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September 2002    Main Feature
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No. 65
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Managing editor:
David J. Skyrme

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KM Standards: Do We Need Them?

David J. Skyrme

The announcement by GKEC (see Knowledge Digest) of a international standards effort in knowledge management raises a fundamental question of why we need standards, plus many supplementary ones, of how should they be developed, validated and used.

Why Standards?

Before looking at the reasons applicable to KM, the reason most commonly given as to why standards are needed is the following:

    compatibility and interchangeability - components can plug and play with one another
  • common understanding - especially in language and to some extent in practices e.g. does your "knowledge mapping" mean the same as mine?
  • fficiency - adherence to common standards means that existing learning can readily be applied in new situations / organizations
  • competitiveness - use of standards leads to competition among suppliers, thus enhancing product quality and reducing prices
  • quality and safety - enforcing standards can result in higher levels of quality and safety
  • enhancing levels of competence - through better promulgation of best practice or accrediting professionals.

All are laudable aims, and standards have undoubtedly helped in the area of manufactured products by ensuring compatibility and larger markets. The case of video tapes is a good example, where adherence to the VHS standard means that you can buy or rent a video and be reasonably sure it will work on your VCR. It is also a good example in that in the early days there were battles between competing standards (Betamax format was deemed technically superior but lost out to market forces, and although over 18 million units have been sold, Sony is finally stopping production this year.). There are also standards within standards e.g. VHS PAL and SECAM for different types of TV.

In the software area, many standards are being developed that will help (explicit) knowledge sharing, many boosted by the interest in collaborative commerce and web services. Such standards include WSDL (Web services description Language) and UDDI (Universal Description and Discovery Language). Other standards help to describe knowledge objects and relationships and underpin development of the semantic web e.g. RDF (Resource Description Framework) and XTM (XML Topic Maps), the latter being international standard ISO 13250. ( http://www.xml-acronym-demystifier.org will help you wade through a long list of alphabet soup of XML and its standards.)

However, in the field of business methods, standards are mostly concerned with "best practice". The best example is the ISO 9000 and its related quality standards. A standard can be more or less precise. Over time, best practice may be codified into a set of rules, for example, the rules and regulations for ship design of Lloyd's Register, that have evolved continuously since 1760. And if they are recognized as valuable by the wider (e.g. buying) community, or even backed up by the force of law, then it may be difficult to operate outside these standards. Knowledge management can certainly benefit from the spreading of good practice, and that is where most standards effort is currently focused. Let's examine some of the current initiatives.

GKEC / ANSI

The Global Knowledge Economics Council is renowned for its high profile self-publicity and earlier this year became an ANSI accredited Standards Developer. It is currently forming a number of committees to propose ANSI standards for knowledge management, including vocabulary, metrics, methods, higher education etc. and is currently recruiting members for these committees - see http://www.kmstandards.org. GKEC claims: "if you do not submit your ideas, they will not be included in the American National Standards and in the ISO standards." Like many of GKEC's claims in the past, you should not take this statement at face value. Last year it made claims that it was "the U.S. Knowledge Management (KM) and Knowledge Economics (KE) Standards representative to the International Standards Organization (ISO)". The actual position was clarified in a statement rebutting several of GKEC's claims on standards and certification issued in by KMCI (Knowledge Management Consortium International) last July (click here for link) and GKEC has now withdrawn this pretentious claim.

ANSI is just one of many member bodies of ISO (BSI and SAI - see below - are others). Furthermore, ANSI puts any proposals out to consultation as it stated in a letter to KMCI: "ANSI will subject the proposal and justification study to an open commenting period to all ANSI members and to the general public. This will generally be a two to three month commenting period." The ANSI standards development process emphasizes due process, openness, lack of dominance and balance. Even more recently (15 September) KMCI has rebutted other "consumer warnings" by GKEC about KM accreditation programs.

GKEC seems to be one of those organizations that competes aggressively, sails close to the edge (or allegedly over the edge) in its claims on standards and certification programs and stirs up controversy. However, it is accredited as an ANSI standards developer, so you should at least keep tabs on what it is up to. It is not, however, the only show in town.

