On whether Knowledge Management matters

I’d like to start the New Year with a rhetorical question: does knowledge management (KM) really matter?

Well, it matters to me and to people within the KM world.  It matters to people who want to do their jobs more effectively and more efficiently. And it matters to conference organisers, book publishers, consultants, contractors, and people and institutions providing KM courses.

But does KM really matter to the people in organisations who have the power and authority to make the big decisions and then carry them out?  Based on my own observations and discussions with people, perhaps the only people who care about KM are the KM-ers in the industry itself.

There aren’t many examples of people like Bob Buckman from Buckman Laboratories (Book: Building a knowledge-driven organization) who really saw the benefit of pursuing a knowledge-driven strategy for his company.  I certainly read the Buckman Laboratories story with great interest, and might I say, with a great deal of hope that other organisations see the KM light as clearly and positively as Buckman himself.

It seems to me that the KM industry, and I am part of it too, spends a great deal of time talking about what KM can do; what KM could do; what KM might do; and what KM is all about, but actually struggling to get any key decision-maker within an organisation to actually support and promote an organisation-wide approach to KM.  Sure, we get by with the odd successful initiative or project and we can champion them (I certainly do!) but this is pretty small-fry in the big scheme of things.  We can lay claim to a nice intranet site, or a great social networking initiative, but rarely are these initiatives the well-spring of senior management.  More often than not, these KM initiatives emerge (struggle through by sheer individual persistence in many cases) and we celebrate them. In fact we actually make-believe that bottom-up approaches are the way forward rather than seeing these successes as symbols of bright KM cracks in a dull and disinterested organisational landscape.  Bright cracks of KM success are indeed positive, but they are not bright enough to penetrate the dim, dark recesses of conventional and political organisational management.

There was plenty to hear and read about “the KM success stories” when I did my Master of Knowledge Management course at University of Canberra, and all the readings and discussions on KM years prior to that.  In my Masters course, one subject on leadership highlighted the characteristics of great organisational leaders and how they made a big difference to their organisation – the US female newspaper publisher from yonks ago was the case study in fact (sorry, the details have skipped through my memory bank at this time).  And, of course, there are bestselling books and biographies of champion business leaders extolling more success stories.  I am not convinced that these tales are actually ever read by business leaders to stimulate thought about their own organisations, but perhaps they do.

However, in the ubiquitous world of organisations, all these success stories and learnings are the exception. We in KM seem not to be able to shift key management thinking and action towards an organisationally-driven knowledge management (or knowledge capable) enterprise, better able to recognise and solve internal problems, and more resilient and agile in the business environment.

So, does knowledge management really matter?


17 responses to “On whether Knowledge Management matters

  1. It would be concidered suicidal to ask such a question being a KM practitioner. Most fo the KM folks (“Innovation” is still worse) are busy projecting how important they will be in the future, in what they called the ‘knowledge’ era. You are right, this has become like some religious sects who survive by promising salvation in the future.
    There is definitely what is called the ‘false sense of harmony”
    I remember a story of a king who was obsessed with thin cloths and pestered the weavers to make his cloths thinner and thinner. Fed up, finally a clever weaver comes up with the ‘thinnest’ cloth, so thin that it wasn’t visible to the eye. The king prodly wore it and went out in a procession, and everyone ‘appreciated’ the great dress the king wore. Then, suddenly a boy shouts “hey, the king is naked”
    Unless we have more boys who will shout, I don’t think KM will become what it can

  2. Sajeev,

    I understand what you mean in your initial comment but I am not in KM out of any personal crusade or perpetuating work for the sake of it. In fact, I hate the very idea of a self-serving work culture where individuals maximise self-interest above the greater good of the team, the business unit, or the organisation. Mind you, I have seen a couple of classic individuals do just that and reach heights far and beyond their real strengths and capabilities!
    Thanks for your thoughts!

  3. I guess the main problem is that KM is a long-term project with difficult to measure ROI ?

    The market often values short-sighted cost cutting better than long-term investment in people ?

    • Atle,

      I think there is more to it than just ROI. I really doubt that senior management has any interest in KM because KM is often about empowering a workforce, or at least flattening the structure via networks and network platforms. There is a perception that this weakens the authority of “those in power” and it also permits workers to have greater freedom to make choices. In both cases, traditional management can’t cope.

  4. By their nature the people who have scaled the heights of an organisation to reach the sort of leadership positions that put them in a place where they have decision making clout over KM initiatives means that they mostly (80% of them?) won’t get or support KM.

    I say this because I suspect that what got them to that position is working within the hierarchy to achieve power. KM represents the antithesis of that. So anyone in KM will always be performing a mating dance to try and get them to listen!

    Just the same as if organisations were structured around communities of practice, perhaps Wenger and McDermott would have discovered huge value in this great, new KM concept called hierarchy :o)

    • You make a good point about how the organisational structure (the hierarchy) can influence (determine?) the way in which individuals within that structure behave. In organisations with strong hierarchies it seems clear that perpetuating that structure would be paramount if one was to seek promotion. The saying, “don’t rock the boat” says it all. KM might indeed “rock the boat” but what strikes me is that the boat could work much better with some strategic organisational KM horsepower but management seems happy to just chugg along. You have a point that KM could indeed threaten the existing workplace structure and there aren’t enough people at higher levels of management to try and initiate real change – change that actually makes a positive difference rather than change for appearance’s sake (it’s not in their self-interest since it could limit their own climb up the greasy pole).

