man_knowledge_id106289_size350oI’ve been pondering the concept of Knowledge Management (KM).  Experts in the field such as Dave Snowden have long been debating whether or not KM has outlived it’s purpose.  Many people wonder if it ever had a real value proposition, as there are many large organisations who spent millions on KM, but received very little of the value they anticipated.  In part this is due to the unfortunate confusion of Knowledge Management with Information Management as well as the over-focus on IT and normative approaches such as Communities of Practice (COP) which have proven to be unsustainable in the long-term.

While discussing this with Elmi from Thinking Knowledge, an interesting theory started to emerge.  KM is often seen as an add-on to the formal organisation, not an integral part of the way we do business.  This is evidenced by many organisations not being able to make up their mind where KM should sit in the organisational structure – is it IT, HR, BI … where should we put it?

A key problem is that the behavior required to survive in a corporate environment, which is fraught with politics and where selfish behavior is often required to get ahead, and the behaviors required to make KM work (unselfish, sharing etc) are largely contradictory.  Simply super-imposing KM as an add-on to a typical organisation creates expectations of such contradictory behavior, that it simply is not sustainable and probably leads to high levels of cognitive dissonance. With the KM behaviors not required for survival (even if they form part of performance contracts), they are obviously of lesser importance and staff simply choose to ignore them, or just appear to conform, hence the reason for many unattended COP’s and empty portals

How we get beyond this reality is an interesting question that I’m sure will lead to many stimulating discussions in months to come.  Existing operating models, organisational structures and process such as performance management and succession etc would need to change significantly in order to no longer incentivise selfish behavior.  Viewing an organisation as a Complex Adaptive System (i.e. an ecology metaphor) instead of a machine is a first step towards achieving this new way of operating, but we have a long way to go yet!

What I do know though, is that sharing knowledge, using knowledge and creating knowledge is something that human beings have done naturally for centuries.  So instead of trying to “manage” knowledge, maybe we should simply try to find a way of applying an old skill in a new context.