Knowledge Management ISO 30401 (something rotten in the state of Denmark)

KM ISO = Jobs for the boys (and girls)Ron Young, one of the experts involved in developing the Knowledge Management ISO 30401 draft, has posted a blog that sets out the contributors and processes involved in the development of the draft standards, which are published under the auspices of Human Resource Management. Unfortunately, as I will explain, Ron’s post demonstrates that there is something rotten in the state of Denmark.

In response, I am bitterly disappointed that so called Knowledge Management experts can so flagrantly constrain the future of the field by ignoring fundamental challenges facing the future of organisations.

Furthermore, the whole ISO Knowledge Management process stinks of jobs for the boys (and girls), who, I argue, are more interested in protecting their consultancy practice than developing standards that anticipate the future of people, organisations and wider society in the context of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (workplace 4.0).

This KM ISO standards process is seemingly dominated by consultants, where the process seems incestuous and focused on protecting legacy services delivered by various historic KM consultancy companies formed in the early days of KM. I say this as Ron Young, as a way to demonstrate the credibility of the ISO process, lists the following expert contributors in his blog: Ron Young (no HR or L&D experience – owns a KM consulting company), Paul Corney (an associate of Ron Young’s KM consultancy company), Nick Milton (KM consultant – with a PhD in Geology, I believe), Judy Payne (PhD in sustainable urban drainage, a member of the Henley KM forum, which just happens to link with Nick and Ron, and Director of Hemdean consulting company) – see also, Patrick Lamb (Singapore) and Arthur Shelley (Australia). Basically, what is being produced are international standards seemingly dominated and designed by legacy KM consultants from Western organisations, where implementation/interpretation will require the help of said legacy KM consultants – so much for international standards.

Moving on, Ron says:

“I consider the balance between KM and HR practitioners to be good.”

If KM is a complex phenomenon, which I challenge anyone to contest, and, if this ISO is to be taken seriously, in terms of anticipating/influencing the future direction of the phenomenon, where are the credible international experts (i.e. active practitioners form across the globe – this, after all, being international standards) from the fields of AI, Machine Learning, complexity, strategy, HR, L&D Talent Management etc. (lists of committee members are one thing – see the further comments at the bottom of this post – but Ron puts forward key experts as those listed above)? Ron states that the list of contributing members can be found on the ISO/TC 260 website – the HRM committee has 31 participating members with 9 standards under review, but it is not clear, beyond the names put forward by Ron, just who has been involved in the development of the draft KM ISO.

On the other hand, Ron does clarify that the ISO can be amended in three-to-five years time; the fact that the ISO might have caused considerable damage to KM functions and organisations by that time seems lost on the committee (e.g. see the 2016 World Economic Forum report on the future of jobs).

Ron also says:

“The KM Standard is not trying to put boundaries around an intangible, complex and human centric subject, as others have reasonably challenged, but it is attempting to give organisations the benefit of a consensus of global expert stakeholders, as a very good, commonly agreed and accepted approach.”

Given the limited variety of KM experts engaged in this process, to say nothing of ignoring Ashby’s Law of Requisite Variety (a point perhaps lost on this group of experts – Ashby (1956) proposed the need to look at the whole (AI, robotics, Machine Learning, strategy, complexity etc.), including the wider environment, to understand the cues that require a response from any system designed to regulate it) , I wonder whether it occurred to any of them that they actually set conditions for operational failure:

“If a system is to be stable the number of states of its control mechanism must be greater than or equal to the number of states in the system being controlled” (Ashby 1956, p. 207).

Ron progresses to state:

“an International Standard on KM will never be the most leading edge thinking and practice, nor should it be, but it aims to develop a global body of knowledge, based on global collaboration, a commonality, and a professional approach, that aims to develop Knowledge Management from what many have seen, so far, as a fragmented discipline to date, to a more holistic, professional discipline and/or practice.”

Ignoring the fact that the committee has obviously run out of ideas for KM, how can anyone possibly claim to take a holistic view when the committee has constrained the view by failing to involve the spectrum of Knowledge Management stakeholders required to develop such a view (again, see Ashby’s Law)?

