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Chasing Unicorns: The KM Myth

Almost three weeks without a blog – lots of travelling…time flies!

I had dinner in Helsinki with someone relatively new to KM, David Gurteen and an experienced KMer from Dubai.  And you know something, we’re having the same conversations all over the world.  What is KM?  What is the silver bullet for curing knowledge sharing?  What can I do to ‘do’ KM?

Year on year, the same questions.  Years of arguing.  Years of cajoling. Years of misunderstanding.  Years of dissatisfaction and irritation. All because of two words – Knowledge Management!

We’ve lost sight of what this is really about and KM is a burden and a curse.  Ultimately, KM is not the point.  It’s all about pain, nothing more… That’s the context behind this blog… Just keep one thing in mind; future competitive advantage will be built on a knowledge advantage!

KM is a redundant process that should be re-evaluated and scrapped.  That simple.  It’s a myth that we wished into existence because we don’t like the idea of managing a resource that we don’t understand.  We created a management myth and we’ve been chasing unicorns ever since.  KM emerged out of ‘Management Knowledge’, a need to share expertise on how to do a better job of management.  Now there’s an idea!  Instead we started hunting unicorns in data mines, forgetting that people are the ones that activate what is put in front of them.  Well, I found the unicorn, it lives in the firewall between IT and people!

I believe that KM is redundant because the people, the experts that should be managing the concept of knowledge as a resource already exist:  HR and IT; IT manage the information processes, HR the knowledge environment. HR should be have the expertise in learning and development and IT the expertise in the realm of creating information flows.

KM fills a gap, caused by a lack of business understanding and a street war between territorial agents from IT and HR.

The problem is compounded by the fact that the vast majority of KM exists with a bias towards IT, just look at the job descriptions for KMers advertised on job sites.  This is not healthy and it is not what organisations need.

Knowledge is embedded within learning.  Adults are experiential learners (on the job training?); we naturally seek out solutions to problems, even if it is just a case of being told what to do.  IT architecture allows people to connect; it also allows data/information to be acquired, stored and presented, but people activate it, people make the ultimate decision.

KM has been brought about by such a simple need – organisations have an input and an output, in between a transformation process takes place (we build products/deliver services) and we monitor the quality of, or the changing needs of the environment that bring about a need for a change in, the output.  That disturbance is what drives KM; transforming resources are too slow, too inefficient, giving advantage to a competitor; the organisation can’t innovate quick enough, giving advantage to a competitor; 20% of the staff are leaving in the next 24 months, impacting decision-making capability and service provision/product development – this is where the need for KM comes from.

Want to improve knowledge sharing?  Start by looking at your HR cycle (job descriptions through recruitment, through induction, through appraisal, through to development and exit) and the way it represents your need.

People ask how to ‘do’ KM.  KM is about how you ‘do’ business, something organisations have been doing for centuries.  Yes, the way of doing business has changed, but, fundamentally, this is about the organisation and the individual recognising the problem and reacting to the need.  It really is nothing more complicated than that.

The best organisations know how to use the tools at their disposal (many being open source, such as the Stakeholder Matrix) and, where they see a weakness or a threat that they can’t answer, when to bring in expertise to help them navigate their way through emerging problems.

It is about recognising the threat or weakness, in strategy and/or operations and formulating an appropriate response.  In the field of physiology it is seen as a Specific Adaptation to an Imposed Demand.  The muscle experiences a load and responds; pain is warning of muscle failure – and the body responds.

We know that the modern economy is driven by knowledge and that competitive advantage is shifting from efficiency based measure to be driven by the ‘knowledge advantage’.  The bottom line; if this is about people, about how they learn, how they apply what they know, make decision, develop expertise and learn from success and failure, then this is about HR.

HR professionals need to get their act together and start reacting to the needs of the individual and the organisation.  If they can do that, if they can realign their value proposition, then we have the solution.  We don’t need KM, we need a more focused and proactive HR function and we need a strong relationship between HR and IT.  KM is not the solution.  This is the solution.

Even within the realm of IT, there is a need to reevaluate priorities.   Organisations spend good money after bad attempting to learn lessons from the past.

Look at the KEn diagram; at the ‘procedural end’, no problem, work on best practice and process improvement – old knowledge becomes largely redundant, as new processes contribute to output improvement – but there is very rarely the need to go through old procedural ‘lessons’ and the ‘old’ knowledge is usually superseded (exceptions do exist, such as procedural challenges within the law/accounting field).

On the managerial side, the knowledge is highly perishable and, in the vast majority of cases has a limited shelf life.  Take the example of a lesson learned from a project involving issues arising from transactions with a specific client; your manager/teams dealing with the client’s manager/team – many of the lessons are specific to individuals, culture and experiences that are specific to a time and place; the odds of it being repeatable or transferable are very low; maybe there is a clue here for why ‘lesson learned’ programmes die a slow and lingering death (see the NASA 2012 Lessons Learned report).

If KM isn’t working, if it hasn’t bridged the gap between HR and IT, then scrap it and invest the time and money in developing the professionals that should be managing knowledge in the first place.

We need to stop trying to force KM into ‘doing’ something.  Focus on the pain.  Is it a human issue?  Is it a knowledge issue?  Once you understand the pain then we can build Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands.

Call it KM of you wish, just make sure you have the people and the processes that understand how to interpret the pain.

