KM draft standard ISO 30401 constructive criticism

KM draft standard ISO 30401: constructive criticism

KM ISO 30401

I have been criticised by some for the confrontational approach to the draft standard ISO 30401 I put forward in my last blog. I appreciate the feedback and acknowledge the energy that people on the committee have put into developing draft ISO 30401.

I need to be clear, in that I have no doubt that the ISO committee is populated by “nice”, “good” and “decent” people. But my criticism is not about character, it is about the setting of standards that will influence the future of organisations and whether the committee has met its duty of care in the development/delivery of said standards. In his post, Bruce Boyes argues that I played the wo/man and not the ball. Fair comment. However, when the credibility/validity of the ISO is based on expert involvement (as per Ron Young’s original blog), the experts, by nature, then become the ball.

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Stephen Bounds has called for civility and good faith in approaching amendments to the draft – in fairness, he is correct.

However, in attempting to work on the changes with Stephen (the document, as per his Twitter post is open to all), I still cannot see how the ISO can work – my point being that a substandard standard is a bad standard.

Therefore, in the spirit of constructive criticism and good faith, I am setting out some of my observations in this blog.

ISO 30401 suffers from many flaws in relation to its own remit to develop standards for the management of knowledge, where knowledge, by its own definition is “A human or organizational asset enabling good decisions and effective action in context”.

For example, ISO 30401 defines knowledge as follows:


“A human or organizational asset enabling good decisions and effective action in context”

Where ISO 30401 defines Knowledge Management as follows:

“Management with regard to knowledge.”

And ISO 30401 advocates KM being part of a Learning Organisation, defined as follows:

“An organization that steadily improves its people and processes through learning activities”

Finally, ISO 30401 is a standard published under the auspices of Human Resource Management.

All this said, there is no consideration in ISO 30401 for the management/coordination of people as the primary resource for the acquisition, sharing, application and creation of knowledge. Instead, the ISO suggests that if you follow the guidance and build a traditional asset-led KM system, the system will work (the ambiguity of the elements/variables/components of said KM system is never clarified in the ISO document); this is evidenced in the ISO’s KM enablers, where the human (behavioural) element (managed within the organisation’s HR journey) is notably absent:

Responsibilites: Roles and accountabilities, including for users of the system, and people with defined accountabilities.

NOTE 1: example enablers- Chief knowledge officer; Community of practice facilitator; knowledge workers.

  1. System Inhibitors/Enhancers: Measures that sustainably alter dynamics of organizational systems, particularly those which alter performance, robustness, and/or resilience, or enhance interpersonal and impersonal trust within and outside the organization.

NOTE 1: example enablers – financial and non-financial incentives, employee engagement programs, internal communications programs, safe workplace policies, dispute resolution policies.

  1. Processes: Defined business and knowledge activities, procedures, instructions, methods and measurement KPI’s that an organization applies and embeds.

NOTE 1: example enablers- Knowledge discovery and detection; Lessons Learned from failures and success.

  1. Technology& infrastructure: digital channels, virtual and physical workspace and other tools.

NOTE 1: example enablers- mobile applications; portals; search engines; cloud computing; big data platforms; collaboritve workspaces; “coffee corners”.

d.Governance: Strategy, expectations and means of ensuring the knowledge management system is working in alignment (covered in detail in chapters 5-10)

Such a glaring omission is concerning, especially when considering Section 4.6 (“Knowledge Transformations”) and the management of “human Interactions”, defined as follows:

The exchange of knowledge through conversations and interactions between interested parties.”

ISO 30401 constantly refers to competence, which, again, links to people and their ability to acquire, share, use and create knowledge – for example, the ISO calls for competence from three types of knowledge worker:

participants that engage with and use the knowledge management system, as part of completing their tasks and work;

those with accountable roles within the knowledge management system. Accountable roles might include positions or roles such as knowledge management champions, community of practice leaders, or content owners;

those accountable for the design, delivery and continual improvement of the knowledge management system and the associated supporting culture organizational change.

Again, I am surprised that HR/L&D professionals (such experts having codeveloped the ISO) have not picked up on a significant HR problem, in that “competence” (what you know – technical knowledge) is not “competency” (the ability to apply what you know to achieve a task/create value etc – situational/ability knowledge) – competencies (ability knowledge) being highly valued by today’s organisations (see World Economic Forum, Future of Jobs Report), arguably more than competence (technical knowledge being something that can be taught).  Also, significantly, the “competence” of those accountable for the design, delivery and continual improvement of the knowledge management system is not articulated (e.g. highlighting need for a Knowledge Manager to provide advocacy, leadership, capital creation, technical expertise and operate as a strategic partner).

