The writer is Mathias Eberle, Knowledge Management Professional at itelligence AG
Do you remember the idea of a corporate wiki being pushed in your company? Do you remember seeing it fail? Why did this happen? Let’s have a closer look at what was called Knowledge Management (or KM) some years ago. Another hype, you’d say. Lean Process Management, Change Management, Business Process Re-engineering… But, as with all the buzzwords before, there are some lessons that can be learned from the early demise of the enterprise-goes-wiki-and-2.0 approach.
Can you change the world with a wink?
Last year, visiting a major conference on the topic, I realized that something really was wrong with the general idea of Knowledge Management. There was an official representing one of Germany’s largest employers presenting his wiki approach. Actually, he was an officer – he was with the German Armed Forces, an organization not exactly known for transparency, openness and communication across different levels of hierarchies. I was quite impressed and wanted to know more about KM being implemented in such a kind of organization. “Well, top-secret regulations are not mentioned, first of all”, he told me, adding that the system itself would only contain pages with links to protected file servers instead of having the documents being stored in the system. He continued to talk about user groups, permissions and monitoring systems. At the very end he had to admit the system had not even been completely rolled out. Still, the organization was proud to have a wiki installed and a theoretical concept of KM in place. The guy in charge, though, would leave the project soon as part on the Army’s job rotation concept, a suitable replacement not being in sight!
What is wrong here? Obviously, an organization that is not prepared to share knowledge by definition should not try to do so. Using KM as a good excuse for not changing your organization is a complete waste of money. And so we have seen many more advanced and ambitious KM concepts fail. Project managers thought, “Oh, my organization might not fit completely, but they will adapt”. But organizations are known to be conservative in general, and are sometimes a complete monster unable to undergo change at all. Or maybe they did not spend a thought on this at all, just being impressed by the concept of a wiki. How could we all be so blinded to imagine we could change this by just installing software? “People are going to love this, it’s so simple!” – Yes, some did. But did these few really make a difference in the longer term? Weren’t it just some developers and enthusiastic ‘lone wolves’? Did you think you could change the world with a wink?
Have you thought about the people? And your business?
When we started doing KM at itelligence, we tried to adapt and design a model that would take the problems depicted above into account. Company culture was one central item to think about. As a consulting company, itelligence already brought some of the prerequisites we thought to be necessary to be really successful with KM. The management was supportive of our efforts, as were many of the consultants that had a high affinity to new technologies in general. Still, we knew that consulting is a business looking at relatively short timescales, making quick wins for all employees essential.
We so decided to go with an approach focusing on
- People: We try to address questions of individual knowledge, training and lifelong learning. It seems imperative to raise awareness for the fact that we as consultants are, in fact, ‘knowledge workers’ (Peter Drucker). Thus, almost all of our work is managing ourselves, our personal abilities and our knowledge.
- Processes: These cover all possible interactions in the company, not only formal workflows, but also lunchtime chats in the cafeteria, for example. In processes, knowledge is being generated, used, re-used and forgotten again.
- Technology: In order to store pieces of data and information, technology can be used. The transition from (informal) knowledge to (formal) information is not easy and in some cases even impossible. Think about a baker trying to explain all the steps necessary to make bread. He could show you – but could he completely describe it?
This role model of KM was then implemented in the itelligence organization. Of course, wikis played a role in addressing the technology part. But for us it is always important to communicate that KM is there for the people, not vice versa. You learn a little bit of humility if you begin to understand that this is not just about the tools. Basically, KM is, in our view, all about the people, their processes, and their ways of doing things.
The future of a former buzzword
During the more than three years we have been active in this field we have seen many KM attempts of other companies failing. The main causes for this, in our view, were management and implementation errors: General management way too often failed to understand the strong implications for an organization as a whole. IT management and developers completely overestimated the value of just another tool for those departments not so often dealing with innovative technology. Project managers thought of KM to be ‘just another IT project’. Disappointment and chaos were sure to follow.
As we learned, KM has left the buzzword stage now, or as the Gartner Hype Cycle puts it, the trough of disillusionment is near. This does not mean at all that the general idea of KM has failed – it just seems to need some more thorough thinking: Who are the ones whose knowledge we would like to manage? What obstacles need to be overcome in non-technical ways? Enterprise software is becoming more and more available for KM, addressing one major factor of criticism – usability. Some KM initiatives have not failed but will stand out as landmark examples in just a few months, because they have more in view than just the technology. To quote Gartner again, the Plateau of Productivity is near. The real benefits will eventually change the way you share knowledge and the way you work – and possibly even the way you and your colleagues think, leading to a different kind of organization than what you have today.
We will keep you posted on this topic – itelligence is proud to have a working KM initiative using the concepts described above. Next time, we will be describing obstacles and favorable factors within a company more in-depth.
Stay tuned – keep networking!
Mathias Eberle, itelligence Knowledge Management team
1) Buzzwords at Google Insights for Search, © Google Inc.
2) KM Triangle, © itelligence AG
3) Gartner Hype Cycle, CC-BY-SA 3.0, Jeremy Kemp, https://secure.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/wiki/File:Gartner_Hype_Cycle.svg