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Living La Vida KM
In step with knowledge management's thought leaders.
For the rest of the April 2000 issue of CRM magazine please click here
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After a long day of workshops, there was a reception at the Enterprise Intelligence World Summit in Orlando last December. While the DJ spun Ricky Martin's "Livin' la Vida Loca," a conga line of knowledge managers snaked its way through tables laden with artichoke pizza and coconut chicken. The conference- if not actually the conga line-featured a who's who of KM's founding fathers such as Tom Davenport, Larry Prusak, Karl-Erik Sveiby, Robert Buckman and Tom Stewart. It seemed a good time to wonder again what knowledge management is, what it isn't, and what it's coming to. Does the discipline still have, well, legs?

In truth, there's no shortage of often-conflicting, varied definitions of knowledge management. Delphi calls it "the leveraging of collective wisdom to increase responsiveness and innovation." The American Productivity and Quality Center says KM is "the broad process of locating, organizing, transferring and using the information and expertise within an organization." But KM's founders are more interested in what knowledge management isn't.

Larry Prusak, director of IBM's Institute for Knowledge Management, emphasizes, for instance, that KM isn't about managing knowledge. Trying to manage the knowledge of the enterprise is one of those relics of social engineering and central planning that has been discredited everywhere in Western civilization except in the corporation, he argues. If CEOs so despise communism, he asks, why do they tend to manage like stalin?

Instead, Prusak recommends that knowledge managers focus on the natural, dynamic networks that self-organize around communities of practice. "If you do that, you don't even have to offer incentives to share knowledge," he says. "They will do it out of the passion they have for their fields."

The Ghost in the Machine
Prusak admits that half of the 220 KM projects he has monitored over the last 10 years are "deeply sub-optimized." The single biggest enemy of successful KM, he claims, is the wrong choice of metaphors; in particular, seeing the organization as a machine ("immoral and stupid," he says) or seeing knowledge as a thing to be measured ("You can't quantify knowledge any more than love or trust").

The paucity of booths in the EI'99 exhibit hall suggests a creeping ennui in the vendor community. No longer is every code factory in Silicon Valley, Puget Sound or along Route 128 jostling to position its software as a critical KM tool or complete KM solution. For one thing, KM technology isn't the high-end market it was a year ago. Much of the functionality of systems costing $50,000 or more-document management, Web servers, collaborative workspaces-is built into the latest versions of operating systems, databases and office applications, or hosted through free Web sites.

For another, practitioners are less afraid to admit these days that KM has more to do with anthropology than with technology; that it is enabled by technology but absolutely dependent on culture, especially values like trust. Serious KM vendors never disputed this. On the contrary, they are tired of being asked for million-dollar refunds by customers who still gave bonuses only to top salespeople-discouraging them from sharing their insights with colleagues.

Buckman, chairman of Bulab Holdings and Applied Knowledge Group, has never been overly distracted by KM technologies. He relies instead on trust to facilitate sharing the most important knowledge-that 90 percent of tacit knowledge that cannot be easily extracted from the squishy repositories between the ears of knowledge workers. Technology's role is to help those workers find each other, but it's management's job to make them want to connect.

"Individuals will not share what they know unless they trust their coworkers. This culture maintenance must be done by management," he says. "We should use our system of communication to share our tacit knowledge as widely [and quickly] as possible so that each individual will always have the full global force of the company behind them no matter where they are at any point in time."

Collection vs. Connection
This still leaves us with the false dichotomy that Stewart, a member of Fortune magazine's board of editors, refers to as the "sentimental" and "mechanistic" views of knowledge management. He too is convinced that KM is, in his words, about connection rather than collection. "The best tool for knowledge-sharing is still the coffee maker," he says, "and what we really need to do is to put a coffee pot in the network."

In this first KM column for CRM, it might seem inappropriate to anticipate the demise of the knowledge management movement, but KM will inevitably fade, as have the many management trends that preceded it. Will it be blamed as a good idea gone wrong? That's what happened to business process reengineering. No matter how much sense it made, it was too easy for short-sighted managers to pervert BPR into a rationalization for downsizing, leaving companies too lean for innovation. Or, will KM just fade away as a discreet discipline, as the total quality management movement did?

There is a big difference. Though neither acronym is often whispered in corporate hallways anymore, history judges BPR and TQM differently. Today's workers are nostalgic for one-and still angry about the other.

KM owes much to the quality movement. Quality taught us to embed values in the routine of work, to care only about the needs of the customer and to constantly ask ourselves Deming's question, "To what end?" are our labors. And at the same time that KM (for companies such as Xerox) has gone much smoother by building on a foundation laid down for quality, there are firms watching their market share slip away despite vast knowledge management programs. In general, however, you hear less about quality any more because its values have been absorbed into corporate culture. "You don't hear about the quality movement any more because it won," Prusak says. In other words, it can be argued that knowledge management will disappear faster if it succeeds than if it fails.

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