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A report from the trenches

Envisioning the enterprise of the future is fun. But every now and then we need to take a break and come back down to earth to see if any of our visionary ideas are making their way into practice. Based on what we're currently seeing on the ground, here are three reality checks you should be thinking about.

Reality check #1:

It's time to give usability a seat at the KM table.

For those of you who have been seriously implementing usability testing and user-centered design in your KM solutions, focusing on creating more enjoyable and productive user experiences, congratulations. For those who have not, no more gazing into the future until you fill that gap. In fact, if you don't start making usability a central theme of your KM efforts, you'll never get to the future we've been envisioning. You can't hope to capture, share and apply massive volumes of highly complex knowledge using eye-straining, headache-inducing, carpal tunnel-generating user interfaces.

Take a look at your intranets and collaboration platforms. Are they the electronic version of a stuffed closet or cluttered garage? How easy is it for your users to find stuff? Do they know where to put new stuff so others can find it? If the first thing a user sees after logging on to your knowledge-sharing portal is a long list of folders and documents, then it is not and never will be a suitable platform for knowledge sharing.

Action to take: Make user-centered design a major facet of how you build and deploy solutions. Put UX/UI (user experience/user interface) designers on equal footing with your developers. Put a lead system integrator in charge of both teams. The mad quest for lean cost cutting has resulted in user-centered design being swallowed up by the agile development wizards, creating so-called solutions that are more difficult than ever to navigate and use. It's time to reverse the trend and restore balance between usability and technology, while remaining agile at the same time.

Reality check #2:

The retirement buses are leaving the station.

In fact, many of them have already left, and the incoming buses don't have nearly enough qualified replacements. We've been sounding this alarm for over a decade, and the day of reckoning has finally arrived. Here are the numbers in the United States, with many other countries showing a similar pattern (see census.gov/population/age/data/2011comp.html):

  • retiring work force (Boomer Generation), 66M;
  • mid-career work force (Generation X), 49M; and
  • junior work force (Millennials), 37M.

Note that an additional 30M millennials are still in the education pipeline, which will make their work force size ultimately equal to or even larger than the boomer work force. The problem, however, is the shortfall of  almost 17M U.S. workers in the mid-career group, a number that does not include the additional workers needed to accommodate economic growth.

Be aware, this is a much bigger problem than just transferring knowledge from one generation to the next. We're talking massive shifts in all areas of work, especially knowledge work.

For example, according to the Gallup Employee Engagement Knowledge Center, 53 percent of the  U.S. work force is "disengaged" ("I quit, but I forgot to tell you"). An additional 19 percent is what Gallup calls "actively disengaged." And if you think that's bad, consider China, where only 6 percent of the entire  work force is considered "engaged."

Action to take: Don't let management get away with half-heartedly implementing single-faceted knowledge transfer programs such as mentoring, which only perpetuate the tribal method of knowledge transfer and don't come close to addressing the full scope of transitioning to a multigenerational knowledge enterprise. Instead, force them to look at KM in a way that strategically ties all aspects of employee engagement together (learning, growth, contribution, life balance, etc.), taking advantage of the most diverse work force ever. Set up a "knowledge web" model in which everyone is a mentor/expert in his/her area of specialty with valuable knowledge to pass along and grow, both inter- and intra-generationally.

Reality check #3:

Austerity is the new normal.

Real KM requires realistic investment. However, most organizations facing across-the-board budget cuts are not interested in investing in KM. The simple choice is working longer hours correcting errors and reinventing the wheel, or using those hours to grow critical knowledge that will prevent errors down the road. Unfortunately, the default response almost always is, "We'll just have to hunker down and work harder until things improve."

Successful organizations know that the best way to survive and even thrive in tough times is to continually seek greater efficiency and effectiveness. Getting into an ongoing cycle of rapid innovation and learning is the only formula for sustained growth in the foreseeable future.

Action to take: Relentlessly innovate, and learn from the successes and failure that come with it. But one more key element is needed that we don't often talk about in KM circles, and that is marketing. After all, it was Peter Drucker who said that the only two functions of a business are innovation and marketing, and everything else is an expense.

Whenever "working harder" is the default answer, it's a sure sign that we KM'ers have failed to evangelize and convince executive decision makers about the proven benefits of an integrated KM strategy. Perhaps our summer assignment should be to transfer some knowledge and skills from the marketing community.  

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