Tuesday, May 24, 2011

There is no such thing as knowledge management

Knowledge Management must be one of the great 4-5 "utopian unicorns" of large enterprises. I have seen endless numbers of teams espouse the need for a way to harness the collective power of an organization. There is no shortage of vendors willing to offer some software package guaranteed to solve all of our problems. Most of these are little more than fancy filesharing tools that are barely used. Don't even get me started in trying to use it outside of the company network.

And yet, I have not seen a single, coherent enterprise knowledge management strategy. Why is this? And why does the desire for a system keep rearing itself?

I do believe at the core of all this activity is the implicit assumption that if Wikipedia could be built with no central organizing committee, then a company ought to be able to leverage its resources towards something at least as effective.

I agree with the desire for such a capability, and after chasing many of these same unicorns myself for years, I have come to the following point of view:

You cannot manage knowledge.
You cannot manage people.
You cannot manage how people work with knowledge.

What you CAN do is to give them a palette of tools that allows them to communicate with each other. You can give them tools to make, store, search, and share knowledge and by proxy, the knowledge of an entire enterprise lives within and among its people. It is as simple as having tools "in the moment" for one person to find the answer via another person. Over time, if we enable that information to be stored and retrieved, knowledge will accumulate.

For example, the most popular "widget" on our internal employee toolkit is Google Search. Think about that for a second: For all the might and power we bring to a transaction, the most often used tool by our employees is the Google Search bar. I think this is because the vast majority of questions are generic, and our people are already comfortable with Google. It could also be that they have no confidence in any internal search capability.

And yet, none of those search queries are indexed. Can you imagine the value of analyzing all those searches? Think of the pulse of the sales floor that would give us in real time. That is knowledge management.

At the heart of this concept is the idea that power and complexity can emerge from a small, simple set of rules. Like Wikipedia, the internet itself is built on a simple set of rules and tools that govern how messages are sent, devices are connected, and in turn, how tools emerge.

Here are my basic laws of knowledge:

- Make it easy to Access
- Make it easy to Find
- Make it easy to Communicate

Rule 1: Make It Easy To Access

- If you get a paycheck, you should have a login/identity.

- Once you have a login, you can access from ANY device, anywhere. This should include personal devices. One major shout out to the Best Buy IT Dept: They allow us to use personal devices at the corporate office for mail, contacts, and calendar, with only minor restrictions on usage of company information.  This is the right kind of policy.

- Every individual in the enterprise globally must have a single identity/login. Having this will help later, as you will see, in preventing abuse.

Rule 2: Make It Easy To Find

-We should Index Everything:

Enterprise policy should be to index EVERYTHING, and only restrict access later based on login credentials. You cannot easily access Sharepoint from non-MS browsers, or from non-VPN connections. This limits communication. We must include the cost of NOT being able to do something when evaluating risk.

-Most companies email and file archives are impossible to search easily. This gives little incentive to store knowledge in the first place.

- Anyone should be able to find any other person by name, expertise, business unit, project, borders, and any other esoteric superhero gift that person deems relevant to broadcast to their peers.


You should be able to EDIT, annotate, and link to any information within an organization, just like on the internet. Unlike Wikipedia, we have the advantage of knowing WHO each user is. I am confident that the corporation has an advantage here in that abuse will be far less of an issue, due to the penalties and risk involved via your identity being exposed inside the company network.

- We should make it easy to talk with anyone once we have found them, beyond just email. If Google Search is the most popular widget on company systems, I predict instant messaging will be a close second. Imagine a sales associate in Des Moines being able to search for "Geek Squad Agent versed in Mac and Sonos audio products", chatting from a tablet on the sales floor, to the Agent who is on a house call somewhere outside of Atlanta.

Sound like a utopian unicorn? The joke is on us: actually, employees of almost every company go home at night, and have access to more powerful communication technology simply via Facebook and XBOX. So I don't want to hear excuses about how this is not possible. In an era of banks who are "too big to fail", people should rightly challenge large enterprises to provide more power to the indivudlal than that person could obtain on their own.

