The KM first step: Wait to react or act to prevent?

Are you managing your sense making (feedback) processes?

Are you managing your sense making (feedback) processes?

The KM first step: Wait to react or act to prevent? Basically whatever the organisational problem, whatever the recommended process of response, whatever the “3 step”, “5 step”, “10 step” or “ultimate step” process for “KM strategy”, “communities of practice”, “KM implementation” etc., they are built upon a premise of four basic phases: Identify problem; engage with community; act to resolve; gather feedback and let the cycle begin again. A generic process that can be adapted to fit the need. Choose the number of steps, stick to the formula and as sure as Bob is your uncle, you have your latest strategy/planning solution.

The vast majority of these “step” methods make one big assumption, that you are in search of a solution to a problem that already exists. Seems like common sense really. For Microsoft SharePoint to sell you their wares there needs to be a problem. Otherwise sales people create solutions in search of problems. How best to overcome this? Identify the problem first! Then they can guide you through the minefield of potential steps to arrive at the discovery of their particular solution. On the other hand, take any intervention around concepts such as Knowledge Management and you will find consultants, who, just like IT vendors, want to make a sale, only too happy to help you identify the problem.

Here’s the thing. Far too many of these “steps to success” make the assumption that you have waited to react. The difficult challenge, the difficult sell, is one where the challenge does not yet exist. What exists instead is an opportunity. An opportunity to prevent problems arising in the first place. An opportunity to shape the landscape, as opposed to you having to conform to a landscape shaped by others. An opportunity to engage in such a way that we know that the output will surely have to exceed the sum of the parts.

Good historians tell stories that illuminate the past in such a way that we look beyond the proximate causality of events to show us the whole. It is no different for KM, or any other organisational problem for that matter. Too often we get ensnared by a reductionist mindset. Get to the root cause of the matter and, as sure as Bob’s a Builder (he’s also an uncle…can you tell I have children), the problem can be solved. Yes. But what about the underlying causality? Unless you operate in a static, closed environment you are just firefighting until the next problem comes along. Look at a problem in isolation and you will be fooling yourself into believing that you are a good problem solver, when you are nothing more than a firefighter. If you want to see evidence for a shift in thinking, look at new approaches to risk assessment; here, lessons are being learned from natural scientists – concepts such as Eco-Finanace, where financial risk assessment is borrowing lessons from environmental eco-system risk assessment models (where the focus is on the whole environment, not one aspect in isolation).

Looking at the behaviour characteristics of the wider environment (the whole) should guide you to explore opportunities to prevent problems. Don’t get me wrong, this is a challenging shift in thinking. To foresee opportunities/emerging problems. To develop the insight required to glimpse those opportunities/problems in the first place. I am by no means advocating a random, go with your gut, approach to strategy here (although there are some who would advocate this – is your gut, your pattern recognition system, that effective in a complex (non-linear) environment?). I am suggesting that you need to make sense of the world and see opportunities to exploit and prevent. This means that the second step in the wonderful world of “step processes” should be, “see the opportunity or identify the problem”.

So, what is the KM first step, Wait to react or act to prevent? For me, none of the above. My first step? Make sure that your boundary feedback systems are efficient and effective. Why? You cannot sense the opportunity or the threat if you are not scanning your boundaries! How can you react or act to prevent with your head in the sand?