More than this, if the committee has run out of ideas (after all, an echo chamber will only produce an echo), evidenced by Ron’s assertion that KM will never be the most leading edge thinking or practice (begging the question, why publish this ISO in the first place?), then perhaps the committee should accept their own shortcomings, step down and appoint people who can take the field/phenomenon forward.

Further comment:

Since publication, Ron has posted the following on LinkedIn:

David, I mentioned in my blog some of the KM experts that have contributed to the Draft Standard in an attempt to answer questions about a balance between KM and HR. It is not an exhaustive list, and for that you must refer to the list of ISO TC 260 International Committee members, and to the members of the National Standards Committees which are obtainable through their websites.

To which I have said:

Ron, thank you and I have looked – perhaps you would like to publish a list of committee members who have actively participated (influenced through active discussion and contribution) in the KM ISO process. In doing so, you enhance the credibility of the ISO and allow us outsiders to assess the credibility of what is being put forward.

Also, you have focused on HR, where, as you state in your blog, KM is far more integrated/complex than a single function – I am particularly interested in contributions from experts in the fields of AI, Machine Learning, Strategy, L&D, Robotics, complexity etc.

From Twitter, an interesting view from Chris Collison:

“I have some sympathy with this. The BSI version reads like is started with good intentions as a non-prescriptive, flexible framework to prompt thought – but somehow became hijacked as a consultants’ charter with a fair degree of product placement. I’ve made 40 comments so far……it seems to take a standpoint that KM has to be a managed programme with policies, roles and measures. 130 clients on, my experience is that KM is a set is possible responses to the state of an organisation, applied thoughtfully and contextually……and in conjunction with a much wider range of interventions and functions. Sometimes it’s a stealth operation, sometimes a partnership, sometimes a slipstream, sometimes a viral experiment. The standard needs to reflect this, rather than foreshadow an audit-to-consult process.”


18 thoughts on “Knowledge Management ISO 30401 (something rotten in the state of Denmark)

  1. David I was intrigued as to why you had checked my LinkedIn profile the other day. Now I know.

    I should clarify a few ‘things’:

    1: Yes I was ‘an associate of Ron Young’s counsultancy company’ – I worked with him on an assignment for a couple of years which finished early in 2016. I worked with Ron as indeed I have with many others (I believe you learn from collaborating) on assignments and working with different approaches. As you’ve taken a look at my profile you will have seen consultancy is but one (not the main one) of many activities I have pursued during 40+ years of working.
    2: Regarding my representation on the BSI committee, I was approached independently of Ron who was unaware of my nomination. During the first of four meetings I attended when the issue of representation was discussed I also recommended people such as Karen MacFarlane who is now Chair of CILIP and the former head of Profession for KIM for HMG. The secretary of the BSI Committee was very keen to ensure broad respresentation throughout the process.
    3: I refute your assertion that involvement in this exercise is all about protecting legacy consulting businesses. If one was interested in doing that then given the gestation period of standards development (3 years) you’d have to have a pretty long term horizon.
    4: As for the term ‘expert’ people who know me (and I regret you are not among that number) will be aware that whenever that introduction is applied I reject it. My background is practical not academic; we all have different degrees of expertise and are continually learning.
    5: It is a shame you feel as negative about the process by which the standards were developed. It was a learning curve for me being new to the committee and the wider ISO process. As you might have seen the BSI Committee is but one national body who has a voice and a vote.
    6: There are many aspects of the Standards people will take issue with – that’s to be encouraged surely? When a discipline is open to so many interpretations there will always be differing opinions on the best way forward and the best approach. It is something Patricia Eng and I discuss in one of the chapters of our recent book.
    7: Finally as I understand it the ISO process is about putting a draft out there for people to comment on. It has taken a long time and a considerable effort ( a 6 hour round trip to attend the meeting is not an enjoyable experience) to get to this point. Putting aside your reservations please feel free to comment.

    1. Hi Paul and thank you for your response and points of clarification.

      You are correct, of course, in that I did look you up on LinkedIn – Ron posted a list of expert contributors, of which you were one. Also, my assumption about your involvement with Ron and the ISO is based on your LinkedIn profile, where you worked as a Principal Consultant at Ron’s company from 2012-2016 and joined BSI in 2015. I would agree that my assumption is potentially poor, but, given Ron’s role, I was surprised to see your response that Ron had no idea of your nomination.

