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April 2003    Feature
a free monthly briefing on the knowledge agenda
No. 72

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Managing editor:
David J. Skyrme


Knowledge Reflections (2):
Making Sense of KM

David J. Skyrme

Last month I "reflected" on my lessons from nearly a decade of KM consulting - what recurring patterns were evident, how consultants add value and the pitfalls that clients frequently fall into. This month, I offer some thoughts on sensing where we are in KM, how it has evolved over time and how KM consultancy has changed.

The KM Journey

For many organizations KM is a journey - you pass interesting places, you learn more as you travel, you rejuvenate yourself, but there are the inevitable detours and dead ends. As for your ultimate destination - will you ever arrive? After all, when you arrive at one place, there is still more to be discovered. But the journey is not taken in isolation. Others are sharing in it, and new people come on board all the time. In looking at the evolution of KM, I suggest that our collective journey to date has covered these main stages:

  • BC - 1995AD: The Pre-Dawn of Realization - Ever since our ancestors shared their knowledge of hunting and of how to make fire, people have practiced KM. It was simply that until 1995 (when two major consultancies organized strategic knowledge symposia) the KM label was rarely used and its terminology and practices had not reached the consciousness of mainstream managers.

  • 1995 - 1997: Awakening/Emergence - KM conferences and some early books help make knowledge a strategic consideration for leading companies, especially in knowledge-intensive industries like hi-tech, pharmaceutical, oil. These companies made a conscious and explicit focus on knowledge as a (re)source of strategic advantage.

  • 1997 - 1998: Bandwagon/Relabelling - Many suppliers, especially software suppliers, substitute 'knowledge management' for 'information management' or relabel their document management and many other types of system as 'knowledge management systems' (or even suites). We discussed the relabelling phenomenon in I3 UPDATE No. 12, commenting that if relabelling gives KM the attention it deserves - that's fine; although in general it created the wrong impression that KM was purely a 'technology solution'.

  • 1998 - 2002: Segmentation/Consolidation - Two contrary forces are at work. On the one hand the discipline pervades geographically (from an initial North America, North Europe axis to world-wide) and segments into more focussed areas, for example KM in the public sector, KM for risk managers, KM as a marketing tool etc. On the other hand, what were once totally separate tools and techniques, such as e-learning, post project reviews, content management, taxonomies, are all seen as part and parcel of KM. In addition, where KM was once simply being piloted, it is now a core activity in a growing number of organizations.

  • 2003 - 2005: In Search of a New Identity - Like many other relationships, KM and its relationship with business is feeling the "seven year itch". Will it be subsumed into some other fashionable concept or discipline? Will it segment into ever more specialized disciplines like knowledge mapping and IC accounting? Will it become so embedded we don't need to give it a special focus? I don't know. But two things are certain - it will be different from KM today and it will not fade away. Knowledge as a strategic lever is now so fundamental.

One observation I can make is that many of the core issues that consultants address in KM projects are not KM-specific and continually resurface in business and management activity. One of the most common ones is that of the human-technology relationship. Technologists invent new and better technical solutions, then wonder why they don't work as planned. The answer is invariably the same - they didn't give due attention to the human factors: ranging from the user interface, training and development, through to individual psychology and social behaviours. Having a disciplined structured approach to major development projects is another. Therefore, if you have core skills in change management and many of the specific techniques of information and knowledge management (especially those with a strong human element), they are likely to be as much in demand in the future as in the past, in whatever form KM morphs itself into.

Shift of Foci

Throughout nearly a decade of evolution, there are a few significant mega-trends that have altered our perspective of KM and what is important. The main ones are:

  • Internal to External - many early KM initiatives were about "sharing best practice", "knowing what we know", "knowing who is expert" - all very much aimed at improving knowledge flows within an organization and improving business performance. However, even from the outset customer knowledge was recognized as perhaps the most important knowledge. Many KM initiatives now focus more explicitly on customer needs and building communities, that include both internal and external participants.
  • Sharing to Innovation - sharing what is already known will - once an initial surge of performance improvement has taken place - only result in incremental improvements. The quantum leaps in performance come from breakthroughs - improving the end-to-end time of a process by a factor of 10 or more, creating an entirely new solution to a difficult problem, creating a brand new market. Hence (as was indicated in our feature in last month's issue) a growing focus on innovation, and on the knowledge flows that make the innovation process more effective and likely to maximize new opportunities.
  • Enhancing traditional products and services to creating Knowledge products and services - surrounding a core product with knowledge-intensive services, such as consultancy and training, is a natural way of adding value. A bigger step is that of productizing and packaging knowledge so that it can be sold on its own. But that's just what a growing number of companies are doing, taking advantage of the Internet to market and distribute digital products.

