KM is Writing Itself a New Lease On Life

Knowledge management has gone through many periods of reassessment: disappointment, rejection and comebacks worthy of Robert Downey, Jr. Once touted as the transformational strategy for the future, actual successes were hard to locate. Technology solutions were insufficient (and many times poorly planned). Solutions were expensive and focused on somewhat tangential things like document management or workflow. That was ill-conceived. So KM went through a well-documented period of rejection and abandonment. Those costs were painful, and business leaders fled, avoiding KM like the third rail.

Nobody I know knows this better than Carla O’Dell, CEO of the APQC, which I’ve only recently learned stands for “American Productivity & Quality Center.” But just because I didn’t know the acronym doesn’t mean I didn’t know the organization. The APQC is probably best described as the “Good Housekeeping Seal” of knowledge management and corporate learning practices. Their research resources are voluminous; their devotion to process and business improvement is unfailing. They use big words, like “benchmarking” and “metrics” and “process improvement,” which is impressive. Plus they’re really nice people.

I asked Carla and her associate, Lauren Trees, APQC’s research program manager for knowledge management, to join me in a discussion of the current state of KM and how we got here. I got that, in spades. In an interview session that epitomizes the term “double-teaming,” I learned more from these two about KM in 45 minutes than in the past five years.

The Discussion

This was such an interactive experience that I thought I would try to replicate it on paper. So I will present, to the best of my ability, the conversation as it occurred. Here goes:

ANDY: I have the impression that knowledge management has shaken off some of its difficulty of the past, and is now back in vogue. Do you agree, and if so, to what do you attribute this fresh perception of KM?

CARLA: “We have the same impression. Knowledge management IS receiving a lot more attention these days, but it’s different than the first time that happened. Twenty years ago, when we first got involved in knowledge management, there was a lot of over-hyping of the technical solutions, call it the ‘Gartner hype curve,’ associated with it. We’ve shaken off a lot of that misperception.

“We’re now very clear that it’s people solutions that make technology solutions work. Unless you have the people-part in play, your technology solutions will be disappointing.

“The second reason for the resurgence is that the technology is just a lot better than it used to be. There are lots of options for collaboration, and things like content management, which we call one of the ‘adjacent spaces’ for KM—you can’t do good KM without findability. Findability is the holy grail for companies that want to find out what they know. The vendors are beginning to realize this; the caution I would give them is that they don’t repeat the disillusionment of prior eras.”

LAUREN: “A lot of companies realize their old solutions aren’t the best solutions, but ‘no solution’ will not work for them. They have so many pressures, in terms of volume of content and people being required to do more in the same roles, that all those forces are demanding some kind of knowledge solution.”

CARLA: “This is part of the explanation of the resurgence of KM—the need never went away, it got more intense.”

ANDY: Are companies moving away from their monolithic content management systems to something more “free-range,” maybe in the cloud, maybe more comprehensive?

LAUREN: “There’s definitely a desire for a single point of search, and single point of access for different types of data. In terms of the cloud, we’ve seen some interest, and there are some early adopters, but there are more people waiting to see how that plays out with those early adopters.”

CARLA: “Monolithic is the right way to describe that fatigue. Today there are personalized ways to deliver content. They used to be called portals, and maybe they still are. But now it’s more mainstream to have the ability to log-in in the morning and get just the information you need.”

ANDY:And portable devices underscore that even more, don’t they?

CARLA: “Exactly. Not only do they want the information they need, but want it delivered in the format they need to see it. When we first started looking at mobile, most companies didn’t have a mobile policy, much less the ability to support a mobile platform. That has transformed 180 degrees in less than five years.”

Who is Running This Show?

ANDY: Can KM be taught or is it imposed? Is it a matter of enforcing policies? Or deploying technology? Or both?

LAUREN: “I don’t think about it in terms of policy. I think of it in terms of strategy. Leading with technology never works; you want to think first about the value proposition. You should start with the business problem you’re trying to solve, and then address that with a strategy. Then you can think about a set of tools and processes that allow you to meet that strategy. What you DON’T want to do is reverse-engineer from the tools first, and back-end yourself into a strategy.”

CARLA: “The KM operations are still mainly IT-based. But the IT organizations have become more sophisticated and have placed business analysts into their teams. They’re doing that at the business-level, but not at the CEO level…because the CEO is not in charge of anything, particularly. And I say that as a CEO! But seriously, the IT organizations that are effective now have business analysts on their teams. That’s where the opportunity is.”

ANDY: Is KM a rich man’s game? You emphasize STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) vertical industries. Are there sweet spots that you and the vendor communities pursue more than others? Are there vertical industries that are less likely to adopt KM practices?

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