      In terms of the ISO itself, you will have seen my reference to Ashby’s Law of Requisite Variety – a very practical ‘Law’ that certainly applies to complex concepts such as KM, I hope you will agree. As such, I find the ISO lacking in the requisite variety (e.g. engagement with requisite fields, concepts, frameworks and theories) that would set the conditions for success. For that reason, as a frontline practitioner myself, not an academic (don’t let the PhD fool you), I strongly feel that this ISO is not fit for purpose.

      Lastly, Ron wrote that this KM ISO “KM will never be the most leading edge thinking and practice”, in which case why not? Surely that is the most damning comment anyone can make! Why on Earth produce a document for standardising something that cannot be standardised, while at the same time saying that it is not leading edge – are these not ‘standards’ that set the direction for the future of the concept, to say nothing of KM functions, organisations and wider society the world over?

      I am sorry that our first exchange is in such heated/debated circumstance, but this ISO, if it is to be meaningful, needs to deliver more than old wine in new bottles – wine that wasn’t that good in the first place. My only hope is that the committee is willing to conduct a root and branch review of its draft, as well as the process that got them to the point of publication in the first place.

  2. David thanks for the very constructive response. Of course from the outside it might look like a cabal of consultants – I can only reassure you it wasn’t and I wouldn’t have used the term experts to describe us as I said.

    As if to illustrate the point about Ron and I being separate I had no prior knowledge of his posting about the process of creating the standards on his KA site today. In fact rather ironically I was discussing ethical standards with the team at CILIP! But I do accept your reference to Ashby’s law.

    KM is a very emotive subject and as someone who often gets people to think about the future (and indeed worked with a number of clients to future proof their businesses) it is a concern that the standards are equally future proofed! And I am also concerned about the process by which they are assessed and who is qualified to assess them. But that’s another ‘can of worms’!

    What I would reiterate is that this is a global initiative with a lot (I hope) of constructive input. Part of the problem is that none of us can predict the future and are dealing with what we know or believe to be the position now. Could 10 years ago we have predicted that the iPad would become a vital learning tool for people on the autism spectrum as an example?

    I do feel that standards will help where there is a program in place – will these convince a CEO / CFO to embark on one? No.


    1. Paul, thank you again for the clarification. I know I am going to sound like a pedant, but standards (standardisation) will not future proof a business – variety and experimentation can certainly improve resilience, but standardisation is just not possible with a complex phenomenon such as KM and, therefore, standards cannot future proof.

      Unfortunately, this is the fundamental problem, people attempting to apply reductionist, constraint-driven, methods in complex environments. Standards, as with KM education cannot and should not be agreed (sorry, I realise this is an area you are interested in with CLIP and I do to mean to bait you, but this is a serious issue that I am passionate about – just ask anyone involved with the commercial KM certification courses) – knowledge and learning just cannot be ‘managed’ as an asset in this way (the difference between the Resource Based and Knowledge Based View of the firm). You say it yourself, the future cannot be predicted. Why? Because it is complex, where outcomes can only be known in retrospect. However, KM standards attempt to constrain complex constructs (KM and Learning) in an attempt to know the unknowable. One can argue for setting conditions for success as ‘future proofing’, but for this to be argued there is a need fo variety in the regulating system (e.g. my call for engagement with AI, Machine Learning, Robotics within the KM ISO standards process).

      Limit variety and we almost guarantee critical failure. My problem is that this fundamental fact appears to be ignored, which is why I am questioning the motives for an asset, audit, consultant-led approach to KM standards.

      You are correct, this topic is highly emotive, but there is an argument to be had here if KM is to provide a meaningful contribution to the future of organisations and the societies within which they operate.

      Regardless, I do appreciate your willingness to engage in this discussion and your reasoned approach. Thank you.

  3. David I value the discourse and don’t feel baited. I had the great pleasure of talking robotics in HKG a month ago now – it is clear great progress is being made BUT (a personal viewpoint) I am sceptical as to whether AI in its current guise can effectively perform the curation of trusted content in a contextual situation that a human can. I wrote something about my discussions here:
    Finally I share a number of your concerns and of the term but we as humans put labels on things and KM has suffered because the current lable sits uncomfortably in most organisations.

