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Is there a problem with traditional approaches to KM projects?

There has been a significant shift in thinking over the last few years.  Reluctantly, leaders and managers are coming to terms with the implications of complexity upon strategic and operational planning.  Unfortunately it seems that Knowledge Management is lagging behind the game.

Traditional (linear/reductionist) approach to projects Vs projects in complex environments

Traditional (linear/reductionist) approach to projects Vs projects in complex environments

Too often Knowledge Managers apply a reductionist, or traditional, approach to KM projects, where there is a propensity for linear processes – one direction of travel with milestones (checkpoints) that allow for the monitoring and evaluation of progress.  Here’s the problem, KM operates in a complex environment, which logically requires leaders and managers to structure intervention from the perspective of the whole.  There is no doubt that KM has the potential to respond to today’s complex management environments (see my three minute video on the links), but, to be successful, it will mean engaging with multiple roads of travel (multiple projects) that are dynamic, operating with their own speed restrictions.

The problem with the traditional reductionist approach is that KMers are trying to isolate a function (e.g. a Community of Practice), tune its output and then lift the barrier to see the impact upon the system.  All sounds good, except that, given the nature of complexity, adjustment to one node (the CoP) will impact (intended and unintended) other nodes in the system.  Not only this, but, depending on the time horizon, you will be working towards creating a fitness to a landscape (business environment) that is itself dynamic.  Your CoP, if constructed using reductionist techniques will begin to to lack fitness to the landscape from day 1, drifting to the point where dissatisfaction occurs and a shock is required to realign its purpose with organisational needs (realigning its fitness to the landscape).  For example, every KM project involves human agency (I challenge you to find one that doesn’t) and therefore requires KMers to engage with the HR cycle.  How many actually do?  How many KM projects build in feedback loops to enable projects to flex as the landscape changes?  If the landscape is changing (show me a static landscape and you can ignore this conversation) and KM involves human agency then you have to be prepared to develop people.  Do you see where I am going with this?

Work in a static, linear, traditional fashion and you may see short-term gain (a quick win), but I would argue that you will end up fighting a losing battle to sustain those gains against an ever drifting fitness to the organisational landscape.  The traditional approach is not the way to develop resilient value in complex management environments and it is not going to bring long-term benefits to you, the organisation, your career or the KM profession.

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11 comments on “Is there a problem with traditional approaches to KM projects?

  1. PM Hut
    January 17, 2013

    Hi David,

    Only beginners in project management think that projects are linear (and as such their project thinking is linear). Even the PMBOK nowadays states that projects are no longer linear, and one can go back to any stage in the project at any time.

    PS: I do think that your post is interesting, and that’s why I would like to republish it on PM Hut. Please either email me or contact me through the contact us form on the PM Hut website in case you’re OK with this.

    • David Griffiths
      January 17, 2013

      I totally agree with you, in the context of PMs, but for KMers (non qualified PMs) this is still a serious issue… I’ll drop you a line about the blog



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  4. Md Santo (@md_santo)
    January 19, 2013

    Our Linear Traditional DIKW – based KM moving toward Non Linear NKT* – based KM

    * NKT = Nature Knowledge Theory

    • Let’s have a look at (“Course and prognosis of our Knowledge Management (KM) system : Time line (2008 – 2012+) of Mobee Knowledge Services – (August 2012 edition)”)

    • Our link showing the 2008 – 2010 period of establishing our traditional linear DIKW – based KM

    • Later on goto column of 2010 – 2011 at showing 4 (four) paragraphs transition activities in more complex environment making adjustments to non linear KM at DIKW continuum domain toward Nature Knowledge continuum domain

    • Finally have a look at the column 2012+ at it showing KM already beyond DIKW continuum and already reside fully at Nature Knowledge continuum. Here, KM could becoming the spearheads of Science evolution in 21st century!

