July 25, 2008

Commentary: Is KM Dead?

"Reports of my death are greatly exaggerated." - Mark Twain

Though I'm not usually one for "blurb" blogging, I was planning on doing just that with this video gem (click the title of this post to access) of my current KM-crush, Patrick Lambe, discussing whether or not KM is dead (or dying) with KM gurus Larry Prusak and Dave Snowden.

While the video features a provocative discussion for the entire KM community, I was initially intrigued/humored by the comments on the management aspect of KM and Dave Snowden's mention of his dressing down by Peter Drucker with regards to Frederick Taylor because I just blogged about putting the 'M' back into KM and happened to vilify Taylor and Taylorism all in the same post. Coincidentally, Peter Drucker considers Taylor to be the Father of KM. Based solely on the principles of scientific management, as I understand them, I'm not sure how comfortable I am with that idea. I am willing to concede that these principles (with some tweaking, in certain types of organizations) miiiight make for good management (so noble of me, I know), but good knowledge management...ehhh. Anyway, I've downloaded copies of The Principles of Scientific Management and also Shop Management to read in their entirety to see if I can be persuaded otherwise.

Just as a side note, my overall issue with scientific management is that I feel that it reduces people to cogs in a machine rather than lifting them up to their potential. Take McDonald's, for example: several years ago they started using cash registers with pictures of food items instead of the names of menu items or numbers(?; I'm still hoping they have numbers). That's classic Taylorism - you don't have to read or be able to do rudimentary math anymore, just look for the picture! Think about that and tell me how this style of management is supposed to make us more competitive and cutting-edge as a nation in the global knowledge economy.

Blame it on my adult education background, but I think that scientific management reinforces and perpetuates a poor work ethic, a negative (cultural) mentality about work, in general, and stifles creativity. Some may say that's not the goal or purpose of management, I say that neither is objectification. Understanding people and managing accordingly is smart business. (Yes, that's a simplification, but I'm not trying to get into a big discussion on this point right now).

Ironically, the structure of scientific management is exactly what a lot of organizations are seeking in a KM strategy largely because it's familiar and comfortable to them; it's easier to bend KM around what they know, than to explore new (untried, risky, possibly flawed) ways of thinking and doing business. Going back to Roger Martin's eye opening article on making design work, Tough Love - what I still believe is the new guide for understanding how to make make KM work - the reason "why most executives prefer the known to the unknown...it's a lot easier and safer to run a billion-dollar business than it is to invent one." Amen brother. Cogs don't innovate, people do.

I told ya, don't get me started on Taylorism.

Anyway, now that I'm worried Peter Drucker wouldn't come to my dinner party (if I could invite anyone who ever lived....everybody has a list like that, right?), I was, as I wrote earlier, initially intrigued and humored by the discussion, but then I started getting pissy.

First, there was Lambe's comment about the "lack of a coherent practice community". A couple of months ago I blogged about the need for KM certification, KM-specific continuing ed programs, and the establishment of an oversight board to develop generally accepted KM standards/practices. When I set out to get feedback on this idea from various practitioners, I received a dressing down of my own. I was utterly shocked by the vehemence of the responses (against the idea) and yet, I've been hard-pressed to find strong communities of practice that have been successful at organizing their own knowledge resources (that's called irony...you know, because some of us get paid to create CoP's for a living). Rather, I tend to find pockets of like-minded folks who work in the same industry (or for the same employer) who more or less bitch-and-moan/sympathize/commiserate with one another over their trials and tribulations (not unlike the ladies of Sex & The City, though probably less fashionably).

The "lack of a coherent practice community" comment led to a comment about the average lifespan of a knowledge manager being 1-2 years. If you've read my blog posts about my frustration with staying inspired within the field then you should know that I'm not surprised by this at all. If someone like me, who's entire academic career and subsquent professional career has revolved around knowledge management; and I mean, entering directly into the field of knowledge management, not tangentially, has experienced burn-out within just a few years of graduation, it's not hard to imagine what other practitioners are feeling.

Which of course, begs the questions: (1) If there were a such a community, might there be less turnover within the field, a weaker perception of the field-as-fad, and more interest in KM as an acceptable business practice? And, (2) Would anyone be asking if KM is dead? If the answer to the first question is somewhere in the neighborhood of 'maybe' ('maybe not' for the second) then why the hell am I getting flack for suggesting some structure to the field?!?!?!

