Strategic versus Tactical Knowledge Management

In talking to organisations about KM this week, the question of strategic v tactical came up so I thought I’d re-share this post from a few years ago.

I have heard and been involved in quite a few conversations over the years (including before my involvement in KM) along the line of “what’s the difference between strategy and tactics?”. In the early days they were interesting but they tended to be quite rambling and I was never quite sure that anyone, including me, really had the answer.

I had an impression that strategy somehow sat above tactics, and it felt like there was some overlap and connection (and a gap should be avoided) – but overall it wasn’t clear, at least to me. I needed something clearer to hang my thoughts on.

A Breakthrough Moment

Then there was a point that someone made at a meeting that helped a great deal. It was “Do the right things then do the things right.” It seems that we often jump to the second part and do what is familiar, aiming to do them faster, better, cheaper.

This is of course laudable – but what if we end up doing things really fast, well and cheaply - but they are no longer the right things? I saw a post on Linked In recently that said something like “the electric bulb didn’t come from endlessly improving the candle.”

It struck me that, in a very simple way (and overly simple no doubt), Strategy is about doing the right things and Tactics is about doing them in the right way. There is also the link between Effectiveness and Efficiency of course.

A Nautical Aside

Another example I like, being a nautical person with salt water in my veins instead of blood, is the evolution of the Paddle Wheel to the Propeller for ships. When sail was superseded and engines came along, paddle wheels were used and they evolved and improved. Then someone realised that paddle wheels were quite inefficient because some of their energy was about pushing water up and down – only some of the energy was about pushing the water back - and hence the ship forward. (Newton’s Third Law I think?)

The propeller was invented and two ships of similar power, one driven by paddle wheels and the other by a propeller, were tied together in a tug of war. The latter towed the former backwards and clearly won the tug of war – paddle wheels quickly disappeared and propellers evolved and improved.

What does this mean for KM?

“Do the right things then do the things right” needs to be translated to “Manage the right knowledge then manage the knowledge right”.

In my early days in KM I was focussed on the latter. I spent my time responding to asks for communities or individual knowledge transfer or team learning processes. Of course, this is a reactive, tactical and activity-led approach to KM. If we are serious about managing knowledge as a proper organisational asset then we need to take more forward-looking approach to it.

This means Knowledge Plans for organisations as a whole, their major departments / functions– and also individuals.

In simple terms this means asking questions (every 3 – 6 months or so) like:

  • Where are we going as a business / department / individual? What are we trying to achieve and what are our business aims and objectives?
  • Given this business context, which knowledge do we need to manage to support what we want to do – both now and in the future?
  • Which of the necessary knowledge do we have, which are we missing that we need to gain and develop - and which is no longer so important as it was?

This means we still of course end up doing those tactical KM activities of learning & communities etc but we are more clearly doing them in response to clear knowledge needs which are in turn in response to business direction, objectives and aspirations.

A Balance between Strategy and Tactical

Lastly, it seems to me that some people are more at home in the strategy arena and some more in the tactical – we need both. Strategy without tactics sets a powerful context and direction but progress is slow, while tactics without strategy is about energy and feel-good busy-ness that can lead in the wrong direction and wasted effort. Knowledge Plans, and Knowledge Managers to own and maintain them, helps get this balance right.

Comments & advice welcome on any of the above – I’m always aware you never stop learning in all this! Thank you.