Otherwise, good luck finding those unicorns…

10 comments on “Chasing Unicorns: The KM Myth

  1. pmllblog
    April 29, 2012

    Hi David, another great post, like your work and reference to lessons learned. Sure would have liked to be at the ‘what is KM’ dinner 🙂 Would be a good dinner discussion here in Australia if you ever venture this way. Regards, Stephen

    • David Griffiths
      April 30, 2012

      If I can get down there — I do keep trying 🙂 — I would love a good dinner debate!

  2. Ewen Le Borgne
    April 30, 2012

    Nice post and I completely agree with the fact that the label doesn’t really matter to achieve the goals.

    However, a couple of nickels in here:
    – KM (or whatever function you’re alluding to) is not just about pains, it’s also about opportunities. In today’s innovation-obsessed world, this would actually relate to how we innovate and adapt constantly not just in reaction but also in prevision (of future pains, I grant you that possibility);

    – HRM has definitely a key role to play in learning and development but it can only set some generic processes for helping the corporate environment value the expertise and development of staff, but it cannot really get into the specific requirements of each person in the company (unless it’s a small company). I think that’s where there is some place for PKM (personal knowledge management) where people take onto themselves to keep sharp in their field and proactive as to who they connect with and what they do to achieve this – connected with the final point here…

    – Somewhere, in that whole picture of the ‘KM realm’ here, I think the important networking (not in the sense of exchanging business cards at events) function of connecting yourself and your organisation with other people / organisations / networks is also really important and I don’t see an ideal IT nor HR department take care of that…

    But indeed, there’s much lego-playing here which means that regardless of the blocks you use, the end result should be the same.

    Thanks for this opportunity to learn together!


    • David Griffiths
      April 30, 2012

      Hi Ewen and thanks for replying –

      I buy into the idea of PKM and I would argue that to be the space for networking. If I’m honest, I am frustrated with the way in which the KM function generally ignores the expertise that a good HRD function can bring to bear on knowledge challenges.

      The pain points being experienced by many organisations are brought about by poor HR practice – especially in the areas of succession planning (threat analysis of critical knowledge loss) and knowledge sharing (framing the environment through knowledge policies and processes throughout the HR cycle). I am constantly being challenged by organisations to ‘solve’ these issues and I have stopped being surprised at the fact that these organisations don’t liaise with their own HR teams.

      To prove the point, ask yourself, if an organisation wanted to headhunt your staff, who would they go after and why? Then ask yourself, what are we doing to mitigate this threat; who else knows what they know? The solution lies in effective succession planning and a culture that is framed by effective policies and processes across the HR cycle – link this with an effective IT solution and you are well on the way to solving some of the most painful challenges in KM.

      I just think that it is time to get the ‘people’ experts in the organisation talking about the problem and that won’t happen as long as organisations think about KM with an IT bias.

      Good points though…


  3. Pingback: Catching Unicorns ? | Applied Knowledge Management

  4. Tom Ellingham
    May 1, 2012

    I’m relatively new to the study of Knowledge Management, but I’m increasingly of the opinion that organisations fail KM, and not the other way round.

    Even with the best HR policies and processes, and the most effective IT solutions, I don’t see how any KM (call it what we will) solution will work without a solely dedicated human individual or team, (ideally with a vested interest in the organisation’s long-term success) to implement, develop, keep relevant, and bind it together across geographical location, cross-departments, and successive generations.

    Was an undocumented key problem of NASA’s LLIS perhaps not having a dedicated human driver?

    After all, nothing can prioritise relevance and understand the human process better than the human brain.

  5. Good post Dave.

    Seems to me there is a similarity between KM and Type 2 Diabetes.

    Many people feel the pain, see the symptoms, get a diagnosis and then focus on the solution (what type/amount of insulin in diabetes, Project X in KM) rather than dealing with the underlying triggers and causes, diet and weight being some, and management, cultural and systems issues being several on the KM side.

    If you define KM as just the solution (databases, programs, techniques), then I agree we need to move away from the term. That said, I think “Management” covers both the cause and the solution sides and I continue to hope that a “Prevention is better than a cure” mentality will win out. This will take continual education and refocusing on the key players such as IT, HR and the C-Suite to toward a business-view that is more holistic and sympathetic to the secondary effects of their policies and metrics.

    Just my two cents.

    • David Griffiths
      May 6, 2012

      Always good to get your two cents – we really need to catch up!

  6. Gary
    May 5, 2012

    The terms ‘Knowledge Management’ and ‘KM’ do a great disservice to the collective interventions and support we believe make a difference to the organisations we serve. A colleague of mine disagrees, liking KM to ‘Corporate Social Responsibility’ and ‘Health and safety’ as mainstream management practices that didn’t exist 25 years ago. The difference is that any manager in any organisation will have a similar understanding of CSR or Health and Safety’ without the need for a complex explanation (or justification). They do what they say on the tin. I wonder why so many organisation’s ‘CKO’ positions have gone? It may be that when it comes to the red pen at redundancy time, a post occupied by a unicorn is vulnerable.
    Organisational and professional networks (social and physical), collaboration, sharing / applying lessons, team-working and knowledge transfer are terms that already form a shared vocabulary that needs little explanation. If you need a handle for these, I find ‘Organisational Learning’ works (just don’t call it ‘OL’).

    • David Griffiths
      May 6, 2012

      Hi Gary… don’t disagree with much you have to say – except that OL has its own set of problems, including definition and scope/scale of process development — sound like KM?

So, what do you think?

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