The More Things Change
Although the roots of Knowledge Management run very deep, what we now think of as KM first appeared sometime in the mid-nineties. At Knowledge Street, we often associate it with the publication of The Knowledge Creating Company by Nonaka and Takeuchi in 1995. It's certainly not a new idea anymore, and to KM practitioners it's both surprising and disappointing that it hasn't taken off. Each new idea is welcomed as the thing that will finally put KM over the top, but many programs still fail to live up to expectations.
That can be seen in the results of a recent international KM survey developed in association with the University of Edinburgh. It found that while many companies acknowledge the importance of innovation (and recognize the strategic value of managing knowledge) they're not getting the desired results. And the reasons cited for failure today are the same ones that have been roadblocks since the beginning. Lack of real support from the top, poor communication, a focus on technology rather than people and insufficient organizational integration, so KM programs live in their own little silos.
For a discipline that treasures the idea of Lessons Learned, KM seems to have a hard time learning these lessons.
The Half Life of Information
In Doylestown, Pennsylvania, you can visit the Mercer Museum and ponder its collection of tools from forgotten trades. They're the kind of trades that kept folks gainfully employed for generations, but disappeared once factories were able to make things better, faster and cheaper. The value of knowledge inevitably decays, and depending on the subject area, any one idea might go from crucial to irrelevant in a matter of months. Writing in a blog post at forbes.com, Carol Kinsey Goman has a particularly homey analogy for this. She observes that knowledge isn't really like gold. It's more like milk. It goes sour pretty quickly.
People who believe that knowledge is power have a tendency to hoard it, but that makes no sense given the pace of change today. Nothing is quite so worthless as knowledge that's past its
expiration date. Plus, there are few things more valuable than building a reputation for sharing knowledge quickly, while it's fresh. That's the best way to establish and maintain a human value network,
and that's where the real power lies.
The Dark Side of Collaboration
There's no question that teams which collaborate effectively can accomplish more than an
individual working alone. A good team really is stronger than the sum of its parts, and most people prefer working with a team to working alone. But there's a risk when collaboration is ungoverned,
especially if roles aren't clearly defined.
People can become disinvested in the outcome, when their responsibilities are unclear. They may not feel excited about getting credit for a win, nor
worry about being blamed for a failure. It can be impossible to reach a decision, as more and more people are brought into the loop. Instead of building toward a consensus, you're only spinning your
wheels. And the longer any process takes, the more likely it is to generate errors. By the time you're working on the 18th version of something, you can't really see it anymore.
is great, but leadership is essential. An effective leader can draw out the team's best ideas, gently reject those that are off-target and keep people from wandering off on tangents. Technology has made
collaboration easier, both in the office and around the world. And that makes the role of team leader even more important.
Social Media vs. Knowledge Management
The continuing popularity of social media is an interesting development for KM
practitioners. It's clearly related to KM in some fashion, as is pointed out by this blog post at the Harvard Business Review. Both use technology to help people access information. Both assume that people will create information to share, and encourage collaboration. The big enterprise systems built in the late '90s didn't deliver the intended return, and the addition of explicit social networking aspects was seen as a way to give them a chance at a second life.
However, there's a different mindset. Social media systems let the participants decide what's important, based on interaction with their peers. Traditional knowledge management systems rest on an
assumption that the company will make strategic decisions about what employees need to know, and grant them access based on their individual roles. (Not all, though. KM pioneer Buckman Laboratories opted to "treat every employee like the CEO," and gave everyone access to everything.)
still a third variation. Since social networks like Facebook allow an unlimited number of contacts, it can be very hard to separate the signal from the noise. In fact, Facebook has recently changed the way it presents content, using unspecified filtering logic to decide which posts will be most important to each individual user. So the pendulum swings. Lots of structure and control, unregulated conversation and chatter, then automated content filtering. Is this a good thing, or a bad thing?
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