Whence goeth KM?

November 21, 2006

One of the questions at KM World was the now familiar question: Is KM dead? My view for about two years now is that it is on its last leg as a strategic movement (otherwise known as a fad) in management. We also have that infallible predictor that a fad cycle is coming to an end: government adopts it as industrial best practice.

Now don’t get me wrong, the objectives of KM theory and practice persist and will continue to be of great importance. They are clear, simple and important and can be summarised as follows:

  1. To support effective decision-making
  2. To create the conditions for innovation

All the methods and tools of KM from communities of practice to corporate taxonomies are subordinate to those two primary goals. In so far as the IT function supports those goals and continues to use the term KM then it will persist. However the strategic aspect of KM has now shifted, I think to the general topic of sense-making. I define sense-making as how do we make sense of the world so we can act in it. Many readers will recognize this as similar to a lot of the better KM definitions which were action-orientated. The innovative use of collaborative technology, which was also a driver of KM (remember Notes?) is now firmly labelled as social computing and many of the leaders of that movement avoid the KM label.

I know the above comments will offend a lot of people with “KM” in their job title, but I think we have to accept that KM as a subject is now inextricably bound up with IT. If you look at the US and UK conferences they have all been combined with technology events (content management, internet etc) to attract in sponsors. Most of the academic literature I review deals with the technology aspects of KM.. Yes the name will persist, and yes interesting work will continue under that name but it is no longer strategic in the marketplace as a whole. The fad cycle moves on and that may be no bad thing as it creates novelty. It also gives those of us who always disliked the SECI model, and argued for the ambiguity and brilliance of human knowledge and interaction over attempts to make tacit knowledge explicit, to move that human-based thinking back onto the strategic agenda.

That said, it’s worth reflecting on KM not yet as in a wake, but more in affectionate preparation for that event; remember that in the Celtic tradition, a wake is a celebration, a moving on. So I offer these thoughts, in that spirit.

What is special about KM?

There is no question that there is something special about KM practitioners. They are passionate people, they care about informing people. Some are techno-fetishists in their love of technology, some focus on human interactions, but they all want people to share. KM has also been remarkably persistent. So why? What is so special?

  1. Well for a start KM did not have a single origin. If you look at BRP, LO, Blue Ocean etc etc then they all originate in a single author, a single book and linked consultancy practice. KM in contrast has multiple origins. Bob Buckman pioneering the use of collaborative computing; APQC organising the first major KM event; Larry Prusak and Tom Davenport moving into the space from Information Management (and with to my mind one of the best books in Working Knowledge); Gordon Petrash with IP work at Dow, Tom Stewart and Leif Edvinsson with Intellectual Capital Management; Elizabeth Lank, the unsung pioneer of the Knowledge Cafe. I could go on, but you get a sense of this. Major figures move into the space from different perspectives. All of that and the model that launched a thousand failed knowledge management initiatives but was the real kick-off point in 1995. That very diversity created a great deal of resilience. If you think about it, the individual aspects that I list largely ran their course. However, as a whole, they created something that has been largely self-organising and self-sustaining for over a decade.
  2. Then of course, KM is people focused. Most of the previous movements were very mechanical. BPR (and now six stigma) were the exemplar of the mechanical approach. However, all the other movements were top-down and directional. A significant amount of KM activity was bottom-up. Most of the early experiments in the community were people just taking up and using the tools to make things happen. As the tools have got easier to use the bottom-up approach has persisted and developed into social computing. KM also, gradually made people realise that Librarians know stuff about knowledge. A neglected profession started to gain some respect as KM grew and contributed hugely to its development and intellectual rigour. Also, the diversity of the subject brought a lot more people into play. Most of the other movements attract followers, but KM attracted original and often controversial thinkers.
  3. Finally, KM was important in releasing technology from the corporate strait jacket. Most people forget that when KM started computing was still fairly new. The internet was in its early stages, email was not yet universal and the sheer volume of information that is now available was hardly envisaged by other than an enlightened few. The first collaboration software in Lotus Notes was a part of the creation of KM as a discipline and many of the early applications were written in it. It was also user-friendly enough that people could start to build their own workflow and collaboration systems. Web sites, HTML etc etc all blossomed around this time and they co-evolved with the emerging ideas of KM to create the distributed, collaborative and information-rich environment in which we now live. The last decade has seen technology move from centralised and privileged control to distributed free access and use. KM was and is a part of that.

So what went wrong?

Well, not a lot, death is a part of the natural cycle of life and KM has (to use a British expression) had a good innings. However, somethings were and are wrong. Here is my provisional and partial list:

  1. The SECI model was a great way of explaining a particular aspect of Japanese industry, but a very bad general model of KM. It focused on the container not the thing contained (tacit in people, explicit written down), it led people to believe that you could make tacit knowledge explicit, and then make it tacit again simply by reading material. Early attempts at KM focused on removing dependency on people, “extracting” their knowledge into databases and organising it into neat and tidy taxonomies
  2. We got a little bit too obsessed with the technology. People read about Bob Buckman’s use of technology and forgot all the work he did to get people engaged across the company. Technology was an aspect of Buckman Labs, not the cause. The big consultancies entered the field and built KM systems for people who spent their entire lives writing reports and then tried to move those systems sideways into very different organisations. We then got into semantic technologies and a second wave of belief that AI could interpret and create knowledge. Those of us who made that mistake with Prologue back in the 80s saw our mistakes repeated in the failed attempt to replace the pattern basis of human intelligence with rule-based systems, or false assumptions about the nature of deep structures in language. KM became the domain of the technology companies – they funded its events after all.
  3. Then the death knell. People tried to create standards and certify competence in the subject. Most of the people who did this (and are doing it) have little pedigree in the subject, they are professional trainers. What they did with Project Management they would do with KM. At one stage we had ISO9001 battles. We still get attempts to control or dominate the space and regrettably, some good people are getting caught up in the hope that a professional body could perpetuate the life of KM. It’s not going to happen. The subject is too diverse. The BSI standards report was good because it said that there was no right answer, and recognised different approaches. The Australian standard was good because of the way it was socially constructed, although a downside was its LCD nature. But neither were able to establish themselves in a rapidly developing space. When people ask me where they should get a qualification in KM, I say don’t, do some philosophy, anthropology, and cognitive science at undergraduate level and you will know about KM that you will be taught in any University. If course if you want to go to one of the commercial “certifiers”. I know they say they are not for profit, but that is generally because the dominating personality has a training contract to the not-for-profit, from a for-profit private company.

So, where are we going? Well, I think the future is bright. With the benefit of hindsight, we will be able to say that KM was the discipline that first challenged the mechanical metaphor of BPR and the top-down-driven values of the LO movement. It made possible the wider integration of science with management and with learning from the humanities Sense-making and social computing are its natural inheritors and both have become stronger over the last ten years journey. Hopefully, the name will stay around for some years yet, but the strategic focus is now elsewhere.

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The Cynefin Company (formerly known as Cognitive Edge) was founded in 2005 by Dave Snowden. We believe in praxis and focus on building methods, tools and capability that apply the wisdom from Complex Adaptive Systems theory and other scientific disciplines in social systems. We are the world leader in developing management approaches (in society, government and industry) that empower organisations to absorb uncertainty, detect weak signals to enable sense-making in complex systems, act on the rich data, create resilience and, ultimately, thrive in a complex world.

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