Why KM “Maturity Models” Don’t Work

Do "Maturity Models" Leave You....

Knowledge Management “maturity models” simply don’t work in KM. Now let’s talk about why.

In yesterday’s blog post I’d briefly mentioned something I referred to as the “Knowledge Management Strategy Maturity Levels” and someone asked in an email whether or not that was the same as applying the “maturity model” concept to KM. I replied that it wasn’t, and then thought that this might be a great opportunity to discuss the whole premise of being able to somehow apply a “maturity model” approach or concept to KM and why that doesn’t work.

I’m decidedly unimpressed with the many attempts made to somehow absolutely define or delineate a “maturity model” approach that could be universally applied to Knowledge Management. I can readily identify at least a dozen such attempts – ranging from Siemens’ KMMM® to the APQC model, and including all of the others in between. Models that suggest that there are four levels of maturity, to those with more than eight supposed levels. Heck, there are even models out there put forth by folks who have stated publically that maturity models don’t work because of the broad range of KM’ish activities out there (said when addressing someone else’s model) but now their model is “different” because it somehow brings “good practice KM activities and processes” to the mix. Ah huh.

Yikes, it’s enough to make your eyes glaze over. But the issue is that despite all of those models, nothing has bubbled to the top as the “unifying” model, or whatever. And that’s because it simply can’t happen. Let’s talk about why.

Let’s start with understanding where “maturity models” came from. The root of most if not all maturity models is the “Capability Maturity Model (CMM)®” developed by Carnegie Mellon University for the U.S. Department of Defense. And that research was “based on a process maturity framework first described in the 1989 book, “Managing the Software Process” by Watts Humphrey.”

The critical point to be made is that this model, as well as all of the research that it was based upon, and was focused upon assessments of defined and established processes. The model was specifically applied to software engineering and development as a tool to be used to reduce risk. And while the concept has been successfully applied in areas outside of software development (such as IT services, some very specific business processes and even some limited applications within human capital management), it has not been successfully applied as that concept within the broad field of Knowledge Management. The obvious reason why that is the case is that you will have a pretty hard time applying a process tool where there are no standard processes.

There is no such thing as a standard process in Knowledge Management.

Let’s start with the concept that the only thing that makes any organization unique is its people, because of their knowledge, experience and understanding. So right off the bat, every organization will have different knowledge. Sure, some of that knowledge may well be similar to that held by organizations in the same “business” but it certainly won’t be identical. It can’t, else there would be no competitive advantages. And given that, it is then unlikely that any two organizations would be able to treat their unique knowledge in the exact same way as another organization.

Which is why in knowledge management it is quite unlikely that you’ll find a listing of standard models, methods or methodologies. Simply cannot happen. And there is no such standard listing floating around out there (and if someone tries to tell you that there is, I’d suggest keeping an eye on your wallet!). And hopefully that’s giving you a good idea of why a “maturity model” is unlikely to be applicable or even pertinent across the organizational spectrum of unique knowledge and capabilities that you will find in “knowledge management.”

Another issue that makes the purported application of a “maturity model” somewhat suspect is that the very concept of “knowledge management” is itself quite vast. Heck, we can’t even come up with a unified definition of what “knowledge management” is, nor do I think that we’ll be able to (my own belief is that your organization’s definition of what KM is will be decidedly more important than someone else’s definition). It’s easier though to suggest that most (sane) views of KM is that it includes a wide range (perhaps infinite range) of activities, some with similar focuses but others that are certainly unique in both application and in how an organization might apply those activities.

KM is just one of those things where it is perhaps easier to define what it is by describing what it isn’t. With that basic concept in hand, it is important to then accept that there is little likelihood that you’d be able to somehow specify which of those many many activities “should” or even “must” be performed at any specific “level” of “maturity.”

For example, let’s say that your organization is embarking upon its own KM journey – right now, this very day. The important question to ask would be why? In other words, what environmental issues (internal or external forces) are motivating your organization to attempt implementation of knowledge management? Given those it is much more likely that your organization will then likely “take on” activities which specifically address your issues (well, let’s at least hope so). You don’t have the same issues as – throw a dart at the wall of all other organizations – and so your activities are most likely not going to be a match to their activities. Commonalities, sure. A match, no.

So any maturity model would need to somehow (magically) adjust to the full spectrum of all activities likely to be undertaken as a factor of which specific activities would ONLY be undertaken by those just getting started vs. those who were at some absolute and defined point down the road. And then there’s the whole issue of how you could define “starting” in KM. All while trying to absolutely establish which activities would be “immature” and which would “mature” and what would be identified as the measurable “shades of grey” in between that would supposedly directly correlate to another relevant organization (which is the whole point of a comparative analysis – having something relevant to use for comparison). And as you no doubt suspect, there could be no such list. What I think may be “mature” may simply be “immature” based on what your organization is attempting to achieve in its KM implementation efforts. Or vice versa. With endless shades in between.

Okay, hopefully we’ve flogged the dead horse long enough. Let’s talk about what brought this whole conversation to head. I believe that instead of trying to focus upon some sort of “maturity levels” in knowledge management implementation, you can instead observe and track progress in what I call, “Knowledge Management Strategy Maturity Levels™.” That’s where you seek to determine what level of strategy maturation can be observed.

I base this concept on about 20 years of time spent working in KM, added to the mix is that my background is in Strategic Management. Which means (as I’ve said many times before) that I don’t view KM to be the “end all” to all things. I believe that KM is a tool in the toolbox. It’s a darn fine tool, and to me it would probably be the “Swiss Army knife” of the toolbox. But the toolbox is Strategic Management.

The “what” of what Strategic Management is can probably best be answered in another forum (or through some suggested readings), but what I know about it is that it is also quite broad, and even to a great degree somewhat undefined. And yet I know that I can successfully measure how well an organization is doing with regard to Strategic Management by looking at the maturity of the organizational strategy itself as it is the strategy that becomes the unifying “agent” of Strategic Management.

So as applied to KM, instead of trying to determine the “maturity” of the organization’s knowledge management implementation, I look at the maturity of their strategy that is driving whatever those KM implementation efforts are. Which means that this isn’t a “knowledge management” model, method, or methodology and it is instead a Strategic Management framework (or you could think of it as one of the concepts that underlay what is referred to as “Strategic Knowledge Management”).

That framework is flexible enough to account for whatever activities are undertaken by any organization – that’s simply no longer relevant. Your activities no longer have to match those in another organization. We don’t care. The maturity of your strategy is what will allow for me to determine how well the KM implementation is going – which is what we’re really trying to determine anyway.

The details of the “Knowledge Management Strategy Maturity Levels™” are also probably best left for discussing in other forums, but what I’ve found is that I can easily measure where any organization is along a spectrum that covers five levels of KM strategy maturity. And it can be clearly seen that moving from one level to the next represents a measureable increase in maturity of KM strategy. And that I can work with!

Dr. Dan's Daily Dose:
Trying to apply “maturity models” to Knowledge Management is like trying to apply a “maturity model” to your kids. Not exactly sure what that means but I think that it gets the point across.
About Dr. Dan Kirsch