  5. Interesting question and I’d like to see you develop this post further. KM (a misnomer of course) matters more to certain kinds of organisations, namely large, physically dispersed ones which sell their brainpower. That said, I say that in reference to an actual facilitating discipline that requires bodies, processes and systems. It is no less important to a 10 man SME in 1 office; it’s just that they will do it in the way humans have always done it over the last 200,000 years by talking to each other.

    Interestingly, one of the leaders at my workplace has published a “How the noughties changed business article” which cites both KM and social networking. So the message is getting through and maybe we will see much more in the teenies as KM and business awareness align. Here’s a link to the article:

    • Salv,

      Thanks for your comment. I think KM is relevant to all types of organisations but the approaches and tools may be different, depending on the context and the goals. I see plenty of scope for good KM across geographically dispersed organisations where networking information and knowledge is so critical. In two previous jobs, one method I used was the formation and facilitation of communities of practice. In the other, a professional services firm, part of my job was advocacy around a knowledge repository (something that was flawed because of the approach). In the first instance, I initiated and created the communities without any senior executive buy-in. In the second case, trying to get buy-in to change the approach of the knowledge repository was just too difficult, a function of a large multinational organistion to some extent.

      As to the article about social networking and KM, I think that senior decision-makers are aware of these things (particularly social networking) but they don’t have a strong idea of how it can help the business. Moreover, social networking is often seen as a threat to business, either from the time-wasting point of view, or the empowerment of staff (and loss of autocratic management control) to network and make decisions. To have good KM and good social networking, senior execs need to establish good relations with staff, develop trusting relationships, set expected standards, and give staff the autonomy to use KM and social networking to empower their ability to do their jobs.

  6. I think in a way, some parts of the KM community have become very elitist in recent years. You hint at the lack of perceived impact by KM initiatives, but on the other hand I see many so called KM practitioners distancing themselves from initiatives that might have impact but aren’t pure enough (in their minds) for them to be associated with. “intranets? oh, my, no I’m far too busy exploring the hidden meaning in discarded postit notes found in the bins of middle managers”

    The other issue – and this isn’t limited to KM – is that organisations are political, yet people hope to sell KM on it own intrinsic merits. But from the perspective of other managers, KM is just another corporate initiative they can choose to support or not. You can look at this another way – how interested are KM practitioners in the initiatives coming from other parts of the organisations they work in? Do they rush to support the roll out of the new expense system? Do they put their own priorities aside to run the health and safety committee?

    In this respect, while KM needs to be embedded in work practices it also still needs champions who can highlight the contributions it makes to the areas their organisations care about, rather than just what they care about. Ironically, the more successful you are, the greater the risk that people will take KM for granted.

    • James,

      Not sure whether I’d agree about the “elitism” in KM, but I sure agree with you that there are many KM “perfectionists” out there – and sometimes I am one of them.

      You really nailed the issue when you said “that organisations are political, yet people hope to sell KM on its own intrinsic merits. But from the perspective of other managers, KM is just another corporate initiative they can choose to support or not”.

      BTW, I loved your postit note “metaphor” – great stuff!

  7. Pingback: Does Knowledge Management matter? – Is This Future Shock?

  8. I agree with a lot of what has been said above about the current state of KM in most organizations. I’m going to cross post this from Dr. Bonnie Cheuk’s blog. I have met her once and attended a talk she gave at last year’s ICKM09 conference in Hong Kong. I’ve been following her efforts for several months now. Dr. Cheuk reminds us that KM is in the doing and my impression is that ERM (Environmental Resources Management) with her efforts is really doing practical, useful KM with the support and encouragement of ERM senior management. Better KM practices like Dr. Cheuk’s should be celebrated and watched closely because we can all learn from them.


    • Thanks for your comment. I met Bonnie Cheuk at an Information Online conference in London a few years ago. At that time, she was working for the British Council (from memory) and was doing some interesting knowledge mapping. It is probably true that KM works best when it is not called KM, and thus there is still positive KM work being done, but just called something else. And that’s not a bad thing!

      • Bonnie Cheuk is not doing KM on the sly at ERM. Her role is Partner, Global Head of Knowledge & Information and she runs a Global Knowledge Sharing Program. ERM has 137 offices in 39 countries and employs approximately 3,300 staff. It has a pervasive network of KM practitioners who are doing all sorts of ongoing and acknowledged KM activities. ERM hires people in the knowledge management field according to their ‘Who We Hire’ page, see here, http://tinyurl.com/y9ubmza

  9. More and more companies care a great deal about KM, it’s just that they don’t call it that. At IBM, Accenture, Deloitte and other major consulting firms, the big push is now building and expanding their ability to offer clients “business analytics” services .. which boils down to creating systems/tools to better leverage company, employee, supplier, customer knowledge .. A few articles can be found at …http://bit.ly/3FbkJK …. http://bit.ly/C1Jpo

    • Yes, you’re probably right. I do wonder how strategic it all is with respect to the organistion as a whole – it often is rather piece-meal. As I said in the previous reply, KM does happen but it’s not called KM. It’s an interesting situation whereby KM work is initiated and undertaken but people prefer to call the work something else. I think it comes down to the fact that KM is so broad and difficult to articulate without talking about other, more tangible concepts like “business analytics”, customer knowledge, intranet, database, collaboration and even “working smarter”. I know when I initiated communities of practice at a former workplace that I never called it that; nor did I call it KM other than within my own strategic framework. So what does this say for the KM “industry”?

    • FYI – the 2nd link does not work.

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