KM – Lead, Follow or Get Out of the Way

Lead, follow, or get out of the way. Effective leaders choose the right path, and then lead others.

A recent article by David Griffiths published in Inside Knowledge is stirring a few discussions. David discusses an opinion/concern titled, “Knowledge Management is Dead.” Not really, just that some are apparently afraid to call it KM anymore.

I’d like to offer the counter opinion then. While I do agree with a lot of what David wrote about, I can’t agree to simply stop talking about KM in hopes that this will somehow “solve” the problem.

The problem is inadequate management that seizes upon new potential quick fixes the way a crow will snatch a shiny penny laying on the ground. The problem is that those that did understand KM typically then fail to make the right argument to get the point across. But calling it something else won’t solve anything.

For example, some out there refer to KM instead as “knowledge transfer.” What exactly is that? I have a pretty good idea what you’d offer as a definition of the concept, etc. But as soon as the managers make the mental leap that, “ah ha, knowledge transfer is what we call moving electrons from one repository to another – see, I knew that it wasn’t KM!” then you’re right back to where you were when it was “knowledge management.” You may think that knowledge transfer as a term can make the “right point” but I would be willing to bet that what those managers come to for a conclusion as to what it is and what they should do will not be a match to what you’re thinking.

And a few other well known folks now will only refer to KM as “decision making.” Wow. That’s about as vague and fuzzy as you can get. Is that decision making software support tools then? Not sure. But either way I can guarantee that you’re not going to see a flood of folks rushing to the meeting to define the organizational “strategic decision making plan” or such. Not going to happen. Why? Ah, because pretty much all managers out there already believe that they make decisions, and probably think that those are all great decisions. So what do they need that this “decision making” will offer? Yeah, thought so.

IMHO, how KM got to where it is (in at least some organizations) is that those who needed to carry the banner didn’t do a good job of that, and they failed to properly make the case. And a huge part of the issue has to do with who they were dealing with — managers who in many cases don’t understand fundamental concepts such as the difference between diminishing returns (old school) and increasing returns (new think). Diminishing returns models were applicable to the industrial and even information ages, but they no longer apply to modern knowledge-based organizations prevalent in the knowledge age as intangible assets are governed by the economic law of increasing returns.

And to be fair, if you’re dealing with folks still living in that past, you then better be busy trying to educate them (invite them to join THIS century), and then trying to reshape the culture. Otherwise, things can go badly – especially when those supposedly trying to carry the KM banner moved foward.

A typical example is that lacking an adequate foundational understanding of what KM is, and lacking any organizational strategy to implement KM (more on that in a moment), as a way to “prove” KM they were either sent off or went off on their own in search of “quick wins” and low hanging fruit. Get some successes on the board, show ‘em the “value” of KM. And that was the WRONG WRONG WRONG approach to implementing either KM or anything of strategic significance.

I’m not suggesting that small scale or pilot approaches are bad, but when what you’re pitching is that KM apparently seems to be nothing but grabbing some low hanging fruit, the damage is done. Nobody, and I mean nobody, offers up a budget for low hanging fruit. That runs counter to the concept (quick wins that save money typically being the concept). So then KM becomes nothing more than a bit of background noise, tolerable only as long as it is supporting the implementation of IT.

But simply focusing upon “knowledge transfer” or “decision making” (or whatever, as I’ve heard them all before) gains you no ground. Is there an organizational “knowledge transfer strategy” in place? A knowledge transfer strategic plan? Is knowledge transfer identified and planned for within the overarching organizational strategy? No, I bet that it’s not. And so, fast forward, and one day down the road someone is just as likely to say that they no longer discuss knowledge transfer anymore….just too challenging given the current trends. And then what?

It is easy to look around and see successful organizations that embrace knowledge management concepts and principles — they have cultures that ensure that knowledge sharing is the norm. And those same organizations then out-innovate their competitors hands-down. I don’t see them bowing and scraping and apologizing for being “knowledge managers” or for doing KM. But what I do see — in those organizations that don’t “get” KM — are managers suggesting that, “well you know, we’re not Google. Or Apple. Or Sony. Or 3M.” And wow, is that ever an understatement. They sure aren’t and the leaders of those organizations don’t fritter their days away with this nonsense.

Frankly, I think that very possibly the BIGGEST issue facing knowledge management (or most anything else in today’s organizations) is a fundamental lack of leadership.

We have all run into senior managers who claimed that they “believed” in KM but what they then did was demonstrate their support for IT “thingies” – and nobody called them on it. They have senior staff, advisors and such and nobody stood up and said you’re wrong, that’s not what KM is. They failed to do their job.

To be fair, that may well have been because those same folks weren’t adequately prepared to explain what KM was, but who’s fault was that? And where was their organizational KM stategy? It didn’t exist. What vision did they lay out for KM? Bet the only “vision” was trying to implement the current version of that shiny “thingie.” And for those trying to “sell” KM, where did they identify as a “knowledge gap” that their managers didn’t “get” what KM was all about, and what was their strategy for closing that gap? They didn’t have one.

Leadership. That’s what this is all about. The adage that we’re all familiar with is lead, follow or get out of the way. Decide which one you will do, and then execute.

Dr. Dan's Daily Dose:
KM needs leaders. Lead, follow, or get out of the way. If your organization doesn’t “get” what KM is, don’t try to wrap a new candy shell around it and call it something else. Sit them down, right now, and have a frank dialog with them and help them understand what KM really is about. Can’t do that? Why not? If they’re not going to listen to you, then I hope that your resume is current — then leave, go find some other place to be that wants to operate in this century, an organization that cares about innovation. If you think that you’re not able to adequately explain what KM really is — then do something about that. Prepare yourself. But lead, follow, or get out the way.
About Dr. Dan Kirsch