Will KM survive?

October 28, 2007 at 2:30 am Leave a comment

Kim photoWell, I’m hoping ThinkingShift good friend, Patrick Lambe over at Green Chameleon, is not quite as depressed as he seemed to be the other day with his post on Do Knowledge Managers Really Want to Share Knowledge? If I may summarise, Patrick was bemoaning the distinct possibility that KM professionals are great at prodding others to share, but perhaps do not display selfless, collaborative behaviour within the profession itself. And with the inexperience that a lot of people in KM seem to have, it’s important to share success stories, failures and lessons learnt so that access to KM experience is gained.

Patrick checked out posts on the ACT-KM forum for a 3 month period – July to September 2007 – and found that vendors (someone who sells KM services or technology) dominate 72% of the forum’s conversation and that 91% of posts are by men. Well, this pretty well plummeted me into whatever depression Patrick was feeling! It’s not that I didn’t know or suspect this – I will confess to being an occasional lurker in a number of KM forums and I rarely post a thing.

Now, this is not because I’m a nasty piece of works or competitive or unwilling to share. Really, it’s because I have become fed up with a couple of things: firstly, the chest-beating and thumping that goes on in the KM space and the navel gazing about theories of knowledge. If KM is going to survive, it needs to step up a notch or two and offer up practical ways KM can assist an organisation. Secondly, the KM conference circuit business: glittering success stories trotted out to say “aren’t we a great company, we share knowledge, come and work for us because we make no mistakes”.

Before you hit the Comment button, yes, I have been on the conference circuit but have largely withdrawn myself because I don’t wish to become fossilized as a “usual suspect”. There are of course some speakers who have a lot of good things to say and conferences are a way for KM people to learn and share. But largely, it’s a process that’s been hijacked by commercial conference organisers or companies trying to attract new hires. Let me tell you a few things – I work in an Australian Government agency and I work with communities of practice. Are they the shining golden CoP examples outlined in Etienne Wenger’s book? Probably not. It’s a bit like law: you study law thinking that you will be able to help the disadvantaged or defeat the unscrupulous with the pristine hand of a high and mighty law. Well, having worked in law for some years, I can tell you the theory and the practice are sometimes worlds apart. So it is with KM. You read the latest KM book, dive into Nonaka and Takeuchi, come up for air and then….you face the reality of an organisation. You are inspired and enthusiastic, but the wheels of bureaucracy are often rustier than you’d hoped for and so KM moves slowly or doesn’t move at all. Working in KM can be a sobering experience; it’s not for the bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. I believe the main skill for a KM practitioner is that of resilience – in the face of defeat or challenges, how do you adapt, how do you recover quickly from the management blows and keep “soldiering on”? And so back to my CoPs: you try to “sell” a particular idea, it doesn’t work; so you go about it another way until you are successful. KM people have to be a mix of politician, negotiator, influencer, boundary spanner, fox terrier biting the ankle and never letting go. But above all, resilient.

But I have digressed as this isn’t what Patrick was saying. He’s asking what is it about KM professionals that we’re not bold enough, loud enough or generous enough to survive as a profession. Worse, maybe we’re negligent? Where’s our code of conduct and ethics? Where’s our Hippocratic Oath to treat all KM colleagues fairly and preserve the life of KM? .

He talked about the ACT-KM discussion forum. I think this forum is a good space for KM practitioners and I have high regard for how Patrick and Dave Snowden embolden this community and occasionally set the fur flying! Frankly, I don’t know where they get the time as I struggle with work, blogging and teaching. But….maybe if the forum were divided into levels of practice so that there was a special area for the inexperienced KM’er to find easy to understand thought pieces on KM or FAQs or case studies. Another area for the highly experienced KM’er who wants to grapple with theory or debate issues. Maybe a space for sharing articles, books, resource lists. Each space is moderated but above all, there’s a special place for the inexperienced KM’er who won’t perhaps be frightened off by abstract, theoretical discussions. And the moderator could be a highly experienced practitioner acting as an elder for the inexperienced community and this elder role rotates frequently. Obviously, this is what the forum is aiming to achieve anyway, but it’s one big discussion pool in which people can easily sink. I’m not sure this is an answer at all. Because as Patrick says, forums are ideal habitats for display behaviours of those in the KM species who like to preen themselves.

Will KM survive? I believe it will but it needs to lose the “knowledge management” tag. It needs to realise that it’s one of a number of approaches that when combined with other approaches like information management, anthropological techniques, narratives etc forms a powerful menu of offerings that an organisation can leverage according to its context. I think KM has to be less precious about itself and KM people have to realise that they alone do not have the silver bullet. And it is about “selling” – how you choose to present KM to senior management and staff will dictate its success. If its precocious and wrapped up in jargon, it will fail. If it offers easier ways for people to make sense of a complex environment; or if it helps people use tools to collaborate better; or if it works strategically with other areas like Learning and HR to offer a blended solution, then KM will thrive.

Okay off my soap box :)-

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Entry filed under: Knowledge Management.

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