At almost the same time last week a friend on Twitter and a mailing list mentioned James Robertson's Knowledge managers: stuck in the shadow of immortal figures. In it James describing his observation that KM is too pie-in-the-sky for most people doing the implementation. The ideals set far too high a barrier to actually get anything done:
[The list of work practices] leaves knowledge managers stuck in the shadow of immortal figures. In the world of KM literature, knowledge managers stride god-like through their organisations, radically transforming how staff and business units operate. They reshape firms into “knowledge-centric businesses”, overcome organisational silos, and prevent reinvention of the wheel.
James suggests this is a bit over-the-top. Why not provide value in the context in which you are working now?
My reaction when I read it was that James isn't too far off. Knowledge management literature and discussions tends to go many directions and pull in many disciplines: organizational psychology, organizational learning, individual learning, change management, information design, information management, and don't forget all the technology. I suppose it could be easy to get overwhelmed.
But the KM literature shouldn't keep you from doing anything. You pick what you know, learn from others who have worked before you, and do things that work.
The reason I mention that this article came through a couple channels is that it has sparked a bit of conversation on the SIKM Leaders discussion list, and there is a great comment on the blog post itself from Nick Milton. Nick's comment is simple: KM doesn't try hard enough. I took it from his view that most KM people are not at the right level to do some of the grand efforts that James worries about. The inevitable results is either being "stuck in the shadow" or setting too low expectations.
I was particularly interested in the SIKM Leaders discussion prompted by Steve Denning and his belief that KM and other transformative disciplines must fight against "traditional management" approaches to become successful. Unless this change happens, the next time management changes (or budget crunch appears), the KM effort gets hamstrung by reversion to traditional management approaches. What are those traditional approaches? the conservative focus on costs rather than value, essentially. This is something that the Theory of Constraints community has been working with for a long time, with similar frustration and success. If the core business can be shifted to a value mentality (throughput mindset), then it is much easier to drive the necessary change. Denning is arguing that we need to tackle the traditional management approach before any major changes can be put in place, whether knowledge management or innovation or high-performance teams (or Theory of Constraints). He's calling this Radical Management and has written a book to argue the point: due out in November.
The SIKM Leaders discussion went a few other directions too. One familiar angle is that KM is "ahead of its time." Essentially, all the ideas make sense, but that management or the business is unwilling to embrace the ideas. Another familiar comment was that KM works in many organizations until there is a shift in management and the new leadership don't understand the value (echoing Steve Denning's arguments). Tom Short talked about his hypothesis that new technologies take a while to take hold, and posted it as The evolution of knowledge management and the Technology Eras hypothesis.
Another thread that didn't get picked up was the idea that KM should become invisible - just part of the fabric of the business. This idea has been around a while, and is probably part of any transformative discipline: Once the business has been transformed, where do the change agents go?
[Photo: "In the Shadow of Giants" by Old Sarge]