The more I watched, the more I upset I became, not necessarily because of anything specific that was said, but because, as a practitioner, I'm in the field everyday; I deal with organizations that need the understanding that I bring to the table, but are hard-pressed to reframe their perceptions of how businesses should operate, even as the markets they operate in swifly change around them. And, when there is still so much potential for KM to realize, so much opportunity for growth within the field, two of the fields most recognizable names (and my KM-crush) are speaking of its death. And, not even because KM has outlived or outgrown it's usefulness, but because misconceptions and misapplications of KM have failed to bear fruit.

How indeed is the community supposed to survive, when its leaders are sounding its funeral knell?

Clearly, I don't believe that KM is dead? Battered, beaten, tortured, viciously maligned and left on the side of the road to die maybe, but not dead.

And there are no walking dead, either.

What we have are organizations who have identified and acknowledged needs who continue to seek out solutions to their problems (and people to develop them), even after other such persons have been driven off (fairly or not) - Frankenstein-style - with pitchforks and torches. Even when KM (either as they've defined it or as it has been sold to them) is pronounced a sham, the need that originated their interest in KM still remains.

In my opinion, the issue that most organizations have with authentic KM (as a fundamental business process, not an off-the-shelf, replicable solution), is their general unwillingness to construct and invest in KM as a business practice that forces them outside of their comfort zones. The field of KM has become fragmented, as discussed in the video, as a direct result of organizations attemping to hijack (and circumvent) KM and break it down into smaller, structured, more palatable, and more controllable (scientifically managed) components that allow them to continue doing what they do (in a slightly different way) without having to completely invest in KM, which they don't understand. As a result, any change is minimal or purely cosmetic. In general, I don't see fragmentation alone as a bad thing - these can all be aspects of KM and a KM solution, adopted as the organization becomes comfortable with proposed changes. It's only when folks try establish these fragments, these singular aspects of KM as wholly knowledge management that I see a problem.

Furthermore, I think that this is a problem that practitioners allow to fester when we refuse to step up and organize ourselves in order to manage perceptions of what knowledge management is (and isn't) and what Knowledge Managers do. Now, I'm not saying that we need to have strictly defined roles and labels for KM professionals and KM activity, we know that the work we do involves wearing many hats, but we need to be able to explain, at a minimum, what knowledge management is, what a Knowledge Manager is, and what separates vastly different knowledge management professionals from one another (e.g., knowledge architect vs knowledge librarian vs knowledge analyst).

There is a tremendous lack of information about, oversight and direction for the field of KM. And, many of the KM strategies that are being developed and implemented are done so in the absence of this information and direction. In the absence of firm definitions and a defining concept of KM, organizations operate under misconceptions that are not well-founded/grounded and ultimately fall apart.

As to KM, in general, while the term knowledge management may be recent (relatively speaking), the central idea of knowledge management (managing the sum of your resources for better, more efficient use) has been around for a long time. In this regard, I am willing to acknowledge the influence and historical relevance of scientific management. However, 'managing' knowledge isn't like herding goats or building a better lemming, despite the fact that some businesses continue to operate as though we were in the middle of the industrial economy (and others, the agricultural economy). And, it's attempts at syncretizing KM with the principles of scientific management that have left us discussing whether to burn or bury.

I say, for now at least, pass the torch to the next generation and let's see what we can do with KM before writing the field's obituary.


RogerF said...

I think this has touched on an important issue. Employers like the sound of KM because it's sexy. They don't however like investing in time, money or especially thought that might be involved in KM. So we gat a kind of KM-Lite which is very much as described in this blog. A sort of pick and mix of whatever employers fancy. KM is not well-established in the mainstream to be taken seriously enough and when it is adopted is subjected to abuse by being modified to fit other plans.

Christian Young said...

Thanks Roger! As a practitioner and who genuinely enjoys what I do, this is one of the areas that truly gets my goat. The one thing, however, that I take satisfaction in knowing is that organizations truly do need KM - if they didn't, they wouldn't keep trying to implement it (in pieces or by other names).

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