    • The followings are our most recent works classified as advanced study of KM with most likely having possible paradox impacts to basic sciences especially Theoretical / Particle Physics :

    * (“Nature Knowledge Theory (NKT) generated clues to Theory of Everything (TOE)”)

    * (“Reverse Engineering Methodology applied to our Knowledge Management model as high-end of Universe evolution toward quantum level”)

    * (“Compatibility of Reverse Engineering to Knowledge Management model (Md Santo) with Model – dependent realism (Stephen Hawking)” )

    • David Griffiths
      January 19, 2013

      Sometimes I am left speechless… this is one of those times. There are so many places to start with this that I am conflicted to the point of inertia. I’ll leave it for others to decide what they think of all this…

  5. Johannes
    January 23, 2013

    Dear David, I fully agree with the need to move from a linear project thinking to complexity thinking. How you come to the conclusion, however, that KM is behind the game eludes me. In my view, exactly the opposite is true. It is in particular KM practitioners who work across a number of disciplines (from management to learning to IT or HR) who are aware that linear and isolated project thinking does rarely work when doing KM. I have rarely seen a Community of Practice that tried to measure itself in the isolated way that you describe above (because it indeed doesn’t really make sense). Especially CoPs are instruments that allow for an organic process. CoPs acknowledge a changing environment to which it continuously adapts (the distinctive character of a community itself is always evolving over time, like an organism). And this specific open-mindedness of KM as a discipline is not limited to CoP. Just look at Cynefin framework ( which explicitly emphasizes the role of complexity and what this means for different KM approaches.

    The problem of lagging behind I think is not with the KM discipline, but rather with managers who still have old-school expectations towards what KM can deliver. Management e.g. might expect that collecting and writing up lessons learned will solve all the organizations knowledge work issues, when in fact, this particular KM tool does only work in non-complex environments.

    • David Griffiths
      January 23, 2013

      Hi Johannes… Thanks for the comments

      I came to the conclusion that KM is behind the game through first hand research such as this:

      Also, our practical experience of delivering KM education programmes to KM practitioners/managers in the UK, Middle East, EU and US suggests these findings to be correct – KM is rarely cross-disciplinary inside organisations (our consulting/education and research programmes bear that to be true).

      Thanks for the reference to Dave Snowden, honesty, if you read my blog, I think you’ll find that I’m up to speed on complexity, resilience and KM’s relationship to both.

      Insofar as the KM discipline not lagging behind, sorry, but the data suggests otherwise…That’s why I wrote the blog… Also, as a side note, this blog was directly informed by discussion and feedback, from a C-Level audience in the US, as a result of my key note on complexity, resilience and KM…where, as a result of audience Qs, time was spent dispelling myths about KM and explaining that KM projects in complex environments cannot be linear…that was evidence enough for the need for this blog…but what do I know 🙂

      • Johannes
        January 25, 2013

        Hi David, thanks for your fast response, and thanks for the link to the study, which helped me understand better what you mean. I fully agree with your assessment that KM has still a long way to go to leverage its potential in tacking complexity challenges across business disciplines (including HR). However, I don’t think that is because the KM discipline and its practitioner are behind other disciplines and practitioners in terms of understanding today’s complex environments. At least within the community of KM practitioners that I know most of them are rather ahead of the curve in terms of understanding the implications of complex work environments and the role that KM has to play in them. The problem that I see is that because of budget constraints and risk adversity of senior management, KM units are often not allowed to do anything else than catalytic pilot initiatives that are in their nature isolated and only of marginal impact. The only significant budgets that they can get approved are IT budgets, which leads to the other effect you rightly lament: the overly heavy emphasis on technology over people. As you say, KM is very well positioned and has all the right tools and approaches to tackle complexity challenges, but for the above reasons corporate managers mostly are not ready to unleash the dog.
        Maybe the reason why I initially reacted strongly to your post is that I was lucky enough to have been involved for a while now with a number of KM colleagues in a KM project that was set up in explicit response to this complexity challenge , and that touched on various cross-disciplinary elements such as communities, informal networking, learning, staff participation, expertise mapping and talent management. By now means a perfect or comprehensive project, but definitely different from the picture you painted above. And yes, given the amount of resistance we got along the way it’s no wonder why many KM teams don’t go beyond isolated linear projects 😉

      • David Griffiths
        January 28, 2013

        @Johannes, genuinely sounds like you are involved in an interesting KM project and it would be really good to hear your story, if you have the time to tell it.

        As I always say, it is down to context (sector, culture, history etc.) and there is good, bad and everything in between.

        Thank you for taking the time to respond and I appreciate your contribution to the discussion… cheers, David

  6. Pingback: U. Penn KM expert Barry G. Silverman analyzes human terrain data | Tim

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