Companies acquire processes and complexity over time.  It's never anyone's fault.  It's just the nature of the beast.  Every once in a while though, usually during a recession in an attempt to cut costs, leadership pares back those layers.  We are all striving for that utopian simipicity of when we were a startup.  Don't give up on that goal.  The most popular tools on the internet give us a clue as to how to get power from simplicity.  The first step, before looking to software itself to house the knowledge of an organization is to let people easily communicate with each other.

That's why one day, I predict our Sole Operating Procedure will simply be:

"Don't Ever say 'I Don't Know'....say 'I'll Find Out' "


BValle said...

Great points!
In fact, what you're saying is that there is no way of controlling knowledge in a centralized manner.
But you show that there are plenty of ways we can manage knowledge flow ourselves, in an emergent and decentralized way, based in a simple set of rules and tools.
Well, that IS knowledge management indeed!

Anonymous said...

Our infrastructure and our IS makes all of this impossible in the enterprise. No integrated solution for identity management, impossible to get approval from anyone, no one is willing to take risks. But we're trying to build it anyways.

Brett said...

Sounds like an implicit endorsement of Knowledge Centered Support (KCS) to me!

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VauPro said...

Good and valid points about knowledge management! However, I would like to challenge it a bit. Employees should not have to search for the key knowledge they need to perform better, but corporations should deliver it and require that they get familiar with it. Knowledge management should be proactive and CSF oriented; not about searching K from google, but getting what you need - no more, no less ("muda knowledge") - on your desk.

akhu said...

Indeed, knowledge currently resides in minds, not in IS. In fact, mind operations reflect knowledges nature and architecture, as they developed to to manage and share it. Yet, this does also imply that communications (eg. languages), although designed to work with knowledge, do not carry knowledge. They are only human conventions designed to be used to try to dynamically (re)focus communication receiver minds, on sequences of assumed shared or common knowledge resources, so that receivers can infer new knowledge from the mind focus sequencing, that they have been guided through, however relatively effectively so. Words and languages do not carry knowledge. The common knowledge contexts in each communicating mind, is key to successful communications.When there is much common knowledge context, the most significant words used to communicate are typically things like "thing", "like" and "do", and they work well. When the communicators' contexts are completely different, no sharing can happen, whatever fancy words and syntax may used. Even just the knowledge of a common language between communicating parties, is not enough.

Points include: 1. currently knowledge is in the minds of the beholders, which are not exclusively humans (e.g. the spider clearly knows what a web is for), 2. although they can be useful in communication, languages are not the place to look for knowledge, 3. today, corporations are managing information, not knowledge, 4. knowledge can be stored, transformed, managed, operated, and shared through representations, quite possibly outside minds, as in DNA, for example. Even inside minds, neural networks do represent knowledge, and, at least in principle, could be reproduced in IS. More so, even if it is far from true today, we could surely have our IT systems working with us, to truly manage knowledge.

But first, we need to much better (e.g. scientifically) understand the natural architecture and principles of knowledge as this enables the development of truly effective knowledge management and sharing support systems. Experience has shown that this does imply fundamental application design changes, based on a different processing model, at least from current IS implementations. Just as an example, knowledge resource entitlement is a natural built-in knowledge principle used in many ways, including to manage access, capability, responsibility, and behavior. Without integrating the effective management and sharing of those, in the inner application fabric, there is still a long way to go.

Understanding the natural architecture and structuring principles of knowledge, understanding the differences and relations between knowledge and communication, and also better understanding communication, are drastically required, before we can more adequately use computers to effectively contribute to knowledge management and sharing, and before we can properly organize to better manage and share knowledge.

Although better understanding the natural architecture of knowledge is clearly fascinating and extremely enabling, when will we globally be ready for such an information to knowledge change? At the current rate, it may take a while. It is not utopia, as it has been done practically, but it is changing what there is today, including the need to convince IT giants that, even though they are currently sitting on top of the food chain and reaping benefits from the mayhem, they need to change some of the foundations that underly their good fortune. That seems much closer to utopia, at least in short term.

Even the fact that it was proven that, had the information agencies had adequate knowledge sharing infrastructure to effectively share the knowledge that each had, the 9/11 events, the multiple still raging wars that have followed for over a decade, and the root cause of the crumbling of the US economy, could have been avoided, still does not seem to have cost enough to better open minds to effective change.

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