What, How, but not Why: The fallow fallacy of Knowledge Management

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The fallow fallacy of Knowledge Management.

The fallowed fallacy of Knowledge ManagementThis is  the final part of my 2013/14 change capability series, looking at what the future holds for organisations –Part 1 positioned change capability as the core capability for an organisation to focus on in 2014 and Part 2 looked at the 12 elements that limit KM or change capability.

Look at Knowledge Management and you see a well furrowed field. A field that people have either forgotten to seed or lack the capability to seed. It is fallow. It is uncultivated. And organisational decision-makers, as well as people within the profession, have to ask, “why?”

I have listened to the likes of Dave Snowden speak across the years. Listened to him educate and implore audiences to rethink the language of their profession, to consider complexity. People diligently scribble notes, but, in the field of KM, it seems to be the exception rather than the rule that evolve from note taking to a change of thinking and practice. Language shapes the dialogue, but the real obstacle is that the language that people like Dave promote, the language of complexity, does not fit with the majority of mental models that govern people’s actions.

The mental models that govern the KM profession are embedded in reductionist approaches. These approaches probe for direct cause and effect, and the silver bullet that will put the world to right. The problem is that people who deploy these approaches are linear thinkers in a non-linear world – the horse and plough in a digital landscape.

Then there are the solution providers, both internal and external to organisations. C-Suite reports have been broadcasting mounting dissatisfaction with KM tools and methods for the last ten years and yet traditional KM providers/functions continue to re-plough the same furrowed ground (how many versions of the same Lessons Learned solutions can we bear?). The profession continues to present the same offerings that organisations the world over say don’t work for them. This is classic single loop learning, the rationale being that it is not the KM/tool method that is the problem, but the applied strategy or roll-out. Either this or, my personal favourite, KM tools and/or methods have been so successful that organisations just don’t realise that they are “doing” KM anymore and ergo KM is actually highly successful – nothing like fooling yourself, your boss and/or potential clients into believing that everything in the field is ready for harvest!

Traditional KM thinking is fallowed thinking. It is flawed thinking that focuses on the tool, method or system in the here-and-now; it ploughs the field, but forgets to seed it, leaving people hungry and dissatisfied. So, what is missing?

  • Traditional thinking addresses “what” the problem is; what is it that we are being asked to address?”.

  • It looks at “how” the problem can be “solved” through accepted or known tools/methods.

  • But here’s the rub, all too often traditional thinking does not address the sweet spot of KM, it cannot answer the, “why?”; “why are we doing this in the first place?” – thinking beyond proximal causality to the underlying or influencing causality.

This failure to address the “why” question is a fundamental failure to engage in double-loop learning, where a tool, method or system breakdown moves beyond an evaluation/criticism of the applied strategy to question the variables that govern the profession. Such a searching would lead professionals to the challenges that people like myself and Dave Snowden speak of, the challenges of complexity and resilience. It would challenge mental models and nudge people away from their reductionist roots towards holistic thinking and methods.

More than this, a more searching approach to the problems in the KM profession would bring KM professionals and organisational decision-makers to the conclusion that the true limiting resource, if there is one “limiting resource” (see Part 2), is people. People are the knowledge holders, users, developers and sharers, and they are arguably key to the development of any type of response to current organisational problems.

How many Knowledge Management professionals/solution providers have a background, or actively work with, HR Development, Learning and Development, Talent Management or HR Management professionals? If people are a limiting resource, does it not therefore make sense that solution providers (internal or external) should integrate and work with professionals in this area? This surely seems like common sense, but all too often I have been accused, admittedly by established (traditional) solution providers, of just trying to promote services – making the argument I present seem baseless. This is a shame and an understandable defence mechanism. Let’s be honest, this is what I do, I provide competing services. But it is more than this, I am a student of the profession and, as I see it flounder, I want to offer solutions. I want the profession to become more resilient by improving its relevance – that is why I write this blog in the first place, why I give away key resources and why I will continue to attempt to disrupt established thinking.

As long as KMers focus on “what