What is the future of Knowledge Management?

...it's all about sensory and response capability

…it’s all about sensory and response capability

What is the future of Knowledge Management? KM is in trouble in the present (see, “Is KM relevant anymore?”) and the signals are clear, adapt or risk being seen as irrelevant. We surely can’t continue to participate in the KM boundary conflict of the here-and-now, it is absorbing way too much energy and resource on arguments that are too often embedded in a bygone era. The focus needs to shift to shaping the future (keeping one eye on KM’s relevance in the present).

Nailing my colours to the mast, the next era of Knowledge Management practice will see the field complete its migration from a traditional tools-led approach to a competence/capability-led approach. Knowledge Managers will have to absorb insights from approaches to adult learning, business psychology, decision science, cognitive science, artificial intelligence and natural science disciplines. Tools will always be necessary, but they will be one part of a holistic blueprint of an organisational capability, where knowledge sits as the core capability or competence for the organisation. KM will have no choice but to either lead or become part of a team that incorporates HR (HRM, talent management and learning & development functions), IT (including functions such as data/information/content management/decision management), Organisational Development and a cross section of stakeholders (an agile group of stakeholders that inform, challenge and develop the thinking of the core team). Adaptive capability will be the norm and KM should be looking to lead on capability/capacity development, effectively the ability to scale and swarm around signals of change in the external/internal environment.

Complexity is the sexy super model of management science at the moment and it shows no signs of abating (though some might argue that it is the concept of ‘sync’ or ‘oscillation’ that should actually be the focus). Therefore, Knowledge Management (or whatever it might be called in years to come – will we see the return/emergence of an “Organisational Intelligence Group”?) will drive efficient and effective organisation boundary management (sensory and response) systems/processes/tools. Sensory and response systems are evolving exponentially and, consequently, for example, KMers need to progress their thinking on knowledge flows, incorporating concepts from fields such as cognitive science, decision science and natural science. The following are three examples of insights from other fields, from “Murmurations”, through to “Nudges” and “The Rich Club”.

The Rich Club: cognitive scientists at the University of Indiana, working with colleagues at the University Medical Centre Utrecht, have discovered ‘The Rich Club’ – described by the researchers as, “G8 summit of our brain.”…and it seems that there is something here for management science.

From new scientist (2903), Feb 2013

From new scientist (2903), Feb 2013

This ‘club’ is a cluster of domains within the brain that could be described as super hubs. Each domain or hub is hyper connected to its local environment.  The hubs that constitute the ‘Rich Club’ then share information and collaborate to manage the whole.  The theory is that the hyper-connectivity at a local level speeds up efficiency and prevents overload; the information processing hub that forms part of the Rich Club can then dampen signals of low significance and amplify high significance signals, sharing and collaborating with the other hubs to then provide decisions on a course of action.  The hubs, according to the research, are not hyper-specialised (in other words they are not focused on a single cognitive function, such as interpreting visual signals), but instead are ‘cross-disciplinary’.  The hyper-connected local network conserves energy, not having to be concerned about transporting information over a network of highways (think of having to manage that overload, to say nothing of the potential traffic-jams), instead acting locally and allowing the super-hub to transport large amounts of relevant information along clutter-free super highways that connect the Rich Club.

“It’s a group of highly influential regions that keep each other informed and likely collaborate on issues that concern whole brain functioning…All these regions are getting all kinds of highly processed information, from virtually all parts of the brain.” (Indiana University Press Release).

Murmurations and Human Sensory Networks: What is fascinating from the video below is that you can begin to see how this can be adapted for use by organisations operating in a complex environment.  Also, starlings are more intelligent than we realise – watch the video, at 2:27 they form a perfect number “6″ (I’m sure there’s a message in there somewhere)!

It is widely understood that teams fracture beyond a peak intimacy of 12 (see our post “should I go it alone to innovate?”). The optimal team size is actually argued to range between 5 and 7 – suddenly we are in starling territory (you need to watch the video). What is proposed is that starlings, flying at a similar speed, synced with their closest flying partners, are better placed to sense and avoid predators. Scientific study having shown that starlings actually only need to be aware of their 7 closest neighbours to achieve scale free correlation – a state through which information can move across the flock at high speed (efficiency), with little signal drop off (effectiveness). The starlings are not led, per se, but you could say there is an alignment of purpose (for us, as humans, dare we say an alignment of values?) – boundary scanning and response…in other words, avoiding predators.

So, what can we extrapolate from this in terms of Human Sensory networks or KM practice? Are we saying that grand designs for large communities of practice are outmoded? Are we saying that we should be looking to create small (intimate – strong ties) hubs of 5-7 people that connect to their seven nearest neighbours, all of which contain another 5-7 people. Are we saying that this type of structure can form a hyper-connected net that is capable of high speed transmission with a high signal to noise ratio…producing enhanced or optimised boundary scanning and response systems?

Nudges: The art of psychology and decision science is impacting us and we don’t even ‘know’ it. From influencing our shopping habits (see well documented discussions on the layout design of your favourite food superstore) through to improving the accuracy of male toilet habits – I always wondered why there was a fly printed on the urinal bowl at Schiphol airport in Amsterdam – we are being subconsciously ‘nudged’ (manipulated – see the New Scientist Articel from June 2013) toward a decision outcome. KMers are constantly asking how the organisation can do a better job of getting people to share knowledge, well, between a blend of effective HR policies and procedures, tools and well crafted ‘nudges’ it might just be possible to ‘get’ people to share knowledge.

So, what is the future of Knowledge Management? To sum up, there is no way I can cover everything that is prodding the field in a single blog (e.g. big data through to artificial intelligence), but one thing is clear, the field is changing and will continue to change. KMers can either cling to a fitness with a fast fading landscape from a bygone era (traditional tools such as Lessons Learned or Post Action Reviews) or they can sense the change and work to shape the future. If Knowledge Management is to even have a future, it has to be the latter.


  • Glenn Behenna

    Hi David,

    In my humble opinion, you have done an excellent job of pulling together the rich tapestry of fabric, which should be considered as relevant elements of what some of us understand as emergent themes in the field of KM.

    Your reflections on the varied themes and linkages are eloquently presented, providing inspirational opportunities for interested parties to develop their ideas and contributions.

    Story for the short response. Feeling tired after hosting a long weekend of a residential school.

    Best wishes,

    • http://www.k3cubed.com David Griffiths

      Glenn, you work too hard! Look forward to some lively discussions with you next week :)

  • http://animaladas.blogbyt.es/ Odis Lloyd

    The rapid evolution of our intensely connected global economy means developing knowledge capabilities is a business imperative. The pioneers of knowledge management developed valuable tools and approaches. What they learned is now being applied in a range of emerging business disciplines. In the course of my travels and speaking and consulting engagements around the world, I have found that there are five key frames for leveraging knowledge in organisations that are emerging as the successors to knowledge management, and that executives find relevant, compelling, and actionable.

  • Rachelle B. Spence

    Employees do not need to do one single thing for 10 years to have it be second nature. They don’t need process flows. Knowledge is acquired from the combination of information and data that is at our fingertips, and relevant to our context. This is the future of knowledge management and access.

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