KM: Three Sectors & Three Spectra

The last couple of weeks have seen meetings to discuss KM that were, separately, Public Sector, Private Sector and Academic focused. Past and current experience working with each sector has helped to remind me where they are both the same and different regarding KM. I long ago gave up any sense that any were better or worse than the others, they are simply different with complementary roles – and of course organisations within the same sector can also vary hugely.

These meetings threw up conversations around three spectrums / spectra (I gather both plural forms are valid!) that are relevant to implementing KM, including the culture change around it.

1/. Investment v Cost

Some see KM as a cost, others as an investment – part of the challenge for KM is helping to move the conversation from the former to the latter. This sounds trite, but repeated conversations over the years have shown how near the surface this issue is.

KM that is tactical-focused tends to be more at risk in this area and is often an early casualty when costs come under scrutiny – no matter how often people say things like, “we should be doing more of this, not less, when times are hard”. Tactical KM tends to keep elements of the system separate, with team learning processes, Individual Knowledge Transfer (IKT) and Communities run as separate things / initiatives.

Strategic KM that joins tactical elements up into owned & maintained KM Strategies and Plans that align under Business Unit needs & objectives (eg the organisation as a whole or its major projects & functions) tend to be much more resilient. They are seen as an investment for the organisation, both now and into the future – and are seen as adding value in both the good times and the bad. Crucially, the stories and evidence for the value come from business people as well as / more than from KM.

KM needs to encourage the organisation to pilot both tactical and strategic approaches to KM, and to make sure that the significance & value of managing the organisational knowledge as a strategic asset is both understood and applied.

2/. Long Stayers v Rapid Changers

Some staff remain in one organisation for many years while others change regularly not just within a sector but between them. Again neither is better than the other, and again both are needed.

Overall I have seen long stayers have obviously deeper knowledge of their organisation both technically and politically. This is balanced with a greater reluctance to change, more risk aversion and less willingness to see that innovations from different sectors may be of value. A common phrase is “our business is different from all the others you may have seen”.

The rapid changers tend to see transferable patterns, links and opportunities between different organisations and even sectors, but can underestimate how hard it is to make them happen in a local way. A common phrase is “Everywhere I go, I see similar issues and challenges.”

A KM Strategy needs to tap leaders of both types and both build on what is already in the organisation and not be afraid to challenge the status quo. I have seen organisations that are, on balance, relatively open to change and those that resist it more – the latter tend to get left behind (even if they think they are leaders) while the former need to make sure they bring change in a managed way.

3/. Perfectionism v Pragmatism

I come from a mildly academic background - instinctively I want things to be perfect or near to it and the academic foundations to any topic are of interest in my understanding of it. Doing a relatively “normal” (very technical) job in the past this outlook was fine – any pragmatism was forced in obvious ways that everyone could see (eg bad weather in the North Sea when moving oil rigs around).

The moment I changed to KM implementation I had to re-think this a bit. For example long philosophical discussions on how Knowledge differed from Information (and Wisdom & Data) I saw one team dive into (including quoting Plato), while of conceptual & philosophical interest, soon irritate the business who want a practical approach to learning and a good corporate memory. Quotes from Plato are not that helpful when people are seeking help looking after refugees or managing drilling operations. Perfection is the enemy of progress!

Conversely, the business can take over simplistic short-cuts that are more about a tick-box outlook and don’t meet minimum KM standards - the challenge is to influence them to take a more holistic, strategic and longer-term view. Being busy, and being seen to be busy, is an aspect of western culture that sometimes causes problems – sometimes you have to go slower to go faster in the long run, including taking quality time out to properly reflect and learn as teams – and make sure the lessons identified are acted upon. This is definitely worth doing!

Any KM implementation strategy needs to find its place on this spectrum from piloting what works and consciously feeding it back into the approach taken. I have seen KM become legitimately both simpler and more complex in different organisations as a result, the point is the organisation buys into it as it helped to create the KM system that works for them.