Knowledge Management Whac-A-Mole

The only strategy was to "whack" quickly. Not much of a strategy though.

What does Whac-A-Mole and many knowledge management implementations have in common? Perhaps a lot more than you’d think (and that’s not a good thing).

You remember an arcade game called “Whac-A-Mole” and maybe you even played a round or two (or more). What’s that got to do with knowledge management? Well, it seems that the game pretty much describes what passes for KM strategy in quite a few organizations.

Whac-A-Mole — is an arcade game that we’re all probably familiar with, right? There is a large but low cabinet with a bunch of holes in the top. And you held a soft mallet/hammer. And a mechanism inside the cabinet would cause “moles” to pop up from random holes. The object of the game was to “whack” the mole back into their hole by hitting them with the mallet. The key though was to whack the moles as quickly as you could – each hit increased your score and you had a limited time in which to hit as many as you could before time ran out. But the thing was, the mole didn’t exactly wait around to get whacked.

Whac-A-Mole is/was referred to as a “redemption game” which rewarded players based on their score. The reward was often tickets or tokens that could then be redeemed for a prize. And so players would sometimes get drawn in for long periods of time trying to win a large number of tickets needed to win a top prize. And in general what you’d spend playing the game to earn that number of tickets would almost certainly exceed the actual value of the desired top prize.

Now, what does that have to do with knowledge management?

Well, the thing is that in Whac-A-Mole you never knew where the mole(s) would appear next. There was no real pattern to it (the machine was designed that way) but often players were convinced that they could determine a pattern. So you’d see someone with their hammer poised over a particular hole, only to have to lurch forward toward another hole where the mole had actually appeared. Missed. Next one. Whac. Ah, got it now, oh wait, another miss. Dang. “Hey, anyone got another quarter?”

And I think that this is much like a lot of “knowledge management” implementation going on.

Document, document, who’s got the document? Dang. Implement a document repository. Dang, the document never got into the repository. Assign someone to ferret out all the documents. Dang, the expert that had that knowledge didn’t have time to capture the knowledge. Assign someone to identify all the experts. Dang, the experts changed out before we got to document them. Form communities to bring experts together (mandate their participation) so that everyone gets to know who the experts are. Dang, that felt too much like their “day job” and so they didn’t really participate (much). And on and on and on.

Hey, welcome to knowledge management Whac-A-Mole!

What I’m talking about is what would in the world of management theory be referred to as “managing by exception.” And in that world a manager need only wait for something that appears to be wrong, and then they “whack” it. And in this way a manager is primarily reacting to the people who are an exception to the manager’s own expectations. No action is taken until a “mole” raises its head. This is quite reactionary, is non-strategic and causes managers (and the organization) to live in a tactically driven world.

Applied to the world of knowledge management, lacking any KM strategy and failing to identify viable metrics, the organization begins to “whack” about at whatever problem or challenge “mole” pokes its head up. What does that mean – what are they actually “doing” during the “whacking” you might ask? Well, that would be endlessly chasing from one quick fix to another, typically focusing upon IT driven quick fixes.

Perhaps you’ve heard this one before (i.e., near where you happen to sit?):

We’re just trying to get/fix/finish/complete/whatever on this version of Borrowpoint/Lendpoint/ShareApoint (version 2000-whatever) until they roll out the next version and/or until we’re allowed to purchase one of the most recent versions. Yupper, when that day comes, then we’ll be A-L-L-L-L set!

What’s happening is often referred to as having an “activity addiction.”

That’s where an organization believes that as long as it is implementing something, it is being effective. And it takes a whole lot longer to build a good knowledge sharing culture — gosh, who knows how long that might take? But on the other hand, if you start implementing the “whatever-IT-tool-of-the-day-to-come-along”, you will be busy. And busy must be good.

To a point where you hear organizations bragging about how they’re faster at implementing the shiny new IT thingie — faster than their peer organizations (and they have the benchmarks to prove it, and they even give presentations about it at conferences!).

Effective managers learn that they need to instead become “addicted” to producing measurable results. You know, doing the right things for the right reasons. Producing or creating something of value, or contributing to that by adding value to something.

We’re (once again) talking about identifying the knowledge gaps in the organization and then determining what needs to be done to close those gaps, based on how the gaps impact the big picture strategic gaps. It’s all about knowing what knowledge management is and what you’re trying to do with it. Staying busy by grasping at any ‘ole thing that comes along, especially IT things, is just that – busy. But busy isn’t being effective and it sure isn’t likely to actually accomplish something of value. Well, unless your goal was to simply appear busy. Which sounds a bit like a panel in a Dilbert cartoon.

Dr. Dan's Daily Dose:
Failure to understand what knowledge management is (really is) and how it can and should support the organizational “big picture” will lead to ineffective KM implementation. In doing so you begin to look a bit like the Whac-A-Mole player, head down and concentrating – waiting for the next mole to raise its head.

About Dr. Dan Kirsch