Fighting the last war

July 4, 2009

The Federal KM listserv has been much occupied with the question of creating a federal CKO and knowledge centre. Some of that argument has also transferred across to ActKM, the lengthy stuff with lots of interleaved comments that these days I just delete without reading. Now a few of us have opposed the idea from day one. There are many reasons for this opposition, some of this relate to the dangers of creating centralised bureaucratic for functions that should be naturalistic in form. Creating centralised groups are mostly harmless to knowledge transfer largely because they do on impinge on the realities of practice. They create processes, reports, conferences and the like that may waste time but are not destructive per se. The real danger is that they raise expectations that cannot be satisfied and waste energy and time.

I have on several occasions asked the advocates what they plan to do differently in order to avoid these issues. In a posting to the listserv I said:

Its also worth remembering that those of us who are being negative have been around for a bit, we have seen many more failures that we have successes. Using that experience is one of the things knowledge management was meant to be about. We always learn more from failure than success  is an old adage which has scientific support. You could add to that but we do our best to pretend that the failure was a result of lack of management commitment, insufficient funding (or anyone of many excuses); anything other than questioning if it might be the wrong thing to do.

I was at a working group on small group command effectiveness in DC recently. Talking with people in special forces and marine units who operate in the field I was reminded of the old adage current generals always fight the last war. Understanding how to fight with many small groups, often commanded by a corporal, needing to understand local culture is a very different battleground from the Iran War or other large scale engagements. That appears to be understood at a junior officer level, but it has not fully penetrated “upstairs”

Much the same could be said of KM. We are dealing with fragmented, self assembling systems where the role of leadership is to manage constraints, not direct or consolidate activity in one place. Its not bottom up or top down, or even middle-bottom up, its about managing nodal networks and the techniques for that are the anthesis of “Centres”.

So far no one has addressed the question of what would be different if a Federal KM Centre was established, or how it would interact with other appointments. There seems to be an entrained pattern of belief, in the face of all the evidence to the contrary, that a Centre will solve the issues of cross-silo collaboration. The argument seems to be of the form We want collaboration, KM is about collaboration so set up a KM Centre and people will collaborate. The motivations are worthy (although I suspect at least one protagonist thinks he should have the role), but the ability to reflect and learn from the past seems absent. If something has failed then just doing the old things harder will not result in success.

Now the idea has been posted to the White House Open Government Initiative and all members are being lobbied to support, I quote:

By supporting the KM entries posted by Neil Olonoff and others with your high ratings, Knowledge Management will be a key component of the “Enhancing Intra- and Inter- Government Collaboration” recommendations for the President’s Open Government Directive!

Red capital letters never incline me to compliance and I am not a US citizen so will not register and vote. If I could then it would be against. The advocates of this approach are rather like first world war generals, throwing resources against entrenched positions to no purpose other than waste, using long outmoded tactics.

Aside from that the whole idea that you can list multiple initiatives and have a popularity contest represents a flawed approach both conceptually and practically to citizen engagement. I will return to that tomorrow.

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