August 19, 2008

'Green' KM?

It's official, I have achieved Olympic burnout. After watching the Games non-stop on three channels, day and night, I've just gotta catch some zzzz's. I'm still trying to watch some of the Track and Field events, but no more qualifiers and heats for me...gimme the medal action only so I can finally get rid of these bags under my eyes!!!

Anywho, a few months back I was interviewing for a KM spot with a design firm when I was asked about my familiarity with working in a 'green' environment. I haven't had the chance to work in such an environment and I wondered if, for the purpose of KM, it really even mattered. I mean, when I think of a 'green' environment, off the top of my head I think about making the workspace environmentally friendly (recycling bins, oxygenating plants, maybe a little feng shui in the layout of the space). Integrating a 'green' approach into a design philosophy? I can see that, but 'green' KM?

Then, a couple of weeks ago, I was reading some random article on organizational ecology and I wondered if this was (or somehow related to) 'green' KM.

Fingers tapping on the desk...still wondering.

So then, I started working on this post and, originally, I was just looking to explore possible connections between organizational ecology and 'green' philosophies and the implications of being 'green' on KM. But, when I really got into it, I started to realize the potential value of taking a 'green' approach to the implementation of a KM strategy, much in the same I've utlized a 'guerilla' approach in past assignments.

While there seems to be plenty of wrong ways to implement a KM strategy, I certainly don't believe that there is any one right way. It all boils down to the type of culture your dealing with and who you are as a Knowledge Manager. And now I'm eager to explore other socio-political approaches to "selling" KM to an organization and achieving cultural buy-in and adoption. I'll be sure to post here as I discover them.

The 'green' movement - so you don't have to open a new tab and google it - revolves around the promotion of an ecosophy and the adoption/application of environmentally responsible practices and behaviors in order to protect and respect our natural environment. These practices can include using alternative energy and fuels, green building and remodeling materials and practices, organic and natural foods, natural medicine and health, hybrid and electric cars and motorcycles, forestry management, natural body care, recyclable carpet and clothing, eco-friendly diapers, wind-powered appliances, solar water heating and much more.

Politically speaking, Greens, focus on ecological and environmental issues, as well as civil rights and social justice.

So, can KM be 'green'? I'm starting to think yes! In his Lifehack article, Getting Green Done, Dustin Wax suggests that David Allen’s Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity is a good guide to Green living "since the principles of Green living are not all that different from the principles we use to help us be more productive."

He goes on to propose these 6 Principles of Green Living:
  1. Simplicty: more stuff means more complexity — more upkeep, more keeping track, more things to do.
  2. Fairness: we consume so much because we can — and we can because we don’t deal fairly with everyone involved.
  3. Community: too much of our world market is out of sight, and therefore out of mind.
  4. Sustainability: a system is sustainable when the negative outputs of that system are accommodated and turned into positive outputs. most of our global production is not sustainable!
  5. Planning: planning means looking ahead towards a desired outcome; it also means thinking a little bit about the community that isn’t here yet and dealing fairly with them. creating sustainability requires planning!
  6. Transparency:decisions these days are made behind closed doors. a green society requires the active involvement of all its participants!
By the by, I encourage EVERYONE to read this article. Not only will it provide more context for these principles, but it's a quick read that will give you something to think about.

Dustin sums up his manifesto with a potent declaration to those who are truly committed to going 'green': "...we can’t do all the work. We can’t even do a tiny fraction of the work. We can suggest, prod, provide tricks and hacks, but in the end, you’re going to have to make some decisions, to think about how your actions fit in with you values, whatever they are."

This statement, which echoes current KM crush Heifetz's views on adaptive leadership, applies equally to the person(s) responsible for developing and implementing KM strategies and the organizational community (both the leadership and the rank-and-file). Ironically, this seems to be one of the biggest challenges for organizations, not just with KM, but with any initiative that seems to clash with or challenge the bottom-line goal of profit. Unfortunately, "profit" is not a value. Although, perhaps organizations need to take a look at what they're willing to do (actions) in the pursuit of profit and how well it squares up with their actual values.

Now, let's apply these principles to KM! And, there's no real order to these, just keep them in mind as you're developing your strategy.

I'm sure most folks are familiar with the KISS methodology - 'Keep It Simple Stupid'. Greens would equate this to measuring and, subsequently reducing, your ecological footprint, which is the impact you have on the natural environment. In terms of KM, I define it as being stealthy and minimally invasive in your KM efforts. One of the ways I attempt to achieve this is by integrating existing technologies that work, rather than trying to introduce a radical new technology or process. When new processes are necessary, recognize and appreciate the potential for disruption, and roll them out in steps.

Almost all of the KM strategies I've been involved with and have discussed with folks are developed, exclusively, from the perspective of the organization and seen as a benefit to the organization and, subsequently, to employees who live to see another paycheck, but a 'green' approach invites you to take a closer look at your strategy and ask (1) how well it acknowledges the true value - to the holder - of the knowledge/information you're asking folks to share and, (2) what your true intentions are with regards to that knowledge/information. It's one thing to say knowledge sharing doesn't diminish an individuals value to the organization, but do you really mean it and do your policies/practices actually support this statement? Be honest, because if you're not sure, then it's likely your employees don't believe it either and that will result in a poor knowledge sharing community or, at best, an immature one.

This is why I preach the merits of KM participation as a means of developing one's Personal Competitive Advantage (PCA). I believe it's critical to help an organization's workers/employees become aware of what this is and how they can and should develop theirs. Being aware of the real value of one's knowledge and the personal benefit of knowledge sharing can only enhance KM efforts. Moreover, organizations that want to remain competitive need to quit "shuckin' and jivin'" and start dealing more fairly with their workers in terms of salary and work-life balance. Contrary to popular opinion, the rank-and-file aren't stupid; they simply give as good as they get. Which, when you think about it is pretty smart; why sweat blood and tears for a business you don't own, that has no loyalty to you, so that someone else can get rich? It's appalling how little regard people can have for others in pursuit of the almighty dollar. The bottom line: as long as your bottom-line is money, don't expect your KM efforts to bear anywhere near the kind of fruit they could be bearing if your bottom-line was people (and that means people other than you, lol.)

