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They say that KM maturity models don’t work…

I read an interesting blog today that put forward an argument that maturity models don’t work in KM and that a change model should be considered instead.  Interesting… Very interesting… I would argue that there is no right or wrong answer here, but to dismiss maturity models out of hand is perhaps misleading.

To be clear, the author could be correct, but this type of argument, in my opinion, is often flawed and depends on your underpinning assumptions and experiences of maturity modelling – there are those who say they don’t work and there are highly successful examples of practice, such as IIP using a Participatory Integrated Assessment Tool approach.  First a maturity model has to be informed by an ongoing benchmarking process for it to be of any value.  For this to happen we are usually talking about an extensive evolving meta-analysis/synthesis of practice, where stages of maturity are coded, surfaced and linked to an evidence-based value model; poor models do not have the ongoing underpinning research and are often driven by personal experiences or limited data collection.  It will also depend on your world view on KM and of maturity models.

The author uses the example of penguins moving from a position on an ice floe to being in the sea.

So you cannot use an incremental scale, or a maturity model, for a step change. The step change is Quantum, not continuous.

Let’s think about step change. The prime example is the penguins on an ice floe. They make a step change from one culture (on the floe; safe but hungry) to another (in the water; riskier but lots of food). They don’t inch down the floe all together – you couldn’t have a model that goes “penguins on floe, penguns feet in water, penguins waist deep, penguins neck-deep, penguind swimming”. Instead the measure is “0 penguins in water, 1 penguin in water, 2 penguins”…………up to all “all penguins in water”. They are either in the water or not. It’s a step change.

This metaphor provides an excellent example of perception and context.  For example, if we are speaking of a penguin chick, then the metaphor doesn’t hold; as the chick needs to mature to a stage where they can move from the ice floe in order to survive – don’t move into the sea; don’t eat; die – which plays heavily into the risk analysis of the requirement to mature; we can also then talk about the process change model and how we learn to evolve from one state to another (perhaps another blog).  If we reflect this back to an organisational context, and the strategic drivers for KM, a key one being adaptive capacity, then the need for the organisation to evolve from one state to another is one of maturing to compete, if not survival.

The other point of argument is that actually an evidence-informed maturity model is designed to present signposts for change.  If we are going to change from one state to another, it would be good to know what the intended state looks like in order to monitor and evaluate progress – KPIs anyone?

Change, in the context presented by the blog author, can also take place due to outliers – the recent economic situation is a good example (see Black Swan by Taleb for a good read in this area).  These outliers are unpredicatable, but they do not always impact maturity models.  The change tipping point is a reaction to the environment and I would suggest that Knowledge Intensive Organisations are always scanning and reacting to the needs of the environment – after all they do sit and transact within the knowledge economy, which requires them to leverage knowledge, which itself is always evolving, for competitive advantage.  These changes will always occur regardless of whether they are guided by a maturity model or not – what we are talking about here is their effectiveness in dealing with the change in the first place; a more mature organisation, if guided by a good maturity model, should be in a better position to deal with the outliers that induce periods of punctuated equilibrium (resilience – sustainability?)

The author also stated:

It’s dangerous because it leads you to think that you change the whole company all the time. In fact the best approach is to lead elements of the company to make the step change one by one (department by department, or community by community, or project by project).

KM is a holistic complex process, it does not sit in isolation and to improve KM processes there will be the requirement to move across the organisation in order to change.  Also, regardless of the process, and there are strong arguments for and against the department by department method, the final state impacts the whole organisation – to change is to learn and mature, we hope, especially if we are trying to answer an organisation’s need for competitive advantage.

It’s dangerous because it leads you to think level 3 is better than level 2. Take leadership as an example – if level 2 is “disinterested” and level 3 is “lukewarm”, then level 3 is not an advance over level 2, as both are inadequate for success. KM cannot survive with lukewarm leadership. KM needs clear leadership support and expectation. You need to work your way through the stakeholders one by one, moving each leader to the commitment threshold.

Interesting, but a step change model will require safe steps to change and not instant transformation. It could be well argued that a senior manager that moves from a state of disinterest to one of mild interest is improving the opportunities for the organisation – again, it depends on your perception and context.  In a maturity model (depending on whether you are looking at a 3-5-7 point model) a requirement might be that to move from an immature (level 1) state to a mid (level 2 ) state there is a requirement for senior management leadership in the development of organisational knowledge and learning processes – a good evidence-based maturity model will be able to provide examples of practice that meet the criteria.

It’s dangerous because it neglects the tipping point. Penguins diving off an ice floe, and dancers at a festival, reach a tipping point when the numbers are right, and the rest suddenly join in. An incremental maturity model does not predict this. You need to expect it, and plan for it, and resource for it. Demands on your services as KM coach and support may increase by a factor of 10 within a few days.

