I3 UPDATE / Entovation International News

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No. 43 September 2000

 

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FEATURE ARTICLE

Knowledge Associations

Networks or Notworks?

David J. Skyrme

As a new discipline emerges people who share an interest in it come together, usually initially as informal groups. They share their unique experiences and often represent a pooling of the most relevant practical knowledge for this discipline at that time. As time pases more formal structures evolve with rules, committees and special interest groups. Many grow into formal professional bodies and associations. The more august and influential may even receive national or international recognition, as exemplified by the award of a royal charter in the UK (e.g. The Chartered Instititute of Marketing). With similar evolution taking place in the field of knowledge management it seems an appropriate time to question the relevance of professional associations in this age of rapid knowledge diffusion.

Standards and Services

A primary aim of many professional associations is to raise standards. This is usually achieved by some accreditation scheme that may include examinations and evidence of work-based practice (or even proficiency). Most now also have some form of CPD (Continuous Professional Development) programme to show evidence that their members are maintaining and enhancing their competence. A secondary aim is to promote the interests of their members to other organizations e.g. marketing the quality of their members to potential employees. They also represent the interests of their members in policy making bodies and with other associations, such as trade associations. For most members, the immediate benefits are in the services they provide, such as:

  • Regular newsletters and journals
  • Meetings - both regional and specialist groups
  • Group rates for essential services, such as professional indemnity insurance
  • Training
  • Publications
  • A consultancy referral service.

In other words a good association will act as a focal point - a portal no less - for the body of knowledge of its discipline. It defines level of knowledge competence and accredits practitioners. It provides a place for sharing (and even trading) knowledge. A worthy aim, but not without problems.

Problems of Professionalism

  • Knowledge cartels - some associations get so powerful that they effectively regulate who may practice in the profession. The legal and medical professionals are examples. However, what if new knowledge comes along that challenges a professional body's accepted wisdom e.g. alternative health. There are also frequent complaints that such bodies protect their own, when challenged by consumers who feel they have been badly treated. Maintaining professional standards is one thing. Accepting that consumers may sometimes be right is another that many seem reluctant to accept. How can consumers and regulatory authorities stop individual associations from being too powerful?

  • Changing boundaries - with business functions and management disciplines in constant reconfiguration, which is the appropriate association to join? One the one hand there splits into more specialized associations. On the other there are often mergers to create economies of scale or a more powerful voice (such as that planned for Institute of Information Scientists and The Library Assocation in the UK). As a hybrid who crosses organizational boundaries, I once found that I belonged to five associations, all relevant to my work. In the end I resigned from all except one - this was the one that provided the best flow of updated knowledge in the form of meetings, networks and publications. Should associations make their membership benefits more easily transferable to others (like exam credits)? Are there opportunities for meta-organizations that offers a bundle of memberships at a reduced package price?

  • Globalization - many disciplines are becoming global niches of expertise rather than having national boundaries. Yet many associations remain firmly rooted in their countries of origin, and usually in the capital city to boot. Should there be more visible global cooperation between associations as equal partners (rather than sizeable US associations opening overseas chapters!!)?

  • Limited resources - many associations have only a small core of full-time staff, and rely on volunteer effort from their members or supporters for committees, task forces and organizing events etc. There has been quite a vigorous debate on the AOK discussion list (see below) about this, provoked by a posting that pointed out how limited resources were inhibiting investment in knowledge management. As you can imagine, many people took the opposite view, that they were rich in resources - knowledge rather than financial - and that allocating financial resources was a matter of priorities; not investing in KM showed a lack of appreciation that knowledge is a key resource that many associations (indeed organizations of all types) under-exploit.

  • Competition - just as any other organization, a professional body will be competing for people, for resources and for attention. More and more people are recognizing that with so many options for updating their knowledge and progressing their career, they must judge more critically the benefits of everything they spend their resources on - time, emotional capital and knowledge as well as money. Many value informal networks and online discussion lists much more than they do their membership of a formal association. Many associations do not seem to realize that they no longer have captive memberships and that they must look at how they can use their (knowledge) assets to deliver more value and better services to their members.

Knowledge Associations

Since the emergence of knowledge management as a specialist field (circa 1995) there have been several associations and networks aimed at KM professionals, though several are now dormant. First, there are associations created by knowledge professionals from the ground up. Then there are others that have changed their focus or have created special interest groups or chapters devoted to knowledge management. Here are some of the better known associations and networks:

Some earlier vibrant networks, notably KM-Forum and the forum of the International Knowledge Management Network (CIBIT, Holland) are currently inactive.

The above list excludes those where KM is not the primary association focus (e.g. AIIM) or membership associations at organizations e.g. Institute of Knowledge Management, Federation for Enterprise Knowledge Development - these are listed along others at the KM Resource Center (http://www.kmresource.com).

What Next?

One thing is clear. Although there is more use of the Internet, many KM associations already reflect the dynamics of other professional networks. Several forums started with enthusiasm, often by a single individual, have failed to maintain momentum. Divergence is already apparent. Last year there was a split in the leadership of Knowledge Management Consortium International (KMCI) resulting in the creation of a rival group eKnowledgeCenter. Knowledge associations (like many other ventures), it seems, are operating in a competitive rather than a collaborative manner.

Despite several years of evolution knowledge associations are still in their infancy (no boom and bust like dot.coms!!). Most have yet to establish strong credentials among the profession or user community (many knowledge management professionals still tend to regard another profession as their primary profession). Several associations are vying to set themselves apart from the rest. But don't be swayed by influential sounding names like Institute, Board or International. Look at their services and what they can offer in terms of helping you. Talk to colleagues to find out which (if any) association best meets your needs.

Any association that wants want to be successful into the future must view knowledge as one of its primary assets - whether held as resources or as know-how in their network that can be exchanged. Knowledge associations should be in an ideal position to apply some of the tools and techniques of knowledge management - creating valuable knowledge-bases for the KM community, validating knowledge quality, establishing thriving knowledge exchange networks and trading platforms, influencing the wider business community - by creating a thriving knowledge-based service business and setting a leading example for other professional associations. At the moment, I don't see any of the current KM associations taking that leadership position - but you may disagree. It could be that until KM is much more widely accepted as a distinct discipline that there is little need for specialist KM networks or associations? It could be that KM is so generic that sharing KM knowledge is adequately addressed by existing professional associations or networks? It could simply be that knowledge professionals do not see the benefits of joining a knowledge association? Let's hear your views.

Email: david@skyrme.com

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© Copyright, 2000. David Skyrme Associates Limited and Authors - All rights reserved.

I3 UPDATE / ENTOVATION International News is a joint publication of David Skyrme Associates Limited and ENTOVATION International Limited - providers of trends analysis, strategic advice and workshops on knowledge management and knowledge innovation®

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