  4. David. I have not been on a standards committee (I narrowly missed that pleasure) but this is what I have gleaned from those who do.
    – Different countries have different rules around who can join committees. Here in Australia, you have to be put forward by a nominating organisation (I think Arthur got in due to his connections with RMIT as well as his ). It’s not a completely open process (and is inherently conservative).
    – A lot of people sign up to be on a committee and then a far smaller number of people do the actual work. It tends to be people with either the free time or the passion to commit the time to this.

    Here in Australia, I know that Arthur and Dave Williams have been heavily involved with standards. They are both heavily engaged in the KM community here. As far as I know, neither of them are seeking to use this as a “money spinner”. Patrick Lambe in SIngapore is also engaged in his local KM community (and has done more to grow it there than most). People are not saints but reducing this down to pure commercial interests is unfair.

    Also the standards process is inherently conservative. We debate the rights or wrongs of that but for now, that’s what it is. And that is not unique to this standard.

    I am sceptical about the impact that this standard will have. It’s something thrashed out by a committee. But the drafts that I have seen are a definite improvement over the original Israeli standard that kicked this off.

    1. Thank you, Innotecture for the response and clarification.

      I still maintain that the process is inherently flawed, which is echoed in Chris Collison’s observation on product/service placement within the draft document.

      I agree that many people have put a lot of energy into producing these standards. However, while you point out that the KM consultants involved in this process are not looking at the ISO as a ‘money spinner’, apparent ‘service placement’ within the ISO would appear to refute such a claim. Also, accepting the nature of consultancy, I struggle to see participation as an altruistic service to the wider KM community and the number of consultants seemingly influencing the final document is, frankly, worrying. As you say, the document is highly influenced by the people willing to put the most energy into it, which, by Ron’s account, appears to be consultants who happen to deliver services aligned with the ISO.

      Furthermore, we could open the conversation to the influence of consultants who take a traditional asset-led approach to KM (Resource Based View of the firm) and the damage such an approach creates in the face of a talent-led knowledge economy in a Fourth Industrial revolution (Knowledge Based View of the firm) – this is important, as the ISO is setting the future of the function, organisations and wider society (one could ask whether the experts involved have the requisite variety of expertise (e.g. HR or L&D – this is, after all, a HRM ISO) to deliver a meaningful document.

      My motivation for creating this post is driven by a passion and commitment to processes, structures and behaviours that align with the needs of workplace 4.0, where human advantage lies in outperforming technology. My problem is that there is an apparent lack of consideration for the operational consequences of this document, which, for me, is negligent. My evidence for this comment is Ron’s comment in his blog, where he concedes that this ISO will “never be the most leading edge thinking and practice”.

      All said and done, one thing we can agree on is that selection to the ISO committee and development of the ISO is anything but transparent, which needs to change if the final document is to have credibility.

  5. As the convenor of the ISO committee for KM- some facts:
    47 members that took part (some more active, some as listeners).
    Among these- less than half from the industry (21/47), not all industry experts serving as consultants.
    Countries that took part: Australia, US, France, UK, Pakistan, Russia, Canada, Nigeria, Pakistan, Finland, Israel, Italy, Germany, Malaysia
    PhD.’s- 14
    In the face-to-face meetings twice a year, additional HR and ISO experts have joined (above the ones listed as members).

    The process of deciding whether a standard is required took place in ISO levels, involving not business participants. The experts were called in only after decision that such standard is in place. Each country has chosen its experts independent of others, thinking the best it can- who is most appropriate to help on this issue. The committee members were no secret in no stage.

    The standard is based on the MSS skeleton of ISO- a new way of writing all management standards. This skeleton applies to many “soft” issues as well as technical ones.

    I believe the result of two and half years intensive work is a reliable standard, serving all industries.
    Organizations as NASA and others are very interested in our work, assuming it may help them.
    I also have nearly 20 years experience in KM, and therefore I do not hesitate to say it can drive excellence to whoever applies it, with or without consultants.