Furthermore ISO 30401 constantly names the “organisation”, as the enabler of Knowledge Management in organisations, defined as follows:

person or group of people that has its own functions with responsibilities, authorities and relationships to achieve its objectives”

ISO 30401 also considers “interested parties”, defined as follows:

“person or organization ( 3.1 ) that can affect, be affected by, or perceive itself to be affected by a decision or activity”

However, at no point does the ISO identify or set recommendations for the scope/scale of people (stakeholders) who should be involved to create a successful KM function – for example, HR, Learning & Development, Information Management, IT, Risk, Quality Assurance etc. Nor does the ISO consider internal/external stakeholders involved in designing/developing robotics, AI, Machine Learning or cyber-physical systems.

ISO 30401 often speaks of value creation and “results”. Unfortunately, links to market value (measurable impact) via development of Human, Social and Intellectual Capitals (as guided by the IIRC) are not considered – again, this links to knowledge as a human condition and the need for engagement with HR and L&D.

Another concerning flaw, is the traditional, reductionist, asset-led, resource-based view, of the phenomenon, which is evidenced in the overall language of the document (e.g. language of “control” and “asset”) and runs counter to any claims for embracing complexity, open-systems or holistic thinking.

Ultimately, ISO 30401 lacks clarity and purpose. For example, Section 9.1 (“Monitoring, measurement, analysis and evaluation”) fails to provide any guidance (nudges) toward impact, results or ROI (e.g. measurable contribution to market value through development of Human, Social and Intellectual Capitals). The same section also fails to guide the need for continuous (anticipatory?) monitoring, measurement, analysis and evaluation (sense making?) in the context of volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous operating (starting) conditions.

The organization shall determine:

— what needs to be monitored and measured. This shall include measurement of conformity with the requirements of this standard, and evidence of added value to the relevant stakeholders;

— the methods for monitoring, measurement, analysis and evaluation, as applicable, to ensure valid results;

when the monitoring and measuring shall be performed;

when the results from monitoring and measurement shall be analysed and evaluated.

My comments here are only some of the issues associated with the draft ISO 30401. The argument I put forward in my original blog remain – lack of evidence for requisite variety of expert input (e.g. HR/L&D/complexity thinking); lack of appreciation for the human aspect of KM; high-level of traditional, consultancy-led KM thinking; lack of forward thinking (old wine in new bottles).

I appreciate that ISO 30401 can be amended in 3-5 years. However, a sub-standard standard is a bad standard. The ISO committee, in my opinion, has a duty of care to conduct a root and branch review of its own work, including formation of the committee, before publishing its final standard.

2 thoughts on “KM draft standard ISO 30401 constructive criticism

  1. Hi David, In the interests of accuracy I should point out that you’ve quoted a section that represents my proposed amendments to the draft and not current state of the draft itself. It is the section on “System Inhibitors/Enhancers: Measures that sustainably alter dynamics of organizational systems …”. You may want to double-check you are citing the current draft in all other places as well. I can’t see any other obvious use of my edits but I haven’t done a line by line comparison.

    My own view is that ISO 30401 is likely to suffer from many of the strengths and weaknesses of ISO 9001. With ISO 9001 it is entirely possible to implement a compliant program that is completely useless at actually improving output quality. The standard checks for *existence* of documentation, not its utility.

    In a similar way, I don’t feel it is necessary for the standard to explicitly, for example, provide “recommendations for the scope/scale of people (stakeholders) who should be involved to create a successful KM function”. Being too prescriptive runs the risk of premature optimisation.

    The obvious rejoinder is that if the standard doesn’t provide any prescriptive guidance, what is it good for? In many ways it is more of a surgeon’s checklist. Reading the checklist doesn’t make you a surgeon, but it can give you confidence that the relevant factors are being considered and provide clarity on purpose and desired outcomes.

    1. Stephen… sorry, but I am not sure making recommendations for engagement that demonstrates the complexity of the concept is a bad thing – the ISO does state that it is embracing the complex/holistic nature of the phenomenon.

      Also, the problem in using a “checklist” in a complex environment is that you are attempting to use a control mechanism that does not align with the nature of the environment – the tool will fail!

      For example, the “checklist” does not consider the requisite elements of HR/L&D/complexity (sense making) that influence the phenomenon. As such, the ISO is pure theatre – the relevant factors are not being considered and it is delivering false confidence for those that don’t understand the nature of organisations or KM in the first place (“blind ignorance does mislead us”).

      As you say, the ISO will have strengths and weaknesses. However, having a duty of care to the organisations it attempts to serve, an ISO – a standard – should not be published with such glaring weaknesses. Would you be happy jumping on a plane or, as you say, going in to surgery, where the pilot/surgeon is using an incomplete checklist? What impact and what cost to organisations and society while the committee waits to learn?

      I accept that you are generally happy with the control/audit led nature of the document, accepting its strengths and weaknesses. Unfortunately, given what we know to be true about knowledge, management and VUCA operating environments, I cannot agree with a substandard standard – especially when the people involved know the standard to be substandard.

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