10 reasons to detest Knowledge Management

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I detest Knowledge Management. There, I’ve said it.

I have a PhD in Knowledge Management. I work with organisations, literally across the globe, on Knowledge Management challenges. Yet Knowledge Management is one of the most misunderstood management concepts ever created and I am sad to say, I detest “Knowledge Management” and I am deeply saddened by much of the “established” practice created under the auspices of Knowledge Management. Why I hear you ask or perhaps such a statement even makes you angry.

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Knowledge Management has fundamentally failed to progress over the last two decades. Organisations operate in a talent-driven knowledge economy, Knowledge loss (ageing workforce redundancies/retirement) is a critical concern for organisations impacted by STIQCE (Safety, Time, Innovation, Quality, Cost, Environmental) challenges.

Yet Knowledge Management, the function that should be best placed to respond, is walking in the graveyard of past management fads. But it hasn’t and these are my top 10 reasons for why:

Top 10 reasons to detest Knowledge Management:

  • 1. People (even some Knowledge Managers) don’t understand what Knowledge Management should do. Knowledge Management is only ever about four things: acquiring knowledge, using knowledge, sharing knowledge and developing new knowledge (e.g. invention) and yet many many Knowledge Management programs do not understand this fundamental concept. A lack of such understanding has a profound impact on all Knowledge Management actions and outputs (transformational processes) – see point 7.
  • 2. Knowledge Management is more than just capturing knowledge! Knowledge (the four functions of KM in point 1) is a human phenomenon and yet the hunger for technology driven knowledge extraction tools leads to blind ignorance that misleads leaders and taints the field. Technology, as it stands today, is a tool; it is not the solution to knowledge-driven needs in an organisation.
  • 3. Knowledge Managers who don’t get learning. Knowledge and learning (human dynamics of knowledge acquisition, use, sharing and development) are inextricably linked (see point 4). So, why do the vast majority of Knowledge Management programs ignore adult learning principles (using cognitive, associative, situative perspectives) within the structures, processes and behaviours (see point 10) they create/develop/influence? Surely, common sense dictates that a function focused on the management of knowledge (point 1) has to employ people with a background (knowledge, skills, experience) in learning?
  • 4. The quest for “best practice”. Knowledge Management is not a field of “best practice” – to be clear, there are no “best” practices (universally agreed frameworks, methods, concepts, theories with predictable outcomes) – and yet people who have been in the field since the 1990s keep trying to constrain practice to Communities of Practice and Lessons Learned (we seriously have to move on from the basic concepts of the learning organisation and the erroneous SECI model).
  • 5. Certified Knowledge Management programs. Knowledge Management qualifications from private companies that claim to be the licensing body for a profession – take a janitor, put them on a one-week course and hey presto, they are “certified” to be a Knowledge Manager. What does that say about the credibility of the profession? How many “certified” knowledge management courses, with postnominals no less, are college/university accredited, quality assured or acting responsibly when it comes to gatekeepers of universal Knowledge Management governance (see point 4)?
  • 6. The Knowledge Management silo. Successful (e.g. programs that influence an entire system or are program-based, as opposed to project-based, over time) Knowledge Management requires integration across Human Resources, Information Technology, Operations, Senior Leadership Teams etc. Yet, Knowledge Management, in the main, is owned by IT (see points 1, 2, 3 and 4).
  • 7. Knowledge Management outputs that are beyond measurement. The measurement of Knowledge Management outputs is all too often, quite frankly, rubbish (mired in fuzziness) – some of the reasons for why are set out in points 2, 3, 4 and 5. Many Knowledge Management practitioners/consultants struggle to clearly articulate how Knowledge Management projects/programs create value. Quite simply, you are in trouble if you have a Knowledge Management function/consultant that cannot clearly and succinctly articulate the value creation process and a method for reporting financial outputs.
  • 8. A lack of anticipation and therefore value. The function has not moved on in twenty years! Human Capital is working under RAID (Robotics & Artificial Intelligence Development) conditions. People in LOT (Lower Order Thinking) positions (high levels of explicit routine – this applies to people in manufacturing through to accountants and doctors) are under threat of redundancy. Fewer LOT positions mean fewer entry level positions through which to gain founding knowledge, skills and understanding through which to progress to HOT (Higher Order Thinking – higher levels of judgement/inference). Yet organisations are losing their most experienced talent (issue of an ageing global population). What is the Knowledge Management field doing to lead, in terms of reacting and anticipating, the needs of such challenges. Outside of technology solutions, not very much.
  • 9. Snake oil sale claims from technology companies. There are unscrupulous technology providers out there that are selling snake oil: “we can capture 90% of your people’s knowledge!” Rubbish! Can you tell me 100% of everything you know about management? Why only 90% What about the other 10% Is the 10% more important than the 90% Why can’t you capture this elusive 10%? It’s just snake oil.
  • 10. The constant obsession with a knowledge-sharing culture. My final point is saved for “culture”. Knowledge Management spends far too much time complaining about/attempting to change knowledge sharing cultures. This is a phenomenal waste of resource. People talk about culture when they have failed to isolate the operational/strategic problem (STIQCE) and the behaviours, process and structures that need to be adjusted to resolve the problem.

