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October 2002    Feature
a free monthly briefing on the knowledge agenda
No. 66

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Managing editor:
David J. Skyrme


Whither KM Standards?
What Our Readers Say

David J. Skyrme

In my feature article on standards last month, I questioned whether they were premature and what purposes they could fulfil. I highlighted several standards initiatives, and was somewhat critical of some of them. I invited feedback, and I got a lot. Here some typical general responses:

"Thanks David, Looks like a good balanced overview. Many thanks." (Paul McNeillis, British Standards Institution).

"Thanks for the terrific newsletter. The 'standards' topic was timely. I am helping with an initiative at George Washington University... that is aimed at a 'Unified Framework for Knowledge Management'." (Larry Todd Wilson, Knowledge Harvesting Inc.)

Chris McCrae brought to our attention the importance of context which he wrote about in an article in the Standards SIG of KnowledgeBoard ( Here is an extract, referring to a specific set of proposed standards:

"knowledge management standards have a virgin-like innocence unless you accept that their practical details can be diametrically opposite depending on the conversational context. It is possible, for example, that a best practice of a CoP designed around continuous individual learning could be the opposite of one when the implementation of a CoP is being done to change a whole organisation's system."

In my article I did highlight some differences of opinion and also - probably mistakenly - highlighted a rift in view of two US-based organizations. Bob Bater of InfoPlex was one of several respondents who took me to task for this:

"Once again, a very timely I3 Update! I agree wholeheartedly with your treatment of KM standards. But I think we in Europe should steer well clear of the rift between KMCI and GKEC. It offers little to advance our understanding of KM, since it is based, in my opinion, purely upon competitive instincts."

I received several responses from members of both 'competing' organizations, but since these columns are not intended as a public sounding board for them to air their differences, the extracts below are purely comments they have made on the issues raised in our article. Mark McElroy, for example, raises the very interesting notion that standards themselves are knowledge, and that the standard setting process is therefore a knowledge standard:

"I wanted to thank you for the coverage you gave in your newsletter to the all-important issue of standards in KM. It occurs to me, however, that an important point may well have been missed along the way. And that is that if you agree with us (KMCI) that KM is about managing the production and integration of knowledge, then you must see that that is precisely what the ISO, ANSI, BSI, and other standards-setting organizations are already doing. After all, what is a standard if not a 'knowledge claim'? What sense, then, does it make for an industry that is looking for standards regarding our capacity to produce and integrate new knowledge to turn to organizations that already purport to do so for related standards? Indeed, if what we're looking for is standards on how to produce and integrate knowledge in the realm of human affairs, then why not just adopt the ISO, ANSI, and BSI procedures for doing so and call it a day?"

Ed Swanstrom of GKEC writes more specifically about certification programmes:

"There are many KM certification programs around the world. About 15 in all. GKEC believes that all KM Certification should following ISO 17024 rules being an ANSI organization that it is."

He makes the point that competing schools do work together in setting certification standards:

"I believe competition is good for the quality of KM courses. But I believe that we should all have third-party auditing to make sure the program is of quality."

Joe Firestone of KMCI:

"I'd also like to thank you for your discussion of the standards issue. I agree with each of you in thinking that standards in Knowledge Management are premature. As Jan Hoffmeister, one of our Board members says, standards are premature until there is broad agreement in a field on principles, and KM is only now coming out of the initial chaotic phase of its development and beginning to work on those principles. So Jan, and I agree with him, sees KM standards as quite a few years away."

On the process of setting standards "when the time is ripe", Joe says that any KM standards setting organization should have:

  • background and experience in explicit Knowledge Management activity
  • a knowledge production process that has been tested and evaluated from a KM point of view
  • a continuous process of error elimination in search of the right standards rather than a consensus process.

He questions which - if any - of the organizations already active in the KM standard setting process, fulfil these criteria? He proposes that "there should be a number of alternative efforts at standards formulation; the field is far too diverse for people to collaborate comfortably under any single umbrella organization."

From several of the above remarks it is clear that competitive collaboration - or is it collaborative competition - is alive and well!

To conclude, we cite Debra Amidon, another who goes on record as an advocate of standards, but not quite yet..

"personally and professionally believe that the standards that are being 'established' and 'enforced' are quite premature. I am not convinced yet - and I have been toiling in these fields explicitly for 15 years - that we have a common language and shared vision - never mind desirable methodologies. Most of what I have seen is IT-, quality- and/or change management-reborn. However, those familiar with my work (and biases) know that I am a vocal advocate of establishing standards rather than following best practices - which, I believe, is a prescription for failure.

In my book - Innovation Strategy for the Knowledge Economy, I dedicated an entire section of the final chapter to the topic."

So, thanks for your responses, but let's close the debate for now, at least until Spring 2003 or thereabout when it might be timely to do an update - unless, of course, you bring to my attention some really significant developments that cannot wait!

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