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Project Management for Information Technology

Knowledge Management: Fad or the Future?

Posted by iammarchhare on 27 July 2009

Is Knowledge Management dead or does it need to be revived and updated?

I have worked on Knowledge Management (KM), and I have to tell you it is amazing that anyone gets anything done in medium to large companies.  Everything is “tribal knowledge”, passed down orally or on scraps of electronic paper (such as emails) within each group from employee to employee.  No central person or group understands what information is needed, where it is stored or how to get to it.

The excellent PM Tips blog gave a pointer to an article on Social Computing Journal, a site which I had not come across previously.  I don’t know about the rest of the site,but the article by Dave Pollard titled “What’s Next After Knowledge Management? A Scenario” hits the nail right on the head, IMO.

Organizations are basically still organized the same way they were in 1975.  Senior Management sits back and makes decisions based upon a limited set of key information.  No one tells the boss bad news, so the boss is oblivious to front-line problems.  By the same token, employees are not privy to most of the information needed to make the top-level decisions or about what other parts of the company are doing.  Therefore, little is done to prepare employees to move up in the organization.  Worse, Gen Y is much more likely to work for numerous companies than ever before, not giving them any time to truly learn how the business operates.

The tragedy is that often neither they nor their senior managers think they need to know what the business is all about, unless and until they become senior managers themselves. So most employees spend their entire careers feeling under-appreciated, disconnected, unconsulted, and annoyed at stupid instructions and useless information requests from management. An they have a ton of very useful information about customers, operational ineffectiveness, and what’s going on in the world and the marketplace, that is never solicited, and never proffered.

KM is supposed to be about being able to find the right information when you need it.  Yet, most attempts have been fragmented and half-hearted.  Those are my words, BTW, based upon my experience, which seems to correlate well with Pollard’s stance.  There tends to be a “library management” view, a “technology project” view and a “training people” view of how KM should work.  To make it worse, though, senior management at best might view it cynically as a way to reduce costs but nothing that will add real value to their jobs.

In short:

In other words, in adding to the volume and complexity of information systems, we have added relatively little value, and in some cases actually reduced value. The reason for this is simple:

  1. We have not done anything to substantively improve the ability of senior management to manage the business (i.e. to manage cash flow, share price, risks or opportunities).
  2. We have not done anything to substantively improve the effectiveness of any of the information flows (arrows in the above diagram) that matter in organizations, or the quality of the information.

We have, in short, implemented a solution that addressed no problem. We introduced new KM tools because we could.

Ouch!  That hurts!

To make matters worse, paranoid companies actually make it harder, not easier, to find the information needed.  The needed information is usually “out there” in the wild, wild west of the worldwide web.  It may be in webmail, which I’ve seen many places restrict access to (forcing you to do stupid things like forward mail back and forth).  It may be on YouTube in an instructional video.  Pollard lists other activities that in some cases I’ve seen get restricted in the name of “security”.

So, you end up with an employee that hasn’t been around long enough to know the company, has information scattered all over, and the best they can do is scour an inefficient intranet that may or may not contain the information they need.

Yep, that pretty much sums up most large companies, I’d bet.

HOWEVER, Pollard goes on to discuss how KM will actually be very much needed in the future.  In fact, even now employees are finding ways around obstacles.  Pollard then updates the 1975 flow of information model to one that might work in the future.

I say “might” as in, companies still have a choice as to whether or not they innovate or die.

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2 Responses to “Knowledge Management: Fad or the Future?”

  1. Phil said

    You touched on a key point here that I agree is a huge issue in a lot of large organizations today. You said “Everything is “tribal knowledge”, passed down orally or on scraps of electronic paper (such as emails) within each group from employee to employee. No central person or group understands what information is needed, where it is stored or how to get to it.”

    This is a huge problem in enabling organizations to communicate better, especially front line sellers. This “tribal knowledge” is what can be most valuable to the individual, so finding a way to institutionalize this data (harness, promote and give feedback) is critical.

    Like you said, and I agree with – this is a challenge that faces virtually every company today (getting every customer facing employee to articulate value and differentiate.) with traditional KM you might be able to get some of the formal content in to the hands of your people (if they can find it in the portal maze) but you are still missing out on the real value found in the knowledge of the tribe.

    I look forward to reading more from you in the future.

  2. You bring up an important point that Pollard actually could have elaborated on more, I think. We don’t get what we want from KM because companies either ignore the tribes or place so many burdens upon them that cooperation is lacking in order to get “real work” done. Pollard does talk about working around obstacles, but only in the context of how individuals work and not teams (or, “tribes”). Traditional KM tries to do its job by getting teams to feed into it the way the tool works. Teams have working habits as well, and KM needs to fit how they work.

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