12 thoughts on “10 reasons to detest Knowledge Management

  1. Dear Sir.,
    Thank you so much to share with us your thoughts about this amazing issue.
    I really loved this article. Sincerely, and not protocolar way, to tell you that I would like, better, I have to say, that I agree totally with yours ideas and fellings.
    Thank you again.

  2. Dear Sir, your critic views on prevailing scenario is nothing more than the review of the present status of KM becauses in the absence of your own definition or views of KM in detail, I still could not understand what you ultimately want to convey.
    Regards
    Dr. Alok Goel

    1. You are kidding, right? I haven’t put forward my own definition or views on KM…Not sure what to say…perhaps taking a look at my track record over the last ten years might give you a deep insight into my definition and views. Cheers, David.

  3. Hi David,
    I think you’re completely right, on all 10 points. I feel the urge to write a couple of pages on each point but that’s not going to happen. However, I’d ask people to ponder over *why* the popular misconceptions of KM are the way they are. You’ve provided some answers e.g. to point out the spurious IT focus that many people believe in, and the role of the purveyors of snake oil in creating and perpetuating that illusion.

    On capturing, I’d like to tease apart capturing and acquiring… for me, the later can be an entirely human act e.g. through conversation, ‘sitting by Nellie’, training and self-study. Even recruitment is an act of acquiring knowledge. I see capturing as the making of artifacts, even as data, as in tacit to explicit conversion.

    On culture, I think the topic needs a more precise treatment. You can act your way into a different way of thinking more easily than thinking your way into a different way of acting. So, what of a culture-focus? I believe that *real* leadership is a more powerful factor than a culture-change program. And, while I believe that culture is a very strong determinant of the degree of knowledge sharing, culture-change programs are exceedingly heavy on resources and are still reliant on *real* leadership for traction. I’d prefer to preach KM than try to change corporate culture.

    Regards,

    Mike
    ====

    1. Hi Mike,

      Thank you for the feedback, really appreciated. For me, acquisition can be the acquisition of explicit or tacit knowledge – these knowledge types have different characteristics that can lead to acquisition via technology (explicit) or social acquisition (tacit). Unfortunately, the tacit to explicit transfer is a fallacy – Nonaka totally misinterpreted Polanyi’s definition of tacit knowledge, for example:

      Polanyi (1958, p. 49) claims “the aim of a skilful performance is achieved by the observance of a set of rules which are not known as such to the person following them” – in other words, tacit knowledge is inexpressible as the holder of the knowledge does not have the conscious awareness of such knowledge.
      This is emphasised by Polanyi (ibid), where he states “these hidden rules can be assimilated only by a person who surrenders himself to that extent uncritically to the imitation of another.” Furthermore, “the discovery of a wide range of not consciously known rules of skill and connoisseurship which comprises important technical processes that can rarely be completely specified, and even then only as a result of extensive scientific research (Polanyi, 1958, p. 62).

