Knowledge management, as a field, is no longer hyped. It has gone under the radar. As a practice, however, it keeps surviving and remains useful. But some of its past life is still lingering, pumping up absurd expectations among (knowledge) managers. So it’s time to review some of the over-rated expectations that people once (or still) bestowed upon KM – and some of the ‘under the radar’ features that KM can help fix.
Over-rated: Stocking and managing knowledge
Although this was the main credo of various KM initiatives from the first KM generation, it still pervades some organisations that want to set up lessons learnt databases, that want to stock everything they do. Lost cause. Bottomless pit of quickly failing and fading relevance…Let go of stock approaches. And managing knowledge is impossible.
Under the radar: Cultivating knowledge and leadership
Instead, how about ensuring that knowledge flows and is applied to solving problems? And what about developing a strong focus on personal knowledge management, personal and collective effectiveness, personal and collective decision-making and the development of leadership? Don’t build knowledge silos, build and encourage knowledge leadership through ongoing cross-culture conversations and action-focused meetings.
Over-rated: In the interest of the organisation only
Granted, we work in organisations to serve their purposes. But keeping a blind eye to our personal aspirations is a massively missed opportunity to brace the motivation of staff. Expecting that we all work only in the interest of the organisation is a misconceived, obsolete take on employees. No one ever starts working for an organisation hoping to be there 30 years later any longer. So open to your employees’ aspirations.
Under the radar: In the interest of the organisation first
On the other hand, granting staff the liberty to work on their own projects and initiatives – provided that they might serve the organisation ultimately – that is a useful way forward. And that is the success behind Google Friday. KM in 2012 (and 2013) is all about using social media and enhancing personal knowledge management, in the interest of the organisation and that of the employee.
Over-rated: In the organisation network only
Directly deriving from the above, we have been focusing too long on the organisation’s network (if on any network at all). This is what causes very fuzzy discussions in any organisation about ‘who are our partners?’, ‘how do we define partners?’, ‘what do we do with which partners?’. Being aware of the constellations of organisations around which a company evolves is obviously important, but it’s not enough.
Under the radar: Interweaving networks
Social network analysis has become an important tool of the networked society we live in. And indeed this tool has helped us refine our understanding of network dynamics. Of the distinction between institutional and individual networks, of professional and personal networks, of peer and alternative networks, of conversational and coordinating networks, of our main network and all other networks on the edges, of central nodes and outliers. And there is much we can benefit from using this refined understanding in the way we weave conversations and relations around the organisations we work in. With social media we are all spiders on the web and our webs gain from mingling with each other. Recognising the contributions of our individual connections to the work that our organisations can deliver is equally crucial. We are no longer in the organisation-centric network age but rather in the age of network-centric organisations…
So many articles talking about intranets and their shortcomings. Let’s face it, (traditional) intranets have generally failed to deliver on their promises. For wanting to be too much for too many, they have ended being too little to too few. A wrong balance setting between stock (important procedural information) and flow (news and updates), between information and conversation, between compliance-based reporting and trust-based sharing? I don’t know but clearly this is one over-rated expectation in the KM realm.
Under the radar: Internal services at your fingertips.
Rather than expect people to visit an intranet and hope they will linger there (why would they), how about reaching out to staff habits, bringing internal services to their habits rather than forcing their habits to comply with the intranet? Developing a bespoke smartphone application with all kinds of useful internal services, creating a web browser toolbar giving access to all kinds of information from the organization, setting up widgets related to the organisation’s workflows… that might prove a much better track to ensure staff find and use handy information services, following current behaviours, not desired ones.
Over-rated: One-stop shops
The delusion of one-stop shops is close to that of global information systems which I blogged about recently. It’s also close to that of intranets. No one system can realise all your wishes. You wish, but it’s not the case. So for all people struck by the YACC syndrome, unfortunately there’s not much hope for a solution soon. Even though Sharepoint seems to have improved hugely over time, many problems remain (see this conversation).
Under the radar: Constellations of winners
Instead of one-stop shops, KM can be mobilised to connect ‘winner platforms’, champions of their services (e.g. Slideshare for presentations, Yammer for conversations, wikis for collaboration etc.). By means of RSS feeds, interlinking platforms, connecting work processes across platforms, it’s possible to ensure that a set of different platforms converse with one another and form a winning constellation. The services they will accommodate will be much stronger than any one-stop shop. And if password management is an issue, there are password manager solutions out there.
