Theknowledgecore's Blog

Complexity and Knowledge Management Navigators…

KM, is it a Bromide Management System?

This week’s blog is written by Brian Moon at Perigean Technologies; a company that we at K3-Cubed have forged a strategic alliance with in the US.  Brian will be coming over to Edinburgh to speak at the University of Edinburgh International Knowledge event on November 15th (it’s free by the way…details to follow in this blog sometime in the next week).  Brian is on the cutting edge of applied research and consultancy in the field of Knowledge/Expertise Mapping (as we’ve set out, this is critical challenge for knowledge retention in organisations).  This area is also a big part of what we believe to be the here and now, and the future of KM. This blog will give you a taste of his views on KM…

Prior to 1975, bromide salts were used to relieve anxiety, headaches and upset stomach. Bromo-Seltzer, a popular American product combining an active ingredient of 3.2 mEq/teaspoon of sodium bromide with acetaminophen, sodium bicarbonate and citric acid, was widely touted as a remedy for the common hangover.

Knowledge management systems are often posited to provide analogous relief. They help relieve the anxiety introduced by pressures from the bottom line by enabling knowledge workers to collaborate and share. They are touted as a cure to the symptoms of hangover caused by the departure of key employees – namely, the headaches introduced when knowledge walks out the door. Concoct a potion from a few elements – the active ingredient must be a document management system, blended with collaboration tools and an expert directory, of course – and you get the KM equivalent of Bromo-Seltzer. Any system worthy of its cost will also include a roll-out plan so that the users will know exactly what benefits the KM system will bring them, once they engage. Bromo-Seltzer’s campaign and catchy jingle was no doubt another key to its widespread success.

Despite the incantation of the locomotive gathering steam, however, it turns out that Bromo-Selzter was something of a downer – literally. Bromide salts have mild tranquilizing effects, inducing drowsiness in patients. One of the reasons Bromo-Seltzer was popular with the hangover crowd was that it simply let them sleep it off. In 1975, bromides were withdrawn from the American market due to their toxicity. Indeed, chronic toxicity from bromide was discovered to be a source of bromism, a severe neurological syndrome. There are no current approved uses for bromide in the U.S. (though it is used to treat seizures in dogs, and therapeutically in the treatment of human epilepsy in Germany). And the Emerson Drug Company that produced Bromo-Seltzer? It morphed into a real estate company.

This history has given rise to the colloquial use of the term “bromide,” which refers to a trite saying, a platitude. Much of what passes for KM solutions these days is little more than what I’ll call “bromide management systems.” In an effort to relieve palpable symptoms brought on by corporeal antecedents such as the need to innovate and the risks of lost knowledge, a “bromide management system” is commonly proposed, comprised of an active ingredient that enables people to pass files across computerized systems. Yet while the system may ostensibly appear to offer remedies, in most cases it does little more than enable the transfer of platitudes. These may take the form of “lessons learned,” or wear the dressing of “tacit knowledge.” But more often than not, they do not explicitly capture the nature of knowledge in an organization. Even more rarely will they enable the organization’s “franchise experts” to articulate the sources of their expertise, and capture the elements of their experience that comprise the bases of their macrocogitive abilities and sensemaking skills. These are the sources for innovation in a knowledge economy, and getting at them should be a primary goal of an organization’s learning, sustainment, and KM programs. At best, a “bromide management system” will miss these sources and put its customers to sleep; at worst, it will introduce syndromes that have deleterious effects by implying that the bromides it transfers are useful.

The Emerson Bromo-Seltzer Tower was erected in 1911, and stood for over a decade as the tallest building in Baltimore, Maryland. It was constructed by none other than Isaac Emerson, inventor of Bromo-Seltzter. For most of its history, it served to keep the time for the citizens of Baltimore, and promote Bromo-Seltzer. It was virtually abandoned in 2002, but today, thanks to the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts, it is now known as the Bromo Setlzter Arts Tower, a state of the art studio space for visual and literary artists. We in the KM community might look upon it as a reminder that KM will rarely be served by a bromide management system alone. But with some inspiration, a radical redirection of intentions, and the introduction of approaches that enable the articulation of real expertise, we can transform our architectures into wellsprings of innovation.

So, what do you think?

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