      The problem here being that Knowledge Management and IT love the idea of tacit to explicit knowledge conversion but, according to the founding author, it just isn’t possible as proposed by Nonaka & Takeuchi… Knowledge Management, according to the founding definition, has been chasing unicorns.

      I agree with your comment on culture, only to add that KM should be looking to influence behaviours, processes and structures and, in doing so, with multiple tweaks across a system (marginal gains) the system will reach a tipping point where culture ‘transforms’ to the knowledge sharing culture that KMers have been searching for decades. My point being, as you suggest with your focus on leadership, address the STIQCE challenge (adjust the behaviours, processes and structures required to create impact) and stop worrying about changing culture.

  4. Reason 1 is arguably self-fulfilling. In defining KM (“KM is only ever about…”) only as what it does, rather than what it “should do” and why, it misses a large part of KM’s value. Surely the deep rationale for KM is that it should lead to (as implied in later points) personal and organisational learning, development, focus, insight and, who knows, perhaps even wisdom. And if KM is to be seen as more than administration these “why” outcomes should be as much part of its definition as its activities and processes.

    1. Hi Rob… I’ve attempted to address these “why” (existential) questions for KM over many blogs/articles over the years… I’ve touched on the why theme in this blog as well: “Organisations operate in a talent-driven knowledge economy, Knowledge loss (ageing workforce redundancies/retirement) is a critical concern for organisations impacted by STIQCE (Safety, Time, Innovation, Quality, Cost, Environmental) challenges…”

      My point being that the drivers for KM as a function are embedded in STIQCE challenges. The “should do” piece relates to these challenges, as well as a reactive/proactive/strategic/anticipatory function, achieved by behaviour/structure/process/environment rapid feedback loops.

      Hope that helps in some way… thanks for the feedback, much appreciated.

      David

  5. David,
    I like your comment that Knowledge Management requires integration across Human Resources, Information Technology, Operations, Senior Leadership Teams etc. I have worked on such a programme that at the end led to nothing, simply because it took so long to get it rolling, everybody got bored, lost interest and moved on to the next problem by the time the job was over. People are also part of the KM problem but I agree IT is never going be the complete solution but surely must be “part” of the solution, as acquired KM knowledge has to be stored somewhere. Can you suggest the “right way” to do that?

    1. Hi Myles – good question, one without a “silver bullet” response. First, in my experience the loss of interest usually relates to a lack of pain point (safety – time – innovation – quality – cost – environmental); when people don’t feel the pain they don’t feel compelled to act.

      In terms of the capture piece – the question becomes how does the capture, whether it is simple/complicated/complex knowledge, and, subsequently, whether it can be codified or whether it needs to become socially embedded to enable the capture.

      Happy to explain how we do this – if you are interested, drop me a line and we’ll set up a time for a Skype/phone chat.

  6. KM favours codification of knowledge assets for the economic benefit of re-use, yet this is behaviorally incompatible with the creativity driver of self-actualisation. “Value me for what I know, rather than what i can re-use”.

    This, a postulate on the root cause of ineffective KM.

  7. @ Paul: I like your argument. It seems to me that the practice of KM is often about a small number of people taking (or being given – it matters not) responsibility for ‘feeding’ knowledge to everyone else in the organization; as though those other people – the majority – didn’t know anything already, or as though the available knowledge was not already distributed… to your point.

    Rather like the economy, should the focus be on wealth creation or on wealth re-distribution? KM seems to operate on the principle that we need to get the stuff in the bank first, and I think that’s wrong. I’m happy that people can have their stash ‘under their mattresses’ (after all, it’s theirs). Value me for what you don’t know what I’ve got stashed (there’s a conundrum!)… which resolves down to my ability to save, to perform, to spend (share) ~ not for what I allow some other person to manage on my behalf.

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