That was the title of a talk I gave recently to a group of graduate students at the Palmer School of Library and Information Science. It may have seemed that I was just trying to be provocative — but in fact, I was genuinely interested in finding the answer.
I think I now finally have.
When I launched my company in 1996, Knowledge Management in its modern form had just arrived on the scene. Books by Tom Stewart and Tom Davenport and Larry Prusak had begun to revitalize a field that had its roots back in the 1960s with Fritz Machlup and Peter Drucker.
Having been a researcher all my career, I was so excited by the potential of this approach that I described my company by the tag line “The Knowledge Agency”. That seemed to resonate with people, so I eventually adopted that as our main trade name, with a registered mark to go with it.
At one point I brought on a former colleague who had previously been with a global technology company prominent in KM. “Ron,” I asked him, “don’t tell me anything proprietary, but am I basically right that KM is the greatest thing since the Beatles — and that we’re all going to have a lot of fun and make a lot of money?”
“I hate to break this to you,” was his unexpected response, “but they’re dis-investing in KM. It didn’t work for them — they couldn’t make enough money at it.”
I went back to rethink my goals several times over, each time coming to the same conclusion — that KM was (and is) something badly needed that will have a major impact if executed well.
But I noticed that, more and more, in my consulting practice I was being called on to diagnose and fix KM approaches that, once implemented, had failed to meet their original goals. These were in some cases multi-million dollar efforts that ended up not being integrated into the entity’s work flow, and therefore did not provide sufficient ROI. This happened so often that I began informally referring to myself as “Dr. Know.”
It seemed that other people were having the same experience. I began to hear of enterprise-wide KM efforts that were severely cut back or even eliminated. (Bear in mind that this headed into the “dot-com” stock market bust of 2000.)
Tallies started appearing that showed the number of KM projects that had failed. One of these papers starts by pointing out bluntly that, “Many of these costly, information-laden efforts are doomed.” The aggregate failure rate of KM projects was discouragingly high, pegged by various observers at somewhere between 50% and 70%.
Interest in KM among business leaders seemed to wane as it gradually transitioned from “promising new approach” to “something we tried, that didn’t work.” (See the Google Trends chart above showing relative number of searches on “knowledge management,” a gross indicator of the subject’s relevance to the general population.)
Paradoxically, my academic colleagues would during this same time claim that KM was continuing to grow as a discipline and was stronger than ever. Indeed, the evidence supports this, with the number of scholarly articles about KM more than doubling between 2000 and 2008 (as shown below).
You’ll note that the trends in the business and academic worlds were negatively correlated. This apparent contradiction took me a while to understand. Then, when working with Columbia University’s IKNS program, I came across an analysis that seemed to break the paradox.
Donald Hislop, a senior lecturer at Loughborough University, had assembled Knowledge Management in Organizations, a comprehensive book of readings and sources that Columbia was using as a text.
Hislop points out a study by Serenko et al. that looked at trends in the proportion of KM articles written by practitioners (as opposed to by academics) — finding that while in the period 1994-98 that figure averaged more than 30 percent, by 2007-08 it had declined to just 10 percent. Practitioners just seemed to lose interest in KM.
Big consulting firms (Hislop names McKinsey, BCG, KPMG, Deloitte, EY, and PwC) had together played a leading role in the launching of KM during the late 1990s — they promoted it, they issued white papers, surveys, and books on it.
But by the time Hislop analyzed the web sites of these six firms in 2009, he found no evidence that they were still promoting KM services. Hislop’s findings, in other words, were consistent with my own ad hoc observations.
I’ve worked inside two of these firms, and it’s with great respect that I note that one of the corporate competencies they have tuned most finely is knowing what their clients want and need. They are highly invested in that. I deduced that these firms’ client organizations had found that KM didn’t get them the results they expected.
