Is KM relevant anymore?

Is KM relevant anymore? Before you reach for the keyboard in defense of KM, organisational trends suggest that the field, and its contribution as a strategic management tool, is being doubted at the C level and is on the cusp of irrelevance.

For a while now I have been discussing the decline of Knowledge Management and the need shift the function toward a more strategically aligned role; one where there is a greater emphasis on boundary management (sense and response). The latest evidence from Bain & Co. seems to confirm my position.

KM as a strategic management tool: trend through 2010

KM as a strategic management tool: trend through 2010 – in decline!

Bain & Company publish a regular report on management tools and trends (1200+ global CEOs). In 2006 KM was ranked as the 10th most popular tool out of the top 25 chosen by survey participants. In 2008 it dropped to 22nd for satisfaction and received the lowest rating of all tools within respondents from large organisations. In 2010 it dropped again, being ranked 24th out of the top 25 tools. Now in 2012 (the 2013 report) KM has fallen out of the top 25.

Strategic Management trends 2013 (Bain & Co 1200+ CEO respondents)

Top 25 Strategic Management tools 2013 (Bain & Co 1200+ CEO respondents)

The problem is that the need for KM still exists (if you buy into KM being more than a glorified Information Management (e.g. a traditional lessons learned function), just look at the top 3 management trends (below) – advanced KM teams should be perfectly placed to respond to these challenges. The trend communicated by Bain & Co is of concern – KMers can choose to ignore it , but there is surely nothing worse than waking up one day to find yourself to be irrelevant.  KM professionals may not like to hear this, but KM needs to wake up from its 90′s/00′s slumber and take action, before it is too late.

Strategic Management challenges 2013

Strategic Management challenges 2013

  • Stephen Bounds

    Hi David,

    Interesting. Bain’s own statistics make it pretty clear that all we really saw in these trends was that executives thought KM “sounded like” a good idea for a while.

    It doesn’t appear that most executives ever really knew what to do, or what to expect though. I say this because roughly half of the KM initiatives which managers “projected” to adopt never happened (38% actual vs 70% projected), and of those that went ahead, the low satisfaction rates suggest that outcomes didn’t match expectations.

    In fact, listing KM as a “tool” indicates a misconception to start with. In my view, KM is better conceived as a “capability” than a “tool” – I’ve written a longer assessment of why here:

    • David Griffiths

      Stephen, I couldn’t agree more. My problem with the Bain data (over the last 6-8 years) is that it creates what is now a well-formed perception that KM is in decline. It also reinforces the perception of KM as a tool, as opposed to a ‘capability’, as you so rightly put it. It goes back to people like JC Spender who have been arguing for a shift away from the tool based, resource based view, of KM since the early 00′s – he was pointing out the deficiencies in KM as a capability and the lack of consideration for people and adult learning capability/capacity over 10 years ago. For me, the signals of decline have been surfacing for a while…the question is whether KMers grasp the difference between tools and capability/capacity (individual, group, team, business unit and organisation – against individual and organisation need).

      On a personal note, I genuinely hope we get a chance to meet sometime soon!

  • Jason Bainter

    I believe KM and the transfer of knowledge is more important now than back in the 90′s/00′s. There are so many baby boomers retiring in the next couple of years, which are in the C level of organizations, that the board of directors needs to understand that a lot of organization’s are going to have knowledge disspation once these baby boomers retire. KM and the transfer of knowledge should be one of the top needs of organizations. With out KM tools and transfer of knowledge, profit may be taking a nose dive in the next couple of years for a lot of organizations until they build their knowledge base back up in the C level.

    • David Griffiths

      Hi Jason – spot on!

    • Stephen Bounds

      Hi Jason,

      I’m going to be controversial and push back on this commonly-received bit of KM wisdom. It’s also quite likely that Baby Boomers have been entrenching attitudes that have been difficult to shift culturally while they are in senior or veteran positions. Therefore their retirement may open up new knowledge opportunities which have been “squelched” to date.

      The trick, of course, is to figure out how to separate out vital, hard-earned, practical knowledge from outdated heuristics and unwarranted bias. But I see *that* as the key challenge of the generational shift, not an uncritical belief in the benefits of knowledge transfer.

      • David Griffiths

        Stephen, I agree in general, but Jason is speaking from a particular evidence-based view. Just to give you some insight… I’ve been working with Jason and the KM team in IN for the last 18 months and, after significant analysis across a number of firms/areas of activity/employee levels (surveys, interviews, focus groups and deployment of SM), we were able to ID that the ‘critical’ knowledge for this particular field was embedded at the C level and was under threat due to a lack of succession planning. The other challenge for Jason and the team in IN is that much of the current competitive advantage (differentiating practice/core competencies of excellence over quality) resides within the C level, with little currently being transferred and little evidence of excellence emerging in the succession pool – mainly caused by the business model applied in small to mid sized firms in this particular field.

  • drkull

    It’s a bit like driving. When done well, no one notices. Until there’s a crisis. In business, as in politics, our C-Suite and government “leaders” tend to focus on the road, sometimes the horizon, usually ignoring the dashboard altogether until….

    I don’t know about your organization, but the organizations of which I’ve been a member have had some loose wheels. Personally, I prefer comedy to drama, but choose your own adventure. In government, at least, the consequences are not funny. Those of you who know me probably remember me as the optimist. Today, not so much. “History has a way of repeating itself” is a cop out. Those who denigrate the past in favor of the latest flavor miss the architecture of the collective narrative.

    Knowledge retention for institutional memory may not be cool, says Dr. Kull, but it is a necessary responsibility for the integrity of enterprise.

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