A good evidence-based maturity model signposts changes to operational demands and provides case examples to guide thinking as the organisation negotiates the change process (including soft and hard system process change management) from one stage of maturity to the other.  Maturity in the knowledge economy is an ongoing process, which brings us back to the need for change within maturity models – they evolve (change) with practice and therefore they are only as good as the research, analysis and practice that supports them.  Stagnant maturity models, I would agree with the bog author, could cause serious issues to organisations that rely on them.

Ultimately, my argument is that evidence-informed KM maturity models do have a place in organisations, but they are only as good as the evidence and practice that supports them.  BP is a fantastic recent example of this – this is their Most Admired Knowledge Enterprise [MAKE] citation from 2009:

The 2009 European MAKE panel has recognised BP for developing knowledge workers through senior management leadership (1st place), and creating a learning organisation (1st place). BP is a nine-time European MAKE Winner, including the overall 2001 European MAKE Winner.

And yet they were at the heart of one of the biggest hydrocarbon incidents in recent times and poor KM practice could be argued to be at the core of some of the findings.

5 comments on “They say that KM maturity models don’t work…

  1. Nick Milton
    July 7, 2011

    Thanks for your comments David – some valid points, although I don’t think you could blame the Macondo disaster on a KM failure; it was far more complex than that!

    • David Griffiths
      July 7, 2011

      Hi Nick…Thank you for a stimulating blog to start it all off…totally agree with the your point on the Macondo disaster – poorly crafted argument on my part…I was trying to link the KM achievements of BP to KM aspects of the disaster review and I could have presented it a bit better.

  2. Douglas Weidner
    July 7, 2011

    Excellent insights.
    At the KM Institute we have done some recent work on a Knowledge Maturity Model (KMM)(tm), I started in 1999.
    We have found it needs to be simple, but far more comprehensive than most, truly express reality (continuous vs staged – enable simultaneous development, but at different pace in different areas), and most importantly, be both diagnostic and prescriptive.

    Your discussion of the ‘Tipping Point’ effect is interesting, though I don’t know if I’ve seen it in reality, but maybe I’ve seen some localized tips, if not enterprise wide.
    Douglas Weidner, Chairman, KM Institute

    • David Griffiths
      July 7, 2011

      Hi Douglas…

      Thanks for this, we’ll have to swap notes at sometime; we’ve been working on a KM maturity model for the last 4 years.

      We use it as a way to produce a snapshot of a future state – sometimes, as educators and consultants, we need to have a vision for change that perhaps the organisation itself is too blinkered to see – after all, if they are calling us in, there is a challenge that they are struggling with and we need to be able to show them potential future states. We try to do this through guided discovery; questioning, listening to their needs, their aspirations, their concerns, their challenges…trying to lead them to their own logical conclusions. That said, we have also been challenged by Executive Management teams to tell them what the next stage looks like; again, this is perhaps where we as navigators need the expertise and understanding of future states in order to paint a suite of scenarios against the organisation’s needs.

      The maturity model approach is a tool to assist in the navigation process…as I’ve said though, it’s only as good as the data that informs it.

      Cheers, DG

  3. Chris Collison
    July 7, 2011

    I take a different view to Nick on this one.
    I think it all depends on how you see a Maturity Model (or self-assessment tool, a term I prefer to use) being created and used.

    For me, there is great power and benefit in facilitating a conversation with a client group which enables them to describe their own model, in their words – to be used more widely in the organisation. So creating your own model? High benfit, low risk.

    In my view, using an existing ‘external model’ (e.g. the simple 5-practice one in the back of ‘Learning to Fly’) with a client, requires a different approach. For me, these models are prompts for a conversation and discussion. They create a common language which is the springboard for sharing, rather than the end-point of an audit/assessment. It helps the penguns figure out whether they are in the water or on the ice, and, most importantly shows them some other penguins to talk with and learn from. In the discussion, the subtleties and nuances of interpretation surface, and the practical knowledge gets shared. The outcome shouldn’t be:

    “OK, I’m at level 3 – how do I find a way to perfectly tick the boxes for level 4”,

    it should be:

    “I now have a better understanding of what others who self-assess at level 4 do, and I can make adapt their experience to fit my part of the business”.

    So if you’re the kind of consultant who likes to tell a client precisely where they are weak and strong, direct the discussion and advocate a “best practice” remedy for them from your own toolkit, then Maturity Models are a dangerous tool.

    But if you’re a facilitative consultant who wants to open-up an inquiry about what good looks like, encourage others to share their experience and co-create a way to get there – then they are a real asset in building community and enabling knowledge to flow. That’s why they are so succesful in the development sector and as a tool for communities of practice to develop and use.

    I’m in the second camp. However there are still some clients I wouldn’t mention Maturity Models to, because of the danger that they misunderstand/misapply, regardless of my pointing out the icebergs ahead!

    Like all the other tools in the KM Consultant’s bag, they can be used wisely or inappropriately. The key thing is knowing whether they are right for the client, when and how they should be introduced, and how to ensure that they are catalysts for change.


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