These are not mutually exclusive, nor are they evident in all organizations. It's simply that taken as a whole, this is where the emphasis of KM initiatives has shifted over the last few years.

You'll notice that I've ignored any shift from technology to people focus. This is that although some people see this as a trend, others like myself have seen a balanced focus from the outset. This is not universal. There are industry and regional differences. KM in Scandinavia, for example, has always been seen as a social phenomenon. Elsewhere, many companies came into KM through Organizational Learning programmes. It's mainly some US companies and IT vendors who are belatedly recognizing the importance of human factors that are seeing this as a shift.

Consultancy - Then and Now

Against this backdrop of the evolution of KM, how has the nature of KM consultancy changed over the same period - what's the same, what's different? And remember, as I said in the first article, that the term 'consultancy' applies equally to many KM professionals working internally for their own organization. The main things that I do today that have not changed over time - I call them my unchanged assumptions - are:

  • People matter - find out what makes them 'tick'; knowledge management has to help them do their job better; and you must make it is easy for them to impart and share their knowledge; if it's an extra chore, apart from their main flow of work, then that's an extra challenge.

  • Multiple perspectives enrich understanding - every KM opportunity benefits from a socio-technical approach, blending human factors with technology, information/knowledge resource perspectives with activity/process perspectives (nouns and verbs) and so on.

  • Consider your customer's customers - the impact of knowledge does not end with your immediate customer. You have to help them offer a better product or service to their customer and so on down the knowledge value chain.

  • Workshops unlock knowledge quickly - there's nothing more likely to engender knowledge sharing and get creative juices flowing than a well prepared, structured and facilitated workshop. In the space of a few hours you can elicit as much knowledge as you would in several days of one-on-one interviews. Furthermore, a workshop starts the process of user engagement and ownership of the solution.

  • Be challenging and ambitious - one of the roles of a consultant is to stretch people's horizons and their ambitions. If a client wants to reduce the time it takes to update a knowledge database, pose the question of how it could be achieved in real-time. If they want to share information with a specific group of customers, ask what opportunities would be created by sharing it with all customers, suppliers and even competitors.

  • Show 'em as well as 'tell em - much better than writing systems specifications or reports with recommendations to others is to provide something demonstrable yourself (with a bit of help from your friends). Develop a prototype solution, run a knowledge sharing session, demonstrate proof-of-concept, set up a pilot project. Act as you want others to behave.

What's Changed

This last section is personal to me. Perhaps I should have adopted these practices from the outset. But through the process of "learning and reflecting" throughout my consultancy career (the theme that initiated these two articles), I now practice the following, whereas I rarely did a decade ago:

  • Identify all key stakeholders and their needs - find out who cares and who can (make something happen).

  • Find out what the project's really about - as KMers know, only about 10-20 per cent of knowledge is explicit; any brief or terms of reference are therefore the tip of the iceberg of the knowledge about the motivation for the project and stakeholder's hidden agendas.

  • Start with what's on their mind - change is more likely to happen if people can relate your proposal/solution to a concern they have or an opportunity they are pursuing; connecting to a person's reality is an effective way of making KM have practical relevance.

  • Make more use of analogues and anecdotes - many knowledge-related concepts are difficult to convey; but most people can relate to analogues and stories/anecdotes; it's no accident that storytelling is now seen as a legitimate and powerful way of communicating organizational knowledge.

  • Be more challenging and probing - interject more often with "why?" and "why not?" - but listen carefully to the responses and probe with further open-ended questions.

  • Provide richer outputs - technology now gives us the opportunity to create hypertext-rich documents (link directly to other sections, sources or additional material), mind-maps (though be careful your readers like this approach), multimedia clips and other ways of adding richness to knowledge transfer.

  • More 'packaging' of my knowledge - as well as applying my knowledge in context, an increasing proportion of what I know I package into 'knowledge assets' that can be re-used and adapted.

  • Less is more - it's often more challenging to get the essence of your advice into a few words. Limiting the length of your reports forces you to prioritise and articulate concisely (you can always have back-up material that your client can drill down into - or simply ask you in person).

This concludes my reflections and my sense of how KM has changed. What are your thoughts on the subject?

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