Knowledge Management is impossible

By Robert Taylor

KM is a simple idea. So why does this simple idea turn out to be so hard to do?

It's true, the basic ideas of KM are simple and really don't need much explaining:

  • Learn from experience. Improve the way you work by reflecting on and acting on each experience of doing the work. So how come this happens so little? 
  • Innovate - try new ideas out. Easy! Yet there is a constant flow of anguished business writing about the need to innovate more.
  • Share knowledge. Of course! Collaborate, help each other, share what you know so everyone gets the benefit. But we hear all the time about inappropriate internal competition holding organisations back.
  • Apply best practice. Seems too obvious to even say. But whenever anything that has gone majorly wrong hits the news it's much more likely to be a failure of not doing what was known should be done ("human error", failure to maintain or use equipment or follow protocol etc.) than some random or unforeseeable thing.

I've met hardly anyone who would vote against "learn, innovate, share and apply". It's readily acceptable. And virtually impossible .. or so it may seem.

So why does it go wrong?  Well, here are just a few clues...

Altrusim and delayed gratification. Knowledge work often means doing something for someone else, some other time, some other place, to benefit from. Making an improvement to a process or guidance note or writing up a project, for instances, are for the benefit of the next person coming along to do the same thing you just did - it's so they can benefit from your learning. Many times I hear people more interested in "what's in it for me?" (WIIFM?). We might say there needs to be altruism - or we might say that it would help to just take real pride in leaving things better than you found them. Similarly, knowledge work sometimes means doing something now 'just in case' it's needed later. The benefit comes later and more and more the mantra of today is "I want it now". So some of it is people and what we're like and how we respond to the pressures acting on us ... but we gotta work with people!

Knowledge work is more ‘explore’ than ‘exploit’ - it's more about innovation and learning and development than it is about 'sweating the assets'... and we know where the focus of business orthodoxy is, especially in times of short-term pressures. Your business won't die quickly without KM. Lack of KM isn't today's emergency - and you may well have something else that is today's emergency or at least short-term high priority. It's not usually going to be where leadership attention is focused - and people will pick up on what matters and what they should be paying attention to themselves from that. It's a true judgement that your business won't die quickly for lack of KM investment ... but it's not enough to leave it there without finding a way to transcend the paradox that your business will suffer horribly without learning, innovation, knowledge sharing and applying it's own best knowledge. So some of it is to do with priorities and resource allocation - management practice, in short.

A knowledge approach is based on a different "theory of the firm" / theory of value creation to corporate orthodoxy. It's based on nurturing the intangibles - experience, relationships, sharing. It's wholly dependent on a stock that walks out the door each evening (the knowledge in people's heads). It doesn't depend on a place (the workplace). It doesn't respect working hours or finite measures of productivity. It's against the prevailing corporate orthodoxy.

Finally (for now) KM hasn't always done itself justice. It sometimes suffers from seeming to be 'back office' or 'support' rather than right in the value chain. Some complicated and confusing tools and approaches have been put forward that obscure its simplicity. It's a magnet for the intellectually curious more than it is for action-oriented business transformers and leaders.

So how should we respond to these challenges?

First, take an honest look at the situation – stop wishing it was different and deal with it the way it is. Enough already of bellyaching that “people don’t get it” or “management doesn’t support it”. If you’re in this business you’re a change agent – and two things I’ve learned about culture change are:

  • The culture will change in a way and at a time that it needs to – usually slowly – so understand the forces that are likely to change attitudes and behaviours and plan for different scenarios of how that may pan out.
  • You have to work with the culture you have – so understand it – don’t challenge the stable core because it will bounce you back out - look for the fault lines and margins.
  • For example, in my own organisation there’s been a lot of change of senior leadership in the last eighteen months or so. I meet them and quickly work out who’s up for what. Good news is that we have leaders in some areas who I can see have a serious reason and a serious commitment to do something I can help them with and that helps me build our KM household. I’m working with them and leaving the others be.

Get really practical and action-oriented and in the core value chain. Surf the paradox of doing something short-term … for the long-term. You have to deliver tangible solutions and results in real-time … but you can still do that within your own strategic roadmap and within your own end-goal framework. So, for example, I’ve done a number of KM projects in Sales. These are about meeting a need those guys have now … but I can do that as one part of the overall jigsaw I’m building if I shape it right. I find that customers are very concerned with optimising their thing and not at all interested in what is the best overall model for everyone – but if you can find a way of giving them that and also getting done something you see a wider need for … then you have double benefits. Being in the value chain means working in product development, sales, service delivery – in the chain of business activities that really matter. Be the business partner of these people – don’t be a back office function that ‘does stuff’ – what I mean is, for instance, don’t be the department that runs the intranet and supports communities … instead be the team that works with Sales to make sure they have the online resources and services they need to be effective; the support team for the Sales team. I know it seems like just re-framing – but re-framing is powerful!

That can’t be everything – sure, agreed. There’s so much more we need to do. But being realistic and action-oriented; working with the grain whilst treasuring the end goal in your heart and using that as your motivation – these will sure help us.

Robert Taylor is currently Head of Knowledge at BAE Systems Applied Intelligence, a business and IT consultancy based in the UK and operating internationally. For twenty-five years Rob has been a knowledge management (KM) consultant and functional manager with names such as Deloitte, KPMG and Unisys prior to his current role.