08 July 2014

Traditional KM has lost the plot

For the past two decades or so, KM has grown into an established practice, especially in large organisations where the need for capturing, re-using and sharing valuable knowledge is a challenge proportional to the size. Some organisations even appointed a Chief Knowledge Officer. The KM community has had numerous successes and agreed on best practices and standard tools and techniques. The goal of KM could be defined as leveraging value-adding knowledge produced and/or utilised throughout the organisation, in order to achieve and sustain competitive advantage.

But where does this valuable knowledge resides/originates from? It resides/originates with/from the minds of an organisation’s extended workforce (employees, contractors, strategic partners) (*). What organisations therefore need is for this extended workforce to share this knowledge as easily as possible, in order for any valuable knowledge to be used at the right time by anyone anywhere anytime. In other words, what is needed is an organisational culture conducive to such pervasive knowledge sharing: A collaborative culture. This is particularly important for organisations thriving on continuous innovation.

So, considering the above, one would think that the KM community should have been not only welcoming but indeed driving social collaboration. Social collaboration is about facilitating (to the point of commoditising it) and encouraging (rewarding/recognising) the sharing of valuable expertise, knowledge, insight, ideas, across the organisational natural and artificial borders (geographical, functional, hierarchical, operational, etc…) or in other words, breaking down the “knowledge silos”.

Strangely though, a large number (I think the majority although I do not have any verified data to support this) of KM professionals did not directly contribute to the introduction of social collaboration within their organisation (even less took the lead for it) and once implemented, refused to accept it as a part of KM. It is as if they are collectively stuck in a worldview where KM requires well defined and rigorous structures and processes in order to deliver any value.

The value of a given piece of knowledge is context-dependent. In other words, its value is realised when an individual - or a group of individuals – applies it the right way in the right place at the right time. The larger the Organisation, the more difficult it is to expand and replicate throughout the Organisation the value generated by traditional KM within specific business units or activities. The only way to unlock and leverage the dormant valuable knowledge throughout the organisation is to provide integrated collaboration tools for everyone and establish a collaborative culture. The former consumerizes knowledge sharing internally, and the latter normalises it through adapted behaviours and recognition and reward mechanisms.

An Organisation’s KM community must be fully aligned with social collaboration initiatives because they are the best equipped professionals – in terms of experience and expertise - to make these initiatives realise their full potential soon enough to gain significant competitive advantage.

(*) A relatively popular school of thought considers that knowledge can in fact only reside in our minds. Once we attempt to extract it and code it for sharing and re-use, it becomes information. If philosophically this view is worth debating, in a business context, it does not help anyone understand better the challenges faced by KM. On the contrary it tends to confuse the issue so I personally prefer assuming that valuable knowledge can indeed be passed on in a coded (written) form.