In Search of the "Amazing Truth"

D'ja ever have one of those dreams where you are in a place in which you have never been, but it seems like somewhere very familiar? Like, you are supposed to be at the Royal Palace of India, but it looks a lot like your mom's house? This year's been a lot like that.

What I mean is, despite our best attempts to categorize and parse this information-technology-knowledge-management stuff up into bite-size chunks, it always comes back to the same overarching themes. It's like that TV show, "The Amazing Race." Ever see it? Six or so pairs of contestants are given destinations all over the world. Each pair has to map their routes, find their own transportation, use their wits to get from point A to point B. And no matter how many variations they each create, they usually end up at the target within a few minutes of one another.

Creating these White Papers each month is like that. We start out planning to focus on a narrow slice of the information-technology universe, and somehow we always end up in the same place.

I was once part of an effort to create a mission statement. The company in question was a publishing group, with magazines, trade shows and a growing web presence. Our job was to try to define, in a sentence, our company's overall purpose in life. If you've never tried to crystallize your entire raison d'etre into a single phrase that sums up all your activities—present AND future—you should try it sometime. It is an extremely deceptive thing. It seems so simple. Come up with a snappy phrase that perfectly and succinctly brings your whole existence into focus. And then have everybody agree on it. You'll start in the morning and the next thing you know you're calling the wife to tell her to have dinner without you.

Well, that's what happened to us anyway. At one point I remember this statement being about 150 words long, and God knows how many syllables. Lots of "information" this and "facilitate" that and commas and dashes and sentences you needed a road atlas to get to the end of. Mission statements are often flawed this way ... they tend to swerve into marketing territory where they don't belong.

We were committing the same common sin of inclusion; we tried to sum up our mission by listing each of our activities. Couldn't see the forest through all those trees.Finally, a very wise person (not me) in the room erased the chalkboard and wrote this:"We help people work better."

And that was it. We had our mission statement. It seemed so plain and simple, and looking back one can easily wonder why it took so damn long. But we came to realize that there wasn't a wasted syllable in that simple sentence:

"We" meant our extended organization, whomever that would ultimately include, and the simple word "we" unified us all into a single community of purpose.

"Help" implied that our ultimate goal was located somewhere beyond our own walls, wherever that might take us.

The word "People" humanized our mission in a way that "organization" or "enterprises" or "corporations" never could have.

"Work" was good because it had two meanings. In one sense it helped focus our attentions on our customers' professional lives (their "work"). But it also addressed their functional efficiency, in the same way one says "oil makes an engine work better."

And then there's that "Better." I can't think of a more motivational word than "better." Because it has no end ... you are never finished if your purpose is to make things "better."

I can tell you that from that day forward, I never once made a phone call or wrote a proposal or contemplated a project of any kind without asking myself: "Will this help people work better?"

I am constantly reminded of that day when I speak to the many truly gifted and brilliant men and women in leadership positions of great importance while preparing these KMWorld White Papers. Inevitably, our conversations begin with a review of their companies' products and services; that's what they're supposed to "plug" after all. But very quickly, an extraordinary thing happens: The practiced self-aggrandizing slips away, and the conversations move into a higher plane. Without exception, regardless of the subject's market niche or technology products, these people begin to talk about core motivations. Service. Customer satisfaction. Empowerment. Trust.

It's the Amazing Truth. Everyone wants the same thing. Everyone wants to DO the same thing. Everyone wants to help people work better.

For example, way back in March of '01, the subject was "Enterprise Content Management." I expected a lot of talk about "federated search technology," XML and web authoring, but Compaq's Anoop Garg instead reached higher: "We try, through our professional services group, to bring a broader view, and show the overall architecture necessary for total employee empowerment. Because that's what it's all about."

This commitment to the human aspects of technology has been repeated again and again in the pages of these KMWorld White Papers:

Steve Pappas, the thoughtful founder of the consulting firm KGain, said in November of last year, "Wherever there's human interaction, we need to amplify the quality of it." He was only tangentially talking about technology (the amplifier, in this case). He was focused on the end-game; where people interact is the center of the diamond.

Making an even more direct case for "people" was Ryan Gorey of IBM Global Services, who insisted that: "Companies have ignored many of the human components of making the ‘people systems' work. ‘If you build it, they will come,' doesn't work! What investments have been made to increase the human capabilities, collaboration and interactions that make the content flow over that infrastructure?"

Peter Auditore, VP of Hummingbird, nailed it when he said: "When you talk about collaboration and knowledge sharing, you're into the realm of industrial psychology. That's why collaboration is so difficult. People misunderstand that it's not a technology issue. Unless there's a strong commitment to trust and a knowledge-sharing culture, it is probably going to fail."

So, Where Is KM Now?

That question—"Where Is KM Now?"—was the theme this time out.

The trend toward the humanization of KM continues. Mike Ball at SER writes in this paper about "Knowledge Enablement Tools":

"The perfect knowledge-enablement tool is also one that empowers everyone—from the individual knowledge worker who strives to be more productive to enterprise colleagues collaborating on projects, from entire organizations promoting their products to research teams across governmental agencies working together to safeguard the nation. Because the need for specific knowledge is pervasive—encompassing not just segments of the workforce but every single individual in some capacity...."

Last year, I wrote in this space that "KM has reached a critical level of mass in the marketplace, as well as a seat at the table in high-stakes global business development. The chasm is crossed."

That remains true, and untrue. Because just as "knowledge management" has entered the books as a raison d'etre for eager new MBA grads looking for a killer resume cred, it's also moving inexorably toward footnote status. New, "hotter" trends threaten to take its place as a flavor-of-the-month and best-seller (non-fiction) of the week. It's crazy-making to those of us who watch it, and perfectly predictable to those of us who predicted it.

I did, and I didn't. KM will remain—always—as the management trend you love to hate. I saw that coming. But what I didn't predict was the loyalty that adherents

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