    Moria Levy

    1. Moira, thank you for the clarification. However, again, noting everything I have already said in my blog, it baffles me as to anyone can claim:

      1. That KM can be standardised (traditional linear thinking for a non-linear phenomenon, where outcomes can be predicted or controlled) – basically, you are attempting to constrain a complex phenomenon, which is just not possible (adjustments to KM structures, processes and behaviours result in a requisite need for adjustments to HR, IT, PM, L&D, QA etc. structures, process and behaviours) – something I would have hoped that one of your 14 PhDs would have pointed out (also, as per Ron’s blog, a PhD in geology or urban drainage, doesn’t really constitute expertise in knowledge and learning).
      2. That such a limited view (scope/scale of expertise deployed) provides the requisite variety required to develop resilience.
      3. That it drives excellence, when your own members say that it is not cutting edge or leading practice and the active participants are mainly consultants and, therefore, biased – or are you saying that KM consultants don’t bring bias to the process?
      4. That this ISO drives excellence when the process appears to have ignored the starting condition imposed by AI, machine Learning, Robotics, Cyber-Physical Systems etc.
      5. That it drives excellence when you are determining standards based on the participation of 14 countries – more importantly, how many sectors were represented in the development of these standards?

      Lastly, NASA being interested doesn’t validate your approach and nor does your own expertise – the process is constrained by the limiting factors (see my comments on the lack of breadth/depth of expertise).

      I could go on, but I feel I would be labouring the point. I am sorry this is such a heated debate, but this committee has a duty of care to the organisations who will adopt this ISO to develop the best guidance possible. As it stands, the method and recommendations, in my opinion, are just not good enough – again, reinforced by your own members who have publicly stated that the standards are not leading or cutting edge (but good enough for the next 3-5 years).

      Again, I thank you for the contribution and apologise for my directness, but your response only reinforces the key points I made in my blog.

    2. This NASA – excerpt from evidence-based research into Organisational KM (OKM) within apparent KM leaders?

      A good example of such stagnating internal knowledge resources comes from NASA (North American Space Agency) who in 1999, responding to knowledge lost from the Apollo missions during the 1960s and being faced with an aging workforce, as is the case with many organisations, developed a knowledge sharing system, implemented via the ‘Lessons Learned Information System’ (LLIS). “If we want to go to the moon again, we’ll be starting from scratch because all of that knowledge has disappeared. It would take at least as long and cost at least as much to go back” (DeLong, 2004, p. 11-12). In 2012 (Martin) a United States Government report recommended that after 13 years the system should be abolished. It was reported that NASA’s LLIS had received over $750,000 of funding on an annual basis and yet it was still unsuccessful. Key findings suggested that NASA had weakened its policy requirements for use and development of the system, a key coordination tool that set the context for its staff to engage with the LLIS and without this motivation, staff disengaged and the system went into decay.

      “…Program and project management policies issued in 2002 and 2005 required managers to provide lessons learned for input to LLIS “throughout the project lifecycle, for example, at major milestones.” In contrast, NASA’s current policy, in effect since 2007, does not explicitly require the use of LLIS and does not require project managers to identify or archive lessons learned until project conclusion or closeout” (p. iii)

      Though not directly stated in the NASA report, the problem could be one that is strongly subscribed to in this research, and similar to that recognised by Siemens, in that as the domain becomes more complex it becomes more difficult to capture knowledge as an explicit resource.

      “The Chief Engineer and Chief of Safety and Mission Assurance issued a letter in February 2009 encouraging active participation by NASA senior leaders in institutionalizing and sharing lessons learned across the Agency…In contrast to the formal policy, the letter encouraged NASA leaders to convene workshops to discuss and capture lessons learned immediately after completing individual elements of a project’s work while memories were fresh, rather than waiting until the end of the project’s mission. However, according to the Chief Engineer the letter did not result in a measureable improvement of the Centres’ use of the LLIS process to institutionalize lessons learned” (p. iv)

      A common theme in the report is the lack of organisation definition and strategy for the LLIS; as a consequence, business processes were under-developed, especially when considering feedback processes, such as ongoing monitoring and evaluation.

      This is a good example of the lack of recognition for a construct that needed to be managed, in this case feedback loops, or in the previous example, human resource policy, and the system’s failure…these omissions cause system failure and user dissatisfaction.