Standards Australia International - SAI

Standards Australia International (a country member of ISO) is developing a set of interim KM standards - http://www.knowledge.standards.com.au. A division of SAI - Business Excellence Australia - created a community of interest of knowledge professionals to develop some proposals. It states its rational thus:

"Put yourself in the shoes of a person charged with developing a knowledge management (KM) strategy for the organization. This person has access to consultants, academics, thought-leaders and associations all have valid views of how knowledge management should be applied. However, with hundreds of organisations around the world putting forward KM methodologies it is easy to become confused. With so many competing methodologies, which are they to choose and how do they start?"

Last year, it issued its first handbook HB-275-2001 which summarizes key KM practices and proposes a framework for developing KM initiatives. It is currently validating and refining the framework and aims to issue an interim KM standard later this year. It claims that organisations adopting this framework "can be sure that they are on the path to best international practice". It makes clear that the strand "is not a normative (prescriptive) reference for compliance". This, also like BSI (see below), seems a sensible stance to adopt.

British Standards Institution - BSI

BSI (http://www.bsi-global.com) was the world's first national standards body and evolved from the Engineering Standards Committee founded in 1901. Today, it has many business standards and is also involved in a recently launched pioneering e-business best practice and standards portal (http://www.ukpeb.org). With support from PriceWaterhouseCoopers it published last year its guide 'Knowledge Management: A Guide to Good Practice'. The guide addresses four pertinent questions:

  1. Why should organizations care about KM?
  2. How should organizations approach KM?
  3. Benefits anticipated from investing in KM?
  4. Moving towards a deeper understanding of KM.

The guide is reasonably comprehensive in scope and appears to have a good structure and layout, and like many formal documents uses indented paragraph numbering e.g. 3.2.3.1. However, the flow does not always seem logical and often the coverage seems out of balance. For example, there is a page each on the KM contribution to customer relationship and risk management, but only a paragraph on its contribution to business improvement. Similarly the only two scenarios on "initial approaches to KM" are for start-up companies and SMEs (Small to Medium-sized Enterprises). Once you overlook these idiosyncrasies, however, there is some solid guidance on activities like knowledge audits, developing defining a KM strategy, developing the "right" culture for KM, creating communities of practice and managing content.

It also has a comprehensive bibliography, glossary, some self-assessment questionnaires and check-lists, and over 100 "real-life examples of good practice", though many are only one or two sentences in length.

A publication such as this does raise the question of how a "guide" from a standards body is different from any other knowledge management report. For example, it covers similar ground to that covered in the Skyrme and Amidon report Creating the Knowledge-based Business, published in 1997, and frequently not to the same depth. Likewise, APQC have published guides on specific topics based on in-depth multi-client studies. To be fair, the BSI views the guide as the first in a series that it promises will cover more specialized topics such as culture, measurement (both due for publication Q4), and potentially in the future communities of practice and knowledge sharing.

In terms of developing a 'standard', the foreword to the guide expresses a view that over time it might evolve into a standard. A spokesperson for the BS said last week that it was taking its KM standards work forward as part of a European wide effort through CEN (see below) in the form of a Workshop Agreement.

Comité Européen de Normalisation - CEN

CEN (http://www.cenorm.be), the European Committee for Standardization, promotes "voluntary technical harmonization in Europe" by working through the national standards bodies of the EU, EFTA, the Czech Republic and Malta. Once European standards are ratified, member countries "must implement such standards as national standards, withdrawing all conflicting national standards on the same subject."

The CEN KM work builds on activities started by the European Commissions' KnowledgeBoard Framework and Standards SIG

http://www.knowledgeboard.com/community/zones/fs.html. A series of meetings on standards that started at the KM Europe 2001 in The Hague last November, and building on the BSI work, culminated in the kick-off CEN Workshop on KM attended by 40 participants on 24 June - see http://www.cenorm.be/isss/Workshop/km/Default.htm. At this workshop it was agreed to develop a European Guide to Good Practice in Knowledge Management with the intention of providing "meaningful and useful guidelines, notably for SMEs". Topics will cover terminology, framework, measurement and metrics, implementation and organizational culture. By December it hopes to have:

- a final proposed set of 30 terms and definitions
- a draft of a "European KM Framework"
- a draft of a "Guide to Organizational Culture and KM"

International Standards Organization - ISO

The best known international body is the ISO (International Standards Organisation http://www.iso.ch). Its members are the national standards bodies and it has issued over 13,000 standards. Development of a standard goes through six phases. It starts with a proposal for a standard that must demonstrate evidence of need. After preparatory drafts are developed, the enquiry stage sends the proposed standard out for comments.

