Implementing KM: Different Sectors and Three Common Spectra to Think About

In implementing Knowledge Management, I have worked in several different sectors including Oil & Gas, Public Sector, Humanitarian Aid, Church, Defence and Nuclear. Experience working with each has shown me where they are both the same and different regarding KM. I long ago gave up any sense that any were better or worse than the others, they are simply different with complementary roles in society – and of course organisations within the same sector can also vary hugely.

In all these environments, I have found people who are keen to be the early adopters of KM, the middle ground of those people who will adopt it albeit more slowly, and a few who are reluctant to change in any circumstances.

Many times, in all these different types of organisation, I have had conversations around three spectra that are relevant to implementing KM, including the culture change around it. Comments are most welcome on anything that follows, thank you.

1/. Investment v Cost

Some see KM as a cost, others as an investment in their knowledge asset – part of the challenge for KM is helping to move the conversation from the former to the latter. This sounds trite, but repeated conversations over the years have shown how near the surface this issue is.

Key to this is to ensure that KM is communicated and implemented as a connected system rather than disconnected tactical activities.

KM that is tactical-focused tends to be more at risk and is often an early casualty when costs come under scrutiny - no matter how often people say things like, “we should be doing more of this KM, not less, when times are hard”. A strongly tactical approach to KM tends to keep elements of the system separate, with team learning processes, Individual Knowledge Transfer (IKT) and Communities run as separate things / initiatives. People can’t see how things join up and the benefits of connected knowledge flow around the organisation are reduced; KM is at risk when done this way.

In contrast, Strategic KM that joins tactical elements up into owned & maintained KM Strategies and Plans that align under Business Unit needs & objectives (eg the organisation as a whole or its major projects & functions) tend to be much more resilient. They are seen as an investment for the organisation, both now and into the future – and are seen as adding value in both the good times and the bad. Crucially, the stories and evidence for the value come from business people as well from those in KM.

KM needs to encourage the organisation to pilot both tactical and strategic approaches to KM, and to make sure that the significance & value of managing the organisational knowledge as a strategic asset is both understood and applied. People need to see and experience that sense of knowledge flow around the organisation – this makes KM both much more robust and value-adding as well as sustainable.

2/. Long Stayers v Rapid Changers

Some staff remain in one organisation for many years while others change regularly not just within a sector but between them. Again, neither is better than the other, and again both are needed.

Overall, I have seen long stayers have obviously deeper knowledge of their organisation both technically and politically. This is balanced with a greater reluctance to change, more risk aversion and less willingness to see that innovations from different sectors may be of value. A common phrase is “our business is different from all the others you may have seen”.

The rapid changers tend to see transferable patterns, links and opportunities between different organisations and even sectors, but can underestimate how hard it is to make them happen in a local way. A common phrase is “Everywhere I go, I see similar issues and challenges.”

A KM Strategy needs to tap leaders of both types and both build on what is already in the organisation and not be afraid to challenge the status quo.

I have seen organisations that are, on balance, relatively open to change and those that resist it more – the latter tend to get left behind (even if they think they are leaders) while the former need to make sure they bring change in a managed way.

3/. Perfectionism v Pragmatism

I come from a mildly academic background. Instinctively I want things to be perfect or near to it and the academic foundations to any topic are of interest in my understanding of it.

While I was doing a relatively “normal” (very technical) job for the first part of my career this outlook was fine. Any pragmatism was forced on us in obvious ways that everyone could see (eg bad weather in the North Sea when moving oil rigs around between wells which I used to be involved with).

The moment I changed to KM implementation I had to re-think this a bit.

For example, I saw one KM team dive into long philosophical discussions on how Knowledge differed from Information (and Wisdom & Data), including quoting Plato. While this is of conceptual & philosophical interest, if it goes on too long it irritates the business who want a practical approach to learning and a good corporate memory. Quotes from Plato are not that helpful when people are seeking help looking after refugees or managing drilling operations! Perfection is the enemy of progress…and better to implement KM in a way that starts out basic in nature and is refined over time as we learn what we need to do to fit the culture and business model.

Conversely, the business can take over-simplistic short-cuts that are more about a tick-box outlook to KM and don’t meet minimum KM standards - the challenge here is to influence them to take a more holistic, strategic and longer-term view. Being busy, and being seen to be busy, is an aspect of western culture that sometimes causes problems – sometimes you have to go slower to go faster in the long run, including taking quality time out to properly reflect and learn as teams – and make sure the lessons identified are acted upon. This is definitely worth doing!

Any KM implementation strategy needs to find its place on this spectrum from piloting what works and consciously feeding it back into the approach taken. I have seen KM become both simpler and more complex as a result, the point is the organisation buys into it as it helped to create the KM system that works for them.