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Wednesday, April 14, 2004

Keelman Heaving Coals by Moonlight, (J. W. M. Turner, 1835)

Has KM Been Done? Part 3
Commentary on Dave Pollard's Blog on Social Networking (continued from Part 2)

The Exchange: KM Failure or Conceptual Confusion?

The thread running through my commentary in Parts 1 and 2 is the idea that Dave's blog and his position that KM should be re-invented as Social Network Enablement, emerge from considerations that do not dwell heavily on the nature of either Knowledge or Knowledge Management. As a result, his analysis and proposal about KM's future is not grounded in a clear idea of what KM is about, how it is distinguished from other forms of management and how anyone can evaluate whether a new initiative is or is not a KM initiative. This issue emerged again in the following exchange on the AOK list serve:

In response to my statement:

"Mark and I think that the value propositions of KM are:

  • Enhances ability to satisfy demands for new knowledge

  • Enhances rate and quality of organizational learning and innovation (sustainably so), and

  • Enhances organizational capacity to adapt

  • Enhances corporate governance by elevating Knowledge Processing to the level of a fiduciary issue

The difference between our value propositions and yours are very striking."

Dave said:

"Yes, they are. My experience at E&Y (and others in leading knowledge organizations have told me their experience has been similar) is that your KM value propositions, which were also E&Y's for many years, simply have not been realized, despite the efforts of a lot of bright minds and the expenditure of millions of dollars. And it's not just a matter of not being able to measure this 'value' -- users tell us bluntly that KM has not delivered on any of these promises, and they're not convinced it can or will."

And I responded:

Dave, I'm afraid this is going to get us back into the importance of conceptualization and measurement again. My view is that the millions that have been spent on KM have not been spent on it, but rather on Information Management. This has occurred because our "best and brightest" believed that they could do KM and have a positive impact on Knowledge Sharing without being very clear about the nature of either "knowledge" or "Knowledge Management" and how they are different from information, information management, quality management, content management, collaborative management, etc.

"Let's not worry about it, they said. No one in the last 2500 years has been able to solve the problems of epistemology, so let's not discuss them. Let's get away from theory. Let's be 'practical' and just take all of these new tools and techniques and call them KM and see if they work". But the consequence of this attitude is that:

(1) we're not very clear on when something we're doing is KM in contrast with knowledge processing, or information management, or information processing, or collaborative management, or content management, or many other kinds of management, or just good 'ole' business activity, so how can we (or our users for that matter) tell whether "KM' has had any impact?

(2) we're not very clear about whether we're sharing "information" or "knowledge", so:

(a) How can we tell whether our knowledge sharing programs are successful?

(b) How can we tell whether or not our lack of success is due to our sharing falsehoods (poor practices) and representing them as knowledge (best practices)? And:

(3) we're not very clear about how we measure the impact of KM, so how can we tell whether it, in the presence of competing activities has a positive or negative impact? Let's say, for example, that KM has had a positive impact during a particular time period, but an ERP intervention had a negative impact; if we're not even sure what KM is, how can we disentangle those two? And, if the same enterprise is "fooling with" KM, ERP, Data Warehousing, CRM, Quality Management, and God knows what else, all in the same time period, and we're not even sure what KM is, how can we possibly say anything about its impact?

In another current post, you named a number of tools that you said "epitomized" KM in organizations today. And, of course if those were really KM tools I'd agree that projects using them would certainly not deliver the value propositions I listed, and I'd say let's reinvent KM as something else because it's just not working. But, that's just the point, I think that's the old KM, not the New KM.

I think the New KM is different because it does offer clear notions of "knowledge" and "KM", can distinguish between KM and other forms of management, can distinguish knowledge from information, has a clear conceptual idea of what KM impact is, is developing metrics, is developing project and program methodology, does know the difference between IT applications that support key knowledge and KM processes, and those that don't, and has a normative vision to fulfil KM's value propositions. So, my intention is not to persuade people to replace KM with something else, but rather to persuade them that experience with KM has taught us a few things about the foundations of our field and now we're ready to come back with different ideas, different tools, different techniques, and much better results. People may or may not accept this view, but win or lose, we will doing KM, and not "Social Network Enablement".

Next, you responded to a question of mine as follows:

My question: "If we don't know what knowledge work is, how can we know if we are improving knowledge worker effectiveness?"

Your response: "If the user, i.e. the knowledge worker's 'internal customer' says that the knowledge worker is doing great work, then to me the argument about whether it qualifies as 'knowledge work' is not terribly important."

And I responded:

Dave, your statement of the KM value proposition implies that the distinction is important. If so, then my question holds as stated. If not, then you won't mind me restating your value proposition as: "improving worker effectiveness". Stated this way, it's very clear that this value proposition is not specifically related to Knowledge Management, but to Management, more generally, and you and I are not talking about KM anymore at all, so we have no disagreement.

That completes the account of my commentary and exchange with Dave Pollard about Social Networking Software and its relation to KM. This exchange along with a number of others I've had over the past three years, raises the question of whether formal interventions identified as KM "interventions", "projects", "programs" and "endeavors", are really examples of "KM practice.

Has KM Been Done?

In other words: Has KM Been Done? This is a trick question. Of course, KM has been done. KM is a natural function in human organizations, and it is being done all of the time in an informal distributed way by everyone undertaking activity in order to enhance knowledge production and integration activity. But whether formal interventions claiming the label "KM" are instances of KM practice is another question entirely. To answer that question, we need to have clear, non-contradictory ideas about the nature of knowledge, knowledge processing, and Knowledge Management. And to have those, we need to get beyond the notion that we can do KM by just doing anything that may have a positive impact on worker effectiveness while calling that thing "KM".

Instead we need to recognize that the immediate purpose of KM is not to improve either worker effectiveness (though it may well do that) or an organization's bottom line. Its purpose is to enhance knowledge processing that solves problems and to enhance the diffusion of these solutions, in the expectation that such enhancements will produce better quality solutions, which, in turn, may, ceteris paribus, improve worker effectiveness and the bottom line. And when we undertake KM projects, we must evaluate the contributions of our interventions to the quality of knowledge processing and knowledge outcomes. That means tough, precise thinking about knowledge processing, knowledge, and the impact on these that our interventions are likely to have.

The question I am asking here is whether KM practitioners are, in fact, providing this tough, precise thinking as a basis for KM practice, or whether, instead, they are "practicing KM" by helping fields or techniques such as Information Technology, Content Management, CRM, Social Network Analysis, Story-telling, Communities of Practice, and "Knowledge" Cafés to "colonize" it? I don't propose to answer that question now, but just to raise it and to suggest that my friendly exchange with the perspicacious Dave Pollard points to at least one case where there is not only a tendency, but a proposal, to substitute the means of social network enablement, for the end of high quality KM practice. Are there other cases you can point to? If so, I'd be interested hearing about them, and together we can perhaps address the larger question of whether such conceptual displacement is not so widespread that we can conclude that, generally speaking, at least, KM as a formal endeavor has, indeed, not yet been done.
3:09:58 PM    comment []

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