Knowledge Management: the pawn that would be queen

Knowledge Management: the pawn that would be queen

Knowledge Management. Organisations who don’t have it believe they need it. Organisations who have had it, and subsequently let it go, cannot fathom why people would want to work with such a fuzzy, failing, expensive function, where the hunt for link between cause and effect is an exercise in futility.

There are organisations that have it. No one complains quite as much as an organisation trying to make Knowledge Management work: can’t capture the knowledge from people leaving; can’t access lessons learned; can’t make lessons learned work outside of process review/standard operating procedures/QA; can’t make people share knowledge; communities that aren’t talking; leadership that just don’t get it; what is critical knowledge; managers that don’t get it; problems selling KM to the masses; and how to prove ROI. The list goes on.

Enter the KM defenders, a noisy group of legacy professionals who see the field as static, with little need for forward thinking. For them KM is built upon Communities of Practice and Lessons Learned processes and Systems – tools evolve and fads emerge (think about the emergence of Wikis), the concept doesn’t. Here knowledge is an asset that can be benchmarked or scanned with little consideration for wider conditions. For example, spend time identifying ‘critical knowledge,’ but ignore that ‘critical,’ by definition, in a KM context, is highly contextual, subject to time and place, and, even worse, ignore the conditions that enable this apparent critical knowledge to be deployed.

It is a comforting thought though. Just think, a resource that you can identify as critical; to deploy it at will; to subordinate it to management conditions, just like any other resource and to have something that fits with a worldview as wo/man, the tool creator and controller. I confess to having been seduced at times by the language of the field and for that I apologise – just because the language is used doesn’t mean that it is correct or that it should be used. KM defenders talk culture, but it is secondary to the process. Their sell is the quick win. Short term success, sacrificing the longer term to failure – appealing to the trappings of leaders constrained by liberal market economies. They don’t understand starting conditions and therefore they ignore them. Failure is fate just waiting to happen.

Welcome, an equally noisy group, the lost generation. Everything KM is bad. Some might, wrongly I might add, place me in this group. The lost generation usually think of KM as a technology solution, and, given the past, they have been right. To use the vernacular, haters are going to hate. Technology is expensive. You can’t manage knowledge. You can’t capture 70% of knowledge when you don’t know what 100% looks like. Are they really wrong? And, given the past, who can blame them?

However, as with the game of chess, even a pawn can has the capability to become a queen. And KM, for the most part, has been nothing but an organisational pawn for the last 20 years, subject to the favours of champions (just look at organisational charts). The problem is that most people have been looking at the problem from the wrong perspective. Knowledge isn’t an object. It’s not an asset, in the same sense as a piece of equipment on a production line. It’s not something that is owned by the organisation (at best it is shared ownership). Most importantly, knowledge relies on a complex web of conditions that determine whether it can be activated (embedded, shared, used, developed). These capabilities, such as individual, group and organisational competencies, are taken for granted – Knowledge Managers seem to just assume they exist. People develop frameworks, processes and systems to improve efficiency/effectiveness with little or no consideration for the conditions required to bring about success. Exacerbating the problem is a propensity for sticking KM in a silo, with zero regard for horizontal integration (think of dependencies linked to HR, IT, QA, Operations etc.).

There is much to denigrate when it comes to KM, but there is also much to celebrate. The rise of the knowledge worker continues to accelerate – we still live in a talent-led knowledge economy. I’ve been talking about this for a couple of years now, but it is worth repeating that emerging financial reporting frameworks such as Integrated Reporting are embracing people and the value of tacit knowledge – exploring human, social/relationship and intellectual capital. The difference with Integrated Reporting is that it is not solely interested in the existence of resource (knowledge), but in the organisation’s ability to activate it – to make sense of the world, to anticipate, adapt to changing conditions, innovate and do all of this quickly. It is so much more than cost optimisation. It is about core capability. The following are quotes from the new reporting framework:

  • Intellectual capital – Organizational, knowledge-based intangibles, including: intellectual property, such as patents, copyrights, software, rights and licences; “organizational capital” such as tacit knowledge, systems, procedures and protocols

  • Human capital – People’s competencies, capabilities and experience, and their motivations to innovate, including their: alignment with and support for an organization’s governance framework, risk management approach, and ethical values; ability to understand, develop and implement an organization’s strategy; loyalties and motivations for improving processes, goods and services, including their ability to lead, manage and collaborate

  • Social and relationship capital – The institutions and the relationships within and between communities, groups of stakeholders and other networks, and the ability to share information to enhance individual and collective well-being. Social and relationship capital includes: shared norms, and common values and behaviours

There is nothing shocking here. These are common-sense conditions that, though widely ignored, need to be considered if knowledge is to be turned into competitive advantage.

These changes bring forward a new message for Knowledge Management. The past needs to be forgiven, treated as a learning experience. The future is about Knowledge Capability. This requires a change in mind set. Knowledge Capability is not about managing a resource. Knowledge Capability is about embedding, developing, sharing and, most importantly, activating a resource by better coordinating emergent conditions.

This means expanding understanding, influence and integration in such a way so as to enable people to develop as sense makers, problem solvers, decision-makers, collaborators, managers and leaders.

People can choose to ignore the inevitable, but, to remain relevant, this is the future. Knowledge Management maybe dying a slow death, but Knowledge Capability is alive and kicking!

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