Knowledge Management & Organizational Change

Organizational Change...and Resistance...Happens.

Whoa. That was my first thought when I read a blog post this morning. It started with receiving a comment from someone about one of my own posts, which lead me to that person’s blog, which in turn lead me to another blog. And that’s where I got the whoa. I’m not even going to point out which blog it was, just don’t think that it is really that worth it. But it does give me enough of a whoa feeling that I’m moved to post a bit about how organizational change impacts knowledge management (or is it how knowledge management impacts organizational change?). But the whoa statement was: “Resistance to change is a myth. There is no such thing.” And that was followed by “Organizations are not machines. Organizations are systems. And there is no resistance in a system.”

Again. Whoa. The bad news is that the author of that blog post is a management consultant. The good news is that at least the author isn’t involved in knowledge management. But clearly the author has a very limited understanding of systems theory, systems thinking, and organizational change.

There are just so many things fundamentally wrong with that blog post, that I bet you hardly know where to get started, right?

First let’s tackle the whole “organizations are systems” and “there is no resistance in a system.” Let’s just lay it out on the table. People. Yes, people. An organization is NOT a system. Not really. You can find lots of definitions for a system, but keeping it simple there is this: “System is a set of interacting or interdependent system components forming an integrated whole.” (Wikipedia: System)

Systems Thinking.

Armed with that definition, let’s all agree that an “organization” doesn’t on its own meet that definition. Sure, I’m not saying that an organization is NOT a system, but I’m saying that simply because an organization exists (as a concept) that it is not a system. An organization may be filled with lots of systems, but that doesn’t make those non-interacting and non-dependent “parts” a unified, interacting and interdependent system. People do. That’s a fundamental principle of system theory in that when you add people to a collection of things that do not yet form an interacting and interdependent system, that almost always makes that collection of things a system.

That’s why your kitchen isn’t a system. Sure there are systems there — the refrigerator is one. The microwave is another. And so on. But last I checked, the toaster doesn’t ask the ‘frig to send over some bread. And the toaster doesn’t load bread on its own, and decide to burn it. Well, I know, some days it just feels like that. But it is a person who enters the kitchen and then turns that collection of systems and other independent collections into a functioning system.

So to the point, one gripe I have with this author’s post is that they totally ignore the whole concept that it is people that make an organization. An organization doesn’t self-organize….the desks and chairs don’t scout out a building somewhere, move in and then take marching orders from your laptop. That is all just “stuff” that we, as in people, then organize and arrange into some sort of functioning organization. Bringing people to the equation is the “making” of the organization as a system.

Organizations are systems because of the people who create the organization, by the people who operate the organization. Remove the people, and you just have collections of stuff.

Having said that, it is just down right silly to claim that there is “no resistance in a system” and that “resistance to change is a myth.” To claim such is to fail to understand the basic concepts of systemic behavior. Systems in fact have “behaviors.”

A basic example of that can be seen in a “feedback loop” where instead of “A leads to B leads to C leads to D leads to E”, we see in systems that for whatever reason “D” might feedback and impact “B” before that can impact “C” which then causes the input to “D” to have changed. In our complex and highly-adaptive environments in which we operate today, linear thinking doesn’t fair so well (the A-B-C-D-E progression). Instead we have to understand in terms of “thinking loops” and have to accept that system behavior drives multiple reinforcing processes such as “balancing loops” where a system tries to maintain a certain stability. Balancing loops are the “building blocks” of today’s dynamic systems — they try to bring the system to a desired state and keep it there, and they limit and constrain CHANGE generated within reinforcing processes. That is basic system theory then meets systems thinking.

So yes, the very nature of systems is that they can and do limit and constrain change. In fact, you could kind of say that it is the “nature” of a system to resist change. That’s the WHOLE point of establishing a system purpose, of ensuring that system parts are performing optimally, that they are arranged in such a way to enable the system performance. All of that, intentionally done, then becomes a functioning system. And systems attempt to maintain stability through feedback.

So to make a claim that systems have no resistance….is silly. It’s a whoa moment.

And the fact of the matter is that people are resistant to change. It’s sort of in our nature. It’s not that we don’t like “the change” and instead it is that we don’t “like change.” We are wired to want to stay within a comfort zone. Where it’s safe. Danger outside. Stay safe. And if you have to go out, band with other people and increase your chances for staying safe. That’s our nature.

So whoa.

A key — no, a critical point to keep in mind in knowledge management implementation is that you don’t really manage knowledge. We manage people — people who have knowledge. People who create processes which then transfers knowledge to other people. Those people then bring their knowledge to the process. That’s what we manage.

And if your organization isn’t now readily sharing knowledge across any and all boundaries, then you will need to undergo organizational change to get there.

The author of this mentioned blog post suggests, “If people are resisting your strategy, go away and design a new one that’s irresistable [sic].” And that simply doesn’t fair well considering the most fundamental concepts of change management — the people are resistant to any change. Hence the need for “change leadership” and the concept that you lead people to where they need to go.

Anyway, probably enough said. But it is very frightening to wander around and run into some of these “whoa moments.” But again, the good news is that at least he’s not involved in knowledge management.

Dr. Dan's Daily Dose:
Implementing Knowledge Management requires a good understanding of the concepts and principles of organizational change. Failure to recognize that implementing KM is ALL about organizational change will result in a lack of success in your KM implementation. The KM implementation isn’t “at fault” — the improper handling of organizational change is.
About Dr. Dan Kirsch