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June 2003    Feature
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No. 74
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Managing editor:
David J. Skyrme

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Knowledge Management:
Does It Deliver?

David J. Skyrme

Like many KM professionals, I feel passionate about our subject, and work hard to demonstrate its value to organizations. There are always sceptics in organizations who have a partial view of KM, who have heard (often third hand) of a poorly handled implementation and tar all KM with the same brush. Yet sometimes, even I start to wonder how effective KM really is. Does it deliver, and if not, what needs to be done?

Knowledge For What?

To be relevant knowledge management needs a focus. Who need's what knowledge? How does it add value? Ultimately any KM activity should contribute to a core goal, such as lower cost, increased revenues, better customer service or reduced risk. As a customer, I frequently encounter examples of poor service from organizations who are supposedly examples of good KM practice. You know the sort of thing. When you finally get through 'voice mail jail' to a human, your query is not immediately answered, someone will call you back but never does, and when you call again you have to repeat your query all over again. Naturally, knowledge management should help - for example through an integrated customer knowledge base and knowledge bases of problems/solutions and of products and their applications. But in any transaction, it's the weakest link in the supply chain that will affect the ultimate outcome. Similarly in an information or knowledge exchange, it's the weakest link in the knowledge flow that determines its ultimate effect. Find out where your bottlenecks are by starting with the customer experience and working back through your knowledge system.

Make Your People Knowledgeable ... and Customer-Concerned

It's no coincidence that e-learning, learning organization concepts and personal development and motivation are increasingly linked with knowledge management. After all, its people who usually have the most relevant knowledge (or know how to access it, either through their people or computer networks) and it's people who are often the main interface where knowledge flows. Back to the customer interface as an example. How many times do you feel that your customer contact does not really know about the products they are selling, or are merely repeating their sales spiel without listening to your specific needs? Part of the symptom is that many organizations, especially in the consumer retail sector, have high staff mobility. Why invest in staff training and development when they might not be here next year?

While access to knowledge (through others working alongside them) or through guidance material can help, it's ultimately the way that people interact that determine the experience. Even when they are knowledgeable, the thing that most customers remember is how satisfied they felt both about the outcome and the interaction. In one organization I worked for, customers preferred the maintenance engineer who kept them informed as to progress, what they had investigated, what they had eliminated as a problem cause and what they had replaced, rather than the more knowledgeable engineer who did the job quickly but without leaving the customer any wiser as to what had been done. Superior knowledge is no substitute for customer empathy and relationship development.

You Can Take A Horse to Water ...

Because many KM initiatives have focussed too narrowly on investment in IT solutions, I have seen many instances of a 'near perfect' technology solution but which is vastly under-used. What developers of such systems fail to realize is that we don't live in a perfect world. What's perfect on paper or when modelling the ideal business process sooner or later confronts reality - in the form of legacy practices or - horror of horrors - human beings! We talk about user-centric design and socio-technical systems, but I still often wonder whether information systems courses prepare developers for the fact that not everyone else thinks the same way they do. The perfect solution for a developer with the latest kit and access to a high-bandwidth reliable network falls down when ordinary people use ordinary technology and have demanding business tasks to perform under pressure.

Technology is supposed to be an enabler and a productivity tool. No amount of technology will help until it integrates seamlessly with people's work patterns. Users need to be involved from the outset of a project - and continuously. The days of signing off detailed data models and specifications with penalties for changes (i.e. being adaptable flexible to changing needs) should be a thing of the past, but I fear they are not.

It's The Way We Do Things Around Here

Lack of a knowledge sharing culture is often cited as a barrier to effective KM. Culture has been described as "the way we do things around here". But with new technological tools, introduction of new KM techniques and some fresh thinking, should we be satisfied with the established way? However good your KM approach if people's habits and behaviours are not in tune with the aim of a KM initiative (knowledge for what, customer-centric etc.) then it's an uphill battle. In I3 UPDATE No. 64 we suggested some ways to engender more of a sharing culture. But whatever the most desirable culture is within a given context, it's essential to "start where people are at". Give them insights into their values and patterns of behaviour (ENTOVATION uses a values inventory and approach that helps create this awareness) and show where they are congruent with and where they impede organizational aims. Then work on personal and team development initiatives, perhaps as a peer group or community - that gets everyone behind the broader organizational aims, so that new skills and new behaviours create win-win situations: a win for the organization in making KM work and a win for individual in terms of increased motivation and a more rewarding job.

The 4Ds of Success

The growing number of KM initiatives and case studies that demonstrate success, show that KM can indeed deliver. Yet, frequently it does not. In 1997 we (Debra and myself in the report: Creating the Knowledge-based Business) identified ten main pitfalls or obstacles to success. Five years on, our views are largely unchanged. The 10 obstacles are epitomized by the following approaches to KM:

  • Knowledge is simplified to information or database solutions, missing out on the richness of tacit knowledge.
  • Knowledge databases focus on that which is most readily available (vs. that which is the most useful).
  • KM activities take place in isolated pockets without strong senior management support.
  • The perspective is too narrow, not embracing a holistic approach (e.g. people, processes and technology).
  • A 'check-list' or 'cook-book' approach is followed; the richness of developing "deep understanding" and "learning as you go" is not appreciated.
  • Knowledge and KM is outsourced without appreciating what vital knowledge might be lost.
  • Technology (alone) is viewed as the solution.
  • There is a major cultural blockage, perhaps caused by a climate of "knowledge is power".
  • There is a given method that is not questioned; even a sense of arrogance "we know all the answers"; in other words, a lack of openness to new ideas and learning through challenging accepted wisdom.
  • Impatience. Knowledge management is viewed simply as a project rather than a journey of learning and something that needs time for new systems and behaviours to become embedded.

Turning this around, we listed ten characteristics of knowledge leaders, those who have delivered knowledge management successfully (see http://www.skyrme.com/pubs/leadlag.htm). Today we can summarize the ingredients of success simply as 4Ds:

  • Direction - develop a strong compelling vision of how knowledge and managing it better (also creating and diffusing new knowledge) can enhance desired outcomes; articulate the value proposition simply and clearly.
  • Diagnosis - understand where you are at, not just in terms of organizational readiness and capability and the plusses and minusses of existing systems and processes, but also the knowledge, skills and behaviours of individuals and various stakeholder groups.
  • Design - design a holistic system, one that melds the best of techniques, technologies and human capabilities; don't be too prescriptive; design some core principles and allow the 'system' to evolve.
  • Development - fill in the missing components; look to source them from elsewhere before 'reinventing the wheel'; an important element is likely to be personal development and training in new methods, techniques and systems.

None of these 4Ds are one-off activities. They are all inter-related and should be revisited regularly and iterated as you learn what works and what does not.

Get these four Ds right and the fifth one - successful Delivery - will surely follow.


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