrementalist standpoint is quite a fundamental shift"

The "top learner" takes learning from everywhere any anywhere - from other people, other companies, and from records from the past. They challenge their thinking, they throw away their design if its unsatisfactory, they have open minds and they welcome challenge. That's where we see the giant leaps in performance in Bird Island - with performance increases of 300% or 400%. This is true also in KM implementation.  we need a giant leap, not baby steps.

So if we can't use incrementalism, how then do we effect the KM change?

We effect change through standard change management techniques.

  • Make the case that the Status Quo is unacceptable. In the Bird Island game, this is done by showing how pathetic the current performance seems against World Class performance. In the organisation, this is done by showing the unacceptable costs or risks of lost knowledge.
  • Show what the future will be like. Present case studies of embedded Knowledge Management where true value is being delivered. Show how people treat knowledge as a really valuable asset, and how they work differently as a result.
  • Find someone who "gets it" (your first follower) and work with them to pilot KM in one small part of your own organisation.  Capture your own case study.  
  • This pilot is a big leap in a small area, as opposed to incrementalism, which is a small change over the whole company. 
  • Communicate the success from the pilot. Use this as social proof to find the second follower, and the third.
  • Communicate, communicate, communicate.
  • When you have a big enough body of proof, use this to gain senior management support for roll-out.
  • Communicate, communicate, communicate.  Recognise the good performers. Publicise their successes. Continue to show the others what the future will look like. Coach, support, cajole, encourage.  Roll out KM area by area, business problem by business problem, department by department.
  • Embed KM, so the culture does not change back.

Big changes don’t happen incrementally, they happen dramatically through choice or by circumstances.  Knowledge Management is a big change in culture, and you cannot get there through small incremental steps.

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