Knowledge "Management"

Criticizing Knowledge Management is about as challenging as shooting ducks in a bathtub. Nonetheless, it's fun to look at the extremes, and Darwin magazine has a humorous take on why KM isn't K or M.

When Bad Things Happen to Good Ideas BY ERIC BERKMAN begins with this apt description of the KM show in Santa Clara:

It's a gorgeous early fall day in northern California, but you'd never know it on the air-conditioned expo floor at the Santa Clara Convention Center. The KMWorld2000 trade show constitutes a full frontal assault on the senses: software vendors sporting corporate-logoed golf shirts pounce from all directions, promising knowledge management nirvana. All you need to do is spend megabucks to install their portal-vortal-intranet-extranet-search-engine-interactive-collaborative-commerce e-solution. Bob Armacost, director of internal knowledge management at Bain and Co., likens it to the swarms of souvenir hawkers who greet incoming boats of tourists. "You go to one of these shows and you feel like you're stepping off a cruise ship in the Bahamas," he says. Unfortunately, this is knowledge management (KM) today—a good idea gone awry. KM has fallen victim to a mixture of bad implementation practices and software vendors eager to turn a complex process into a pure technology play. The result: Like many a business concept, KM has evolved from a hot buzzword to a phrase that now evokes more skepticism than enthusiasm.

By 1997, those in the know realized that this was because knowledge management wasn't about technology; it was about people and human behavior. By this point, however, it was too late. "Working with many customers who have struggled with this concept, I can tell you that [the vendors] have confused a lot of people," says Dan Schimmel, CEO of OneSource Information Services, a content provider in Concord, Mass. According to Schimmel, vendors have made a lot of customers think of KM in terms of working forward from a tool rather than looking at their knowledge needs, figuring out how to solve them and then finding the right tool.

Generic Corporation

I've been thinking of writing sales literature and a dazzling PowerPoint for the generic 21st century enterprise. That last paragraph contains three or four universal truths and generic gripes:
  1. It's the people that count, not the technology.
  2. It's best to decide what you're trying to do before selecting the way to accomplish it.
  3. The vendors are out to confuse you. (Surprise!)
  4. Being an honest fellow, I feel compelled to warn you about the vendor charlatans. Trust me on this.

Another vendor warns, "It's mostly techie snake oil. They tell you, 'Enter a keyword and something will happen.' And that something is one of two things. Either they'll find a document for you or they'll go find a human with some sort of profile matching the keyword. But who cares? The information could be out-of-date."

Generic Corporation could use this paragraph to describe eLearning or Quality Management or the study McKinsey did for us or the Atkins Diet : "I don't know of a vendor out there willing to say, 'This is the business value you'll get, and I'm willing to be compensated based on how much value you'll receive,'" he says. "That's not how the industry works. It's, 'Buy my software and good luck.'"

Low-tech works.

And maybe that's why KM works at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Co., in Atlanta, where KM uses very little technology. At the Ritz, it's all about people sharing their experiences, says CIO Pam Angelucci. In fact, her most successful KM program uses no technology at all. It's a "green book" of best practices collected from the top performers in every department in the company, from corporate management to housekeeping. The hard-copy volume is updated annually by a vice president of quality, and the expert content is chosen based on quality scoring procedures. "[Knowledge management at Ritz-Carlton] really has little to do with any kind of technology," says Angelucci. "I suppose we could look at putting it into a database and automating the pieces, but it's just not high on our priority list." The system appears to work: Ritz-Carlton is a two-time winner of the Malcolm Baldridge National Quality Award from the National Institute of Standards and Technology. "When it comes to technology, we'll never put it in just because it's available, new or there," she says.

Let's close with a few more truisms for Generic Corporation:

  • It won't be easy, says Davenport. "Organizational and behavioral change is the hardest part of implementing anything," he says.
  • Isolate a business need. There's no point in trying to manage knowledge if you have no idea why you're doing it. So find out where the ability to capture and reuse knowledge will prove most profitable. You should make this evaluation based on how your organization conducts its current business and on your existing technology infrastructure. "You need to hammer down what your business drivers or goals are," says Jim McKinley, director of knowledge solutions for Net Perceptions. "If you don't know your end result, there's little chance you're going to get there with whatever decision you end up making."
  • Measure business impact. The point of knowledge management is to make your business more valuable, and you need to find ways to ensure this happens
  • Reward knowledge sharing. In most companies, you benefit by hoarding what you know. After all, you become the resident expert on a subject and enjoy the status it brings. Trouble is, hoarding knowledge leads to duplication of work and turf wars. You need to teach new, collaborative behaviors, and that's where rewards come in. "Think about incentives for sharing," says Davenport. "And remember, if you don't have them, knowledge management technologies will never create them."
  • It's all part of changing your culture. And if you don't change your culture, you'll never manage your knowledge—and KM will truly be a bust.

Don't forget: Buy low and sell high. Collect early and pay late. Start with the end in mind.

October 11, 2002

Posted by Jay Cross at October 7, 2002 11:08 PM | TrackBack

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