      “Since…March 2005, the Chief Engineer has completed an Agency-wide assessment of the lessons learned process just once, in 2010. We found that assessment to be inadequate because it did not review and evaluate whether the Centre-level Lessons Learned Committees administered and oversaw the lessons learned process or whether the Committees promoted use of lessons learned throughout a project’s life cycle” (p. iv)

      A possible issue for NASA is their fundamental view of knowledge resources in this case; ‘Information’ (see p. 40) in LLIS perhaps indicating the treatment of knowledge resources as objects (see p. 52), which does not taken into account the needs of the human resources that interact with the system. This can be in the form of motivation to engage with the LLIS or even the interface design of technical platforms that require human involvement. It seems as if NASA have ignored the influence of human agency upon their systems, which I argue to be a critical error in underpinning strategy for the management of organisational knowledge resources.

      “Users told us they found LLIS outdated, not user friendly, and generally unhelpful, and the Chief Engineer acknowledged that the system is not operating as originally designed. Although we believe that capturing and making available lessons learned is an important component of any knowledge management system, we found that, as currently structured, LLIS is not an effective tool for doing so” (p. v)

      The NASA case demonstrates that even when considering knowledge resources as being technical, procedural or explicit, it is still not possible to remove people-based processes from systems, to do so creates a situation where knowledge stocks stagnate and potentially decay…this is an undesirable state, as they are no longer contributing value to the organisation.

  6. Sorry I was misunderstood.
    Tried to make a point that the standard was not written by consultants and for them. No reason to attack those who seemed interested in it,
    I do not find any point in quarreling,
    Hope you also can find the many benefits in such a standard, and specifically in the one written
    Time will probably teach us all if it was written by the right type of team and with a good enough holistic approach
    Meantime- all the best to all

    1. Moira, thank you and I am sorry this appears as a quarrel.

      The point is, you know at this stage that the ISO does not have the requisite variety (scope and scale of experts) and your own committee members admit it is not leading or cutting edge.

      You know this at the draft stage.

      You have asked for feedback and you are receiving it from credible sources.

      Therefore, as convenor, what are you going to do about it?

  7. David
    I disagree with your sayings, yet I will consult ISO and the committee and together, representing all countries and approaches- we will decide what to do

    1. I am sorry you disagree. To that end, I would appreciate it if you would outline what it is exactly that you disagree with.

      Until then, what saddens me is that the ISO is methodologically flawed and despite credible evidence to the contrary, you, as the convenor, are refusing to acknowledge it. What is even more saddening is that such hubris could potentially damage organisations – the very organisations this ISO is supposed to help.

      Again, you have evidence that your process (methodology and bias in selection/involvement of experts) is flawed, that the ISO is flawed and yet you will elevate your opinion and that of other consultants involved in the process above the evidence. What is the point of the draft and the consolation process? Also, are you also choosing to ignore the opinion of your own committee members who have publicly stated that your ISO is not thought leading or cutting edge – the ISO is supposed to assist organisations in developing competitive advantage, is it not?

      Is the committee so proud that you will ignore the advance of technology in workplace 4.0 and the Fourth Industrial Revolution to promote an agenda that your own committee members admit is inadequate?

      Finally, you are going to consult the committee (echo chamber), though you disagree with me; the same committee that couldn’t see the flaws in its own methodology or the damage that could be inflicted on organisations as a result of staying the course of the ISO in the face of credible evidence to the contrary.

      Moria, you may see this as quarrel, but you have a moral and ethical responsibility to ensure that what you produce is of the highest quality. Sorry, but the fact that you have spent 2.5 years on the process, does not give the committee the right to force through a substandard document.

  8. Hi David,
    I look forward to the constructive improvements you recommend for the enhancement of the standard. I welcome all voices engaging in the professional discussion as to what should be included, how it is optimally stated and what is best left to other documents to deal with. Yes KM is a complex and emergent and unique to each implementation, and therefore by definition difficult to”standardise”. Howevrr, there are some people who need independent guidance on the fundamentals to see the interdependencies of the elements within their contexts. I believe the ISO KM standard will enable many organisations to take initial steps without a consultant, which is a good step forward for performance of industries generally. As we all know many consultants made a mess oc advising on ISO9000!
    Happy to engage in some discussion via Skype, or when we happen to be in the same place again. Always enjoyed our conversations. Hope to see you in UK in April – it has been too long since we chatted.

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