Rare as a Unicorn

Rare is an actual Unicorn Sighting

Rare is a Unicorn Sighting

“Once long ago all animals lived in harmony. There was no strife among them, and they were able to speak together in a common language. At that time mysterious and wonderful events took place, and the noble unicorn dwelt with the other animals in the lower lands. Men believed the unicorn was immortal. They hunted him relentlessly, for it was said that his horn possessed magical powers. At last the unicorn was forced to flee high up in the mountains to escape the hunters’ arrows. His vanishing caused magic to pass from the land. Soon all living things forgot the unicorn, and animals lost the power to speak to others unlike themselves.” ["The Unicorn and the Lake" by Marianna Mayer]

The unicorn is a legendary animal from European folklore that resembles a white horse with a large, pointed, spiraling horn projecting from its forehead, and sometimes a goat’s beard and cloven hooves. First mentioned by the ancient Greeks, it became the most important imaginary animal of the Middle Ages and Renaissancewhen it was commonly described as an extremely wild woodland creature, a symbol of purity and grace, which could only be captured by a virgin. In the encyclopedias its horn was said to have the power to render poisoned water potable and to heal sickness. Wikipedia: Unicorns

Top-level management support for the Knowledge Management program has long since been established to be one of the Critical Success Factors in best practice (and successful) KM implementation. [Skyrme 2001/2003, Bishop 2008, Linde 2005, Picker 2009, Kant & Singh 2008, DeLong & Fahey 2000, Karabag 2010] It’s critical in gaining acceptance from employees and in developing an understanding of the role of KM to the organization’s strategy that the employees understand that top-management both supports and understands KM. However, my own experience (and this seems to be similar with many folks that I talk to) is that there isn’t a lot of validation of that being true.

For example, yesterday I was having a discussion with someone (let’s just call him “Bob”) who was struggling with KM implementation in his organization. As we delved further into the conversation it was expressed that the implementation had been somewhat frustrating, despite the fact that top-management understood KM and openly supported it. And in response I asked how so? Meaning, what is their understanding of what KM is and what had they done to openly support KM?

Bob’s reply was to say that top-management supported KM because, well, because they had designated this Bob to be in charge of KM. Meaning that they had created and then filled a position to support KM, to move the KM implementation forward.


I then began to ask Bob a few questions, starting with what top-management had defined as “knowledge management” and how that fit into the organization. The reply was that they hadn’t, but that they had instead looked at Bob’s Powerpoint slide in which he had provided one possible definition of KM.


And that’s where things pretty much fell apart as I then asked Bob a few more questions:

  • What specific things other than creating/filling his position had top-management done that openly demonstrated support?
  • Was there a KM strategy?
  • Was top-management intending to participate in developing a KM strategy?
  • How was Bob integrated within top-management strategy discussions (so that Bob would have an understanding of organizational issues)?
  • What performance measures had top-management identified with regard to how KM would best support organizational mission? Were there any Leading Indicators and Outcome metrics developed or identified?
  • What organizational strategic gaps had been identified as being related to specific knowledge gaps which would then need to be addressed?
  • What emphasis had been placed on managerial accountability to the goals of the KM program? What percentage of managerial performance evaluations would be based upon factors related to KM or organizational knowledge?
  • What action had been taken by top-management (and HR) to quantify the organizational knowledge held by which employees? What knowledge was identified as unique, and contributing to competitive advantage? How does that fit with any innovation needs they may have?


Bob got very quiet for a moment, and then admitted that none of the above had been addressed. And of course, this is just scratching the surface.

I suggested to Bob that from my perspective, KM thus far in his organization was seemingly more like a “hobby” than an effective program (with goals and objectives). Bob agreed.

Rarely Seen - Unicorn
And that’s the point about being as “Rare as a Unicorn” in that all too often “understanding KM” and “openly supporting KM” pretty much amounts to nothing to be seen. I think that all too often KM’ers are simply grateful to see the organization officially designate a KM position and to fill it, and then the “Bobs” go about their jobs trying to push the rock up the hill….on their own.

My last question for Bob though was perhaps the most “painful” of all. I asked him what he’d done to ensure that top-management had addressed or would address the above issues? His reply was to say that he’d not done anything….yet. But now armed with a laundry list of what needs to be done and where he needs to start, Bob had a pretty good sense of what to do next.

Dr. Dan's Daily Dose:
“Rare as a Unicorn” is how I’d describe many (most) organizational support of Knowledge Management. Mythical, folklore. But not really grounded in reality. To be truly effective it is necessary to not just make some casual efforts to implement (some) KM, but to make it systemic, cultural…a part of the very fabric of the organization. And that requires that top-management both understand AND openly support the KM program.
About Dr. Dan Kirsch