Hislop offer several potential reasons for this apparent loss of interest in KM among corporate practitioners (prefaced by his disclosure that the evidence is largely anecdotal and inconclusive):
My own experiences toiling in the “emergency rooms of KM projects” are partly what inspired me to develop the KVC framework. In short, the core problem of many of these failed efforts is that they consider Knowledge apart from the context of the everyday challenges and core activities of the enterprise.
Thus Knowledge does not feed into Value directly. If this happens on a sustained basis, knowledge initiatives will not produce value, and will eventually wither and be cut back during the next economic downturn that inevitably comes.
Knowledge is not an island, complete unto itself; it must produce “insight” among decision makers — followed quickly by innovation and/or other benefits and results for the sponsoring organization.
Most KM projects that fail do so because failure is built into their DNA. They are, from their earliest stages, divorced from the economic and competitive realities of the enterprise, its leadership, and its management.
Knowledge projects conceived and/or executed in a “value vacuum” are wired to fail. They cannot possibly succeed — no matter how richly-funded or well-staffed— because they do not fully consider the user/consumer of the knowledge. When they do not understand the user’s business challenges, they cannot understand how knowledge can positively address those challenges.
Worst of all, they sometimes attempt to engage the user as non-value-added resources (for example, in providing data input, when users should be doing what they are best at and what they are paid to do.)
KM’s core mission needs to be about real people doing real jobs more effectively and efficiently. Its tenets need to be tangible, empirical, and grounded in the sometimes-mundane realities of organizational life. To the extent it meets these conditions, KM will succeed as an essential business discipline.
Conversely, to the extent KM’s core mission is to create elegant abstract models and frameworks, it may succeed in the “Ivy Towers” — or may eventually end up as anodyne intellectual musings, a modern version of medieval scholasticism.
But in either of these latter cases it would fall far short of realizing its potentially huge impact in the world of enterprise and in society at large.
These are sage comments. They hinge on the notion of ‘separation’ between the organization as a domain of value-creating human practice and the information being handled in the KM system/project. Such separation sets KM projects up for failure.
The question is “How can one avoid this?” Surely the information has always been ‘separated’ as it is collected and analyzed? The implication is that activity and information about activity is ‘separated’ by definition.
So what to do?
The whole point about KM was that it presupposed one could define ‘knowledge’ in ways that reached beyond the ‘processable information’ that IT systems and so not fall into being separated. The most obvious example of this being ‘tacit knowledge’, the concept which most heard about through Nonaka & Takeuchi.
Unfortunately the commercial enthusiasm, which the ‘big consulting firms’ had a definite hand in stoking, attempted to force KM into IT – where it succumbed to separation and failure.
Even Hislop, whose work is great, has not fully appreciated this and so inadvertently obscures the root cause of KM project failure.
Recovering KM’s lost promise means appreciating what computers cannot do – to recall Herb Dreyfus’s book – and, consequently, the kinds of human knowing that cannot be handled by IT systems.
There are many reasons why we find it difficult to do this, including our cultural commitment to ‘science’. But our lives are not lived by science alone. Indeed it is not clear there can be a science of economic value-creation, and thus of business. KM invites us to think very differently about business and management. We stumble when we attempt to force KM into IT and rational models of our economic activity.
Dear Dr. Spender,
It’s an honor to have your comments here. I have been dipping into your new book “Business Strategy” and find it provocative, scholarly, and thoroughly enjoyable. Your comment that “a great deal of ‘knowledge talk’ is pointless puffery” especially resonates here.
I agree with you that the emphasis on IT solutions is what led these firm into the KM field, since that is what they are good at. Having trained as a psychologist, I can also agree that human cognitive processes go way deeper than data and information, and when applied to business enterprise, involve social forces not well-understood even by “social scientists”.
Though the “science of management” is what attracted me to management years ago, I have moved toward a position that management cannot be truly scientific, in the sense of having propositions that are controlled-testable and/or falsifiable.
At the same time, I do “believe in” being empirical and evidence-based in decisions and actions. It just seems like a sound approach, though I admit it’s somewhat an article of faith.
Thanks for your thoughtful comments,
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