Over-rated: The Golden Folder structure
Before we realised that information was going to overwhelm us anyhow, we believed that we could come up with a logical, clean and clear folder structure to let information get found by anyone. No need to emphasise the cruel delusion of this aspiration. I have yet to come across an organisation’s set of shared network folders that staff do not describe as ‘a big mess’, ‘a big dump’, ‘a big nightmare’. And once again, we reinforce the heresy of thinking that everyone would order information in folders the way we do… Not so, alas…
Under the radar: The big search
A former colleague of mine was always a fervent advocate of a great search facility over a logically ordered folder structure. His approach has come of age – so this one is not so much under the radar – and I am happy that more and more effort is put into developing strong search capacity, following the Google trail. And together with the big search comes the big filter that well-manicured social networks provide. A wonderful set of mirrors to global content, which help us find the gems out there.
Over-rated: Expertise databases
I plead guilty for this. I once thought it would be great to have databases explaining who’s good at what, who has what knowledge and know-how. But let’s face it: we never use those databases when they are in place. Because we know the people. Because these systems are more often than not out of date. And because we don’t all have the same understanding of a field of expertise. I don’t believe in expertise databases any longer.
Under the radar: Expert watercoolers
Rather than sustain a system that is doomed, best is to unravel the expertise of in-house people in exercises and assignments. Working together, with as many people as possible, that’s the best option to let awareness of various expertises permeate the fabric of the organisation or network. Re-creating, as it were, the socialising magic of watercoolers to find out more about each other and each other’s work. Using the power of informality. As much as possible, as wide as possible.
Over-rated: Social media galore (be there)
The tool obsession is particularly present in the social media world, with all its bells and whistles. So tempting to try it all out (and we should, that’s the best way to learn what works for us or not) and to let it be without further thought. But we can’t just let social media proliferate. As mentioned in the social media guide ILRI and AfricaAdapt released a few months back, every social media outlet we open is a shop window to ourselves (whether organisations or persons) and if we don’t manage those outlets well, it reflects badly upon us. So step back and think about why you want to choose social media.
Under the radar: Social media purpose
Or social media with purpose! Once you know what you want to achieve with social media, it becomes a lot easier to decide the mix of social media you’ll be using. It doesn’t prevent you from exploring new tools, but perhaps you can explore with some process in mind to make out the wheat from the chaff. Better invest in a small set that you use well than a large set of tools that reverberate and amplify your inability to cope with the social world.
Over-rated: The KM silver bullet big bang
Another avatar of the 50-cent approach? Lots of people still think that a big bang KM approach will come solve all the problems. One system that will solve all the issues. One initiative that will mysteriously remove all the hurdles. With such ambitions, how to resist heralding a KM initiative loud and clear? That’s the KM big bang approach. Mixed with silver bullet ambitions, it’s a clear recipe for a disaster and the guarantee of a backlash that will create a long term aversion to KM. In an article from 2009 I looked at this issue already. Managing expectations… that’s the secret for a happy life.
Under the radar: Shadow KM warriors
The opposite end of the spectrum is the stealth approach to KM. There are, in your organisation and networks, lots of people that are very effective KM agents – sometimes without realising. The best we can do is to highlight them as role models and to amplify their practices. #KMhappensanyway.
Over-rated: Big data
And now, as our servers’ hosting capacities and computers’ processing capabilities allow, we are moving into the ‘big data’ phase. Everyone wants big data, everyone wants to dig data and to come up with the best number-crunching systems. Of course we’d be foolish not to take advantage of big data. But ‘don’t believe the hype’! Or keep wary of it… Data can be dangerously manipulated, and it takes a fair amount of experience to be used well.
Under the radar: Wide learning
Instead of focusing on data, or even information which is ever expanding (for a couple of years we’ve known that every two days we double the amount of information available), we’d be well advised to focus on learning – the capacity to process information and turn it into knowledge – and to do that as widely as possible, involving as many people as possible. That’s the best guarantee to make sure we avoid any of the above-mentioned mistakes in the future…
So while there’s much we can do with KM, there’s much we can learn and un-learn from the past and there’s a lot of other ideas we can try out… Time for mature, dynamic, ever-learning agile KM, you reckon?
Related blog posts:
- What the heck is knowledge anyways: from commodity to capacity and insights
- Go organic, go civic! #KMalreadyHappensAnyways
- Global information systems, between the info monster ‘Charybdis’ and ghost town ‘Scylla’
- Gardening in organisations: how to cultivate expertise and make it blossom
- KM=CDL, on the journey to universal sense-making
- The tool obsession, a serious(ly) childish posture
- Other ‘harvesting insights‘ posts