Step lightly before jumping on the knowledge management bandwagon

In some organizations, knowledge management has degenerated to the 'flavour-of-the-month' level
By Frances Horibe
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 06/28/2004

Over the years, HR has embraced many management fads. One of the first was total quality management. Then there was re-engineering, the learning organization and then the balanced scorecard. The current bandwagon is knowledge management (KM).

Let me be clear off the top — I’m in favour of knowledge management. I wrote a book about it. But in some organizations knowledge management has degenerated to the flavour-of-the-month level. Executives want “it,” but have only a vague idea of what “it” is. Sadly, HR people often climb on the bandwagon along with their executives, without asking the challenging questions that increase the likelihood that KM will deliver the returns they’re looking for.

Here are the questions HR people need to get their executives to answer, prior to helping them “get it.”

What big challenges does the organization currently face?

There is a kind of “duh” quality to this question, since any major undertaking should pass through this filter. But often organizations perform only the flimsiest of analyses. In particular, executives tend not to consider whether the challenges the organization is facing can be handled using previously successful approaches. If they can be, why does the organization need KM? The company must be sure its challenges are substantial and that they cannot be addressed using the methods of the past.

How will a KM strategy help address these challenges?

If there is a compelling and strategic case for which tried-and-true methods are unlikely to succeed, the next step is to consider whether a KM strategy would help. The knee-jerk reaction should not be, “Well of course; we’re in a knowledge economy.” Jack Welch, recently retired CEO of GE, was considered to be the best manager in the world. In his entire tenure at GE he only had three corporate-wide strategies and knowledge management was not among them. (Although it could be argued that his concept of “boundarylessness” has some KM aspects to it.) It’s not a foregone conclusion that knowledge management is the answer. Making sure it will actually address a particular strategic issue is key. A good litmus test? Put together a business case that would convince the CEO. If it isn’t possible, KM may not be needed.

Is there another, less onerous, way to meet the same objectives?

Sometimes KM is the answer to a company’s challenges. But is it the only possible answer? Is there a feasible work-around that will address the challenges being faced? Because — as much fun as it is to start a new initiative — KM has two qualities that should give pause. First, it is resource-intensive, at least at the front end. The pay-offs in not reinventing the wheel, in sharing knowledge and in new knowledge products all happen, but only after an appreciable investment of time and money. The piper has to be paid before the tune is played.

In addition, and equally important, KM is disruptive. Organizations may, and probably will, spend the most money on technology but we are learning with KM that if you build it, they will not necessarily come. Just because there are vehicles for collaboration like internal chat rooms or expert databases doesn’t mean people will use them. In fact, Brook Manville, probably the first chief information officer, then working for McKinsey, said, “One of the great myths of the Information Age is... that technology will create collaboration.” It will not. The willingness or unwillingness to share knowledge makes KM fundamentally about people, not technology. The shift to a sharing culture usually entails large change-management challenges and, therefore, disruption. It should not be undertaken lightly.

It’s not a case of avoiding disruption of the company at all costs, but it needs to be worth it. So, an important question: Is there another way to accomplish the strategic objective that is less resource-intensive and disruptive than KM? If so, go with that. If the company has strategic objectives that cannot be accomplished by tried-and-true methods, and if it has resolved that the resources and disruption required will be worth it, it is much more likely to get the anticipated payoff.

Why put in all this energy up front before launching KM? More and more companies are finding that a half-hearted implementation of KM — as is inevitable if the questions above are not painstakingly answered — is worse than not having undertaken it at all. A lot of time, money and disruption are involved so the company can talk about “communities of practice” rather than the old terminology of “teams.” An expensive way to get a new phrase in the corporate vocabulary.

In the process of implementing KM, at the very least employees will become annoyed; at worst, they will become cynics as they see so much time and money spent on what they correctly perceive to be another fad that will pass as soon as the higher-ups get bored. In those circumstances, KM becomes an answer looking for the right question.

So, if the objective is a vocabulary change, buy a thesaurus. But if the objective is a real transformation through better management of knowledge, HR people can help the organization resist the KM bandwagon long enough to answer the hard questions needed to make it a success.

Frances Horibe is the Ottawa-based author of Managing Knowledge Workers and most recently Creating the Innovation Culture; Leveraging Visionaries, Dissenters and Other Useful Troublemakers. She can be reached through

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