20 Years in KM: Three Lessons Learned

I first came across KM almost exactly 20 years ago. In that period half my time has been spent leading KM Implementation for organisations in different sectors (Defence, Energy & Humanitarian Aid) and half has been supporting others in the same position.

I was asked recently what my top three lessons have been. It’s been a great couple of decades, not always easy and with both successes and challenges - and I have learned a lot for sure!

Follows my top 3 lessons…

1/. KM must be practical & authentically value adding to avoid being a passing fad.

The approach to KM must work for the business in practical and pragmatic way that is seen to genuinely enhance business performance – and also needs to be communicated rapidly & in a manner to inspire people. Some is written about KM that is “faddy” and promising great things, almost magical in nature at times - but it will soon die if the approach doesn’t very quickly demonstrate structure, logic and added value to the business.

Specifically, I have learned that the KM approach needs to:

a/. Address both strategic and tactical aspects of KM. It’s not enough to just provide support / activities such as effective team learning processes, individual knowledge transfer and communities in a reactive way, important though these activities are.

Organisations also need to pilot and put in place workable knowledge strategies & plans for the organisation as a whole, major projects, major functions and also individual staff. These then call up those same tactical KM processes in a much more proactive and professional way.

b/. Address both ends of the KM Collect – Connect Spectrum. Different cultures have a natural tendency to one end of the spectrum or the other – any KM system needs to make sure that both are incorporated. Collect emphasises more activity at the lesson identification & application end of the spectrum while Connect has more focus at the community and knowledge sharing end. It’s about a balance of both and knowledge plans & activity need to reflect this.

c/. Provide a means to diagnose gaps in the overall KM system. A practical means to diagnose gaps in the KM system helps the organisation to pick up tools & techniques from elsewhere, share best practice internally and build a common set of KM frameworks and language across the organisation. A community of assigned (and typically part time) KM Managers across the business can work this well and build up a strong foundation for the profession.

2/. KM and Implementing KM are 2 Distinct Things.

In my early years of KM I used to focus much more on KM itself - its models, tools and techniques. As time went by I appreciated that KM itself, while requiring knowledge of various technical tricks of the trade, what really makes the difference is the ability to actually introduce and implement it. This takes much more than slidesets and assuming that the change will happen by osmosis.

Implementing KM takes full Change Management outlooks and processes and the ability / willingness to lead change – it’s all about people, behaviours and culture at the end of the day.

Prior to coming across KM had learnt a bit about the change thing and I tried to build on that. I had previously found that by getting the people part right first, any technical issues would generally work out ok. I didn’t have a lot of structure and mainly used intuition, but giving time and space for people to communicate in a positive way seemed to work - I learned that it was my task to create the right environment.

In implementing KM, with more long term change, I learned to structure this much more. A phased approach of Baseline KM Assessment, comprehensive Change Strategy, Implementation Plan which between them could take 2 – 4 years – all accompanied by proactive management of Communications & Stakeholders, Risk, Training, IT etc etc.

Simply stated, KM as a topic and its implementation are clearly linked - but it helps to think of them as distinct things.

3/. You Need to be Resilient.

Leading any change is challenging and KM implementation is no exception. You frequently face the choice of taking the simpler route – easier politically but bringing a form of KM that is sub-standard and won’t sustain - or to take the harder, but right, choice. The latter is riskier, but if followed through leads to the transformation / foundation in KM outlooks that organisations can build on and sustain.

I have found that a few people naturally understand KM and want to help bring it in to the organisation as quickly as possible, while many are genuinely open minded and wait to see the evidence from what it can do – and a few can resist any form of change for a variety of reasons. It’s on ongoing judgement call and opportunity / risk assessment to see where new ideas and techniques can be introduced to fit with expectations and openness to change.

It helps to be a people person, to understand your type and the types of others, as well as to understand the difference between management and leadership. Having some senior mentors around the organisation to meet and get insight and feedback in an informal way also helps.

Team leadership in this area has taught me to tell the team that you will cover them no matter what as it can be an unnerving experience for younger staff not used to change leadership. They need to know they can take some risks as they learn and build their confidence, no matter what, the team leader will cover them if something goes wrong. I sometimes use the analogy of a rolling maul in rugby that binds in tight to serve and protect each other (servant outlook even / especially the team leader). Mind you when I did play rugby many years ago I was a Back not a Forward so this is a theoretical analogy!