Get in the trenches! I know that I'm in love with my knowledge audit and not everyone does one (or, necessarily, needs to) but I'll be damned if it isn't the ever-lovin' dumbest thing in the whole wide world to come up with a strategy from on high at a distance.

Or, maybe that's just how I see it.

After all, I tend to see knowledge management as community development, so I can't understand for a minute how, on Earth, someone could come up with a strategy to develop a community without getting in the trenches with said community. Knowledge management is dependent upon sharing information and resources in community. for this to happen people need to develop relationships with one another predicated on mutual trust, respect, and recognition of their interdependence; the Knowledge Manager should be a force for building that type of community. And, by doing so you can greater insight into how your KM strategy will be most effective.

Sometimes perspective makes all the difference.

Truly, Dustin says it best:
A system is sustainable when the negative outputs of that system are accommodated and turned into positive outputs. Think about your working life — if you weren’t getting paid, would you work so hard? Your hard work — a negative thing — is converted into something positive — a paycheck. Your employer turns the negative output — paying more money — into a positive input — increased revenue. The system sustains itself — or it collapses. If you aren’t getting paid enough, you quit working hard, revenues shrink, the employer goes out of business. Or they start putting in more and more inputs; using military forces to compel labor is not unheard of. Eventually those systems collapse too, when the cost of maintaining them outweighs the benefits produced by them. And they often collapse violently. Most of our global production is not sustainable.
It's not enough to develop and implement a KM strategy, it needs to be sustainable beyond anyone acting in an official Knowledge Manager capacity. In order for that to happen, it needs to accommodate the negative outputs of the organization (knowledge hoarding, fears of diminished value, layoffs/downsizing, change fatigue, working more for less, etc.) and turn them into a positive output (increased Personal Competitive Advantage, ease of access to information needed to complete your job, better workplace relationships, stronger market position of the company which must lead to increased financial rewards for everyone, less stressful work environment, improved work-life balance, etc.).

Ask yourself, how long your organization's formal KM strategy would last if the KM team were no more and what it would take for your answer to be 'indefinitely', then make it so.

As Dustin writes, "creating sustainability requires planning".

I'm reminded here of work I've done establishing mission and vision statements. The mission is what you intend to do; it describes your goals and purpose, your intentions. The vision describes what you'd like to achieve; what the results of your efforts might look like in some utopian future.

The mission is more matter of fact while the vision doesn't necessarily have to be realistic or achievable. In fact, some believe it should have a certain unattainable utopian quality to it, representing the highest ideal and providing a lofty goal to aspire to.

The combination of mission and vision is what drives an organizations goals from quarter-to-quarter, year-to-year.

Planning a susttained, strategic KM initiative should follow similar guidelines.

Operate in the present with your eye on the future, thinking in terms of changes and innovations in technology, the workforce, politics, market forces, the environment, and social movements and the impact on your organization and how you might respond strategically.

Here, I like to think of the impact of file sharing on the music industry. I remember back in the mid-90's when Blockbuster was large-and-in-charge with both music and video stores and they had announced a plan to burn CD's in-store, allowing customers to buy both regular and custom CD's, charging by the song. And then, without explanation, the plan fell through, most likely because the larger recording industry wanted to control the market as much as possible to generate as much profit as possible.

The result: within three years file-sharing had become rampant. And, within ten years, despite a lot of those early lawsuits against universities average Jo-ann college student, file sharing has become the norm and you can hardly find a store that deals exclusively in CD's and records.

The lesson: Change is inevitable no matter how much you want to be in control or "manage" things. Trying to maintain too much control might just cost you big in the long run. Sometimes all you can do is keep an eye on the future and have a plan for riding the wave. The good news is that forward-thinking organizations who keep up with the trends are often able to capitalize on them and set a few of their own.

Two years ago, I was interviewing for a consulting job with IBM and - no lie - I was asked to give the most convoluted, technical definition of knowledge management that I could come up with.

I couldn't believe it.

Especially since, after years of having to explain KM as simply as possible to professors and family...I sorta prided myself on being able to keep things simple and create some sort of understanding of what KM is (loosely speaking) and what it can do.

Idealism aside, transparency in business isn't always feasible and often many stakeholders are asked to participate in the operation of an organization with limited knowledge and involvement. Like it or not, "sometimes it be's like that", hahaha. However, KM doesn't have to be one of the areas where transparency is an issue, particularly if you're dealing with change fatigue and a general suspicion about what KM is and its impact on an individuals value to the organization. As a self-professed authoritarian, I understand that many times it isn't that we can't bring everyone into the decision-making process, we just don't want to drag the process out by being overly democratic.

But guess what? Cultural changes are made and driven by the culture. Ya-huh.

Besides, the goal here isn't so much to give everyone a say and put every decision up for a vote, it's to adopt a protocol for sharing information that supports full disclosure. After all, it's the responsibility of each stakeholder to make themselves aware of what's going on with KM, but it's the Knowledge Manager's responsibility to make that information available, accessible, and digestable (understood) and provide a vehicle for responding to any and all questions, concerns, and comments. It's this approach that promotes and develops community which promotes sustainability.

So, whodathunk it, 'green' KM.

Now, I've got that line from the G.I. Joe PSA's that used to air after each episode stuck in my head: "Now we know!" "And knowing is half the battle."

So funny.