Development of any KM standard will undoubtedly depend on the outcome of the various national and regional initiatives, such as those mentioned above. So don't expect anything for the next year or so.

The Fun Begins

There's an in-joke among standards professionals along the lines of: "The nice thing about standards is that there are so many to choose between". Even once approved, any standard, ISO or otherwise, is only helpful if there is widespread acknowledgement of its value, particularly among those who can influence the community at large. Thus some ISO standards have fallen into disuse, being overtaken by de facto standards, set for example by a group of manufacturers.

Unlike product standards, which are difficult enough to achieve, standards in a complex field like KM are even more of a potential minefield, for several reasons:

  • KM is very broad ranging and its implementation varies widely across different organizations, especially those with different cultures, activities and sectors
  • KM's pace of development is faster than that of the bureaucratic procedures of standards bodies, where standards are typically set for a period and only revised at intervals; already some terms in the glossary in the BSI guide look outdated (though a new glossary is promised soon); therefore any standards will need to be kept current to maintain usefulness and available online.
  • What is the appropriate level of depth for a standard? If a standard is to provide good practice guidance, can it provide sufficient detailed guidance as to be useful for implementers?
  • Who has the share of mind? Will practitioners and potential beneficiaries take any more notice of "standards" than they will what they read in magazines, hear at seminars (I don't recall a talk on KM standards at any mainstream KM seminar) or from external consultants?

Nevertheless, KM is too important that some move towards developing 'standards' should not be attempted. I would advocate the emphasis on developing understanding, sharing good practice and striving for a degree of harmonization where it would help global cooperation. For example, the following topics are generic enough that some standard or at least guidance might help:

a) terminology - some standard terminology that would be universally recognized.
b) guidelines on SOME methods or techniques
c) SOME competency standards for KM professionals.

At this stage, I would not push too hard (i.e. avoid detail, though it could cover some broad principles) at areas where there are highly context specific differences, such as measurement or frameworks. In any case, I find that most organizations are more effective if they develop their own frameworks and metrics specific to their organizational context. Even so, any standards that are developed can only be considered a 'standard' if widely accepted by the practitioner community. Significantly, ISO's first of five key strategies for the years 2002-4 is is to "increase ISO's market relevance", which perhaps suggests that its activities have not been as relevant as they should have been in the past.

Rather vocal about the role of ISO standards are the views expressed by KMCI as illustrated by these excerpts from this press release of 15th September:

"In the view of KMCI therefore, it is inappropriate for KM organizations to recognize the authority of ANSI or ISO in setting standards for KM."
"Knowledge Management and KM organizations must recognize that it is fundamentally wrong-headed to pursue KM standards through ANSI, ISO, or any organization external to the KM field itself. To be true to KM, we must police ourselves and our standards must emerge from our own disciplinary processes of knowledge production and integration and in particular from our own process of knowledge claim evaluation rather than ANSI's or ISO's."

A more measured view is that of the BSI. In a recent position statement (PDF) it takes the view that it is too early to develop "too rigid a framework or too narrow a view of this rapidly developing field" and that it should seek to develop "informed clarity". I concur.

Finally, let me offer a couple of observations of the effects of business standards I have seen in other fields. It has taken a decade or more to develop ISO 9000 quality standards, yet my own experience says that though an organization may follow all the tick boxes, being accredited to ISO 9000 is no guarantee of good customer service. Also, in the field of management consultancy, while professional bodies heavily promote their accreditation schemes, I have found few clients who insist that consultants have such a qualification. They judge a consultant by his or her reputation and experience, and as often as not through person referral.

So do we need KM standards? Yes and no. We do need a well maintained and highly respected synthesis of good practice. No, we don't need inflexible frameworks promoted by standards afficionados. My advice is to follow the work of these KM standards initiatives with interest (we'll try to keep you informed of developments). They will undoubtedly publish some good material. But in the end you must make your own judgement as to how valuable such standards are when compared to the numerous other rich source of knowledge you can access about knowledge management.

In the end, the market will decide.


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