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Once and future KM

Let's pretend it's the mid-1990s, and you're thinking big. You're just getting wind of the relatively new concept of knowledge management, which, at it simplest—getting the right information to the right people at the right time—makes perfect sense. What's not to like about cutting costs and improving efficiency? Every aspect of your business will benefit.

You launch an enterprisewide KM initiative. In, at most, 12 months, you will have completely transformed your business. Investors will be astounded at the competitive advantage you have achieved over your competitors. But something happened along the way. Twelve months turned into 18, then 24. The anticipated cost of your plan doubled, then tripled, then ... the promised technology couldn't deliver. Your employees wouldn't buy into the concept. You abandon your dream of transforming your organization through KM tools and techniques.

That's an astounding oversimplification, of course, but not far from the truth about some of the early KM efforts. Although those failures gave knowledge management a bad name in many quarters, KM is very much alive and well. Maybe people refer to it with different names, but knowledge management has never been so important, or so elegant.

Last fall, TFPL, a renowned consultancy based in London, held its seventh annual CKO summit. A dozen top KM thinkers and practitioners from Europe and North America met at a castle outside Dublin for two days to discuss how best to develop and amplify knowledge-rich cultures. In the past, I've criticized what I call the "spooky-kooky" side of KM, where theory never filters down to practice (best exemplified by those who call themselves "knowledgepreneurs"). Then there's the continuing debate about knowledge vs. information, a discussion beyond the scope of this piece.

In a perfect world, we all could have the chance to spend a couple of days in an Irish castle and to contribute to the discussion. Short of that, though, TFPL just released the key findings from the meeting, and I'd like to mention three of what I consider to be the most salient points. Let's call it editorial license.

KM is shifting back to individuals, encouraging "knowledge-conscious behavior," improving communication and encouraging enjoyment of the work environment, which we all know improves any organization.

Never before have we had so many tools to improve the work environment, and change continues to be a hurdle in the workplace. Wisely, the summit guests recognize the important role of change management within corporate culture, which wasn't fully understood or even acknowledged a decade ago. They think about implementation of new tools this way: "Our approach needs to change from ‘if we build it, they will use it' to ‘if they use it, it will build itself.' " In other words, "Cultural mismatch is an excuse for poor implementation and/or communication. We must adapt our solutions to the company culture to help users accept them."

Another highly insightful statement from the summit surrounds the question of outsourcing, but it speaks to the failure of some knowledge management in the past and its simple promise. I paraphrase:

  • study and understand all relationships—don't risk losing highly connected and competent people (and this certainly addresses knowledge retention and loss),

  • build relationships with partners and users across the organization,

  • embrace the value of relationships in order to learn and grow, and

  • concentrate on both internal and external partnerships.

It's all so simple in theory but very hard to execute. Never before, though, have we the understanding and tools, both culturally and technologically, to accomplish the original promise of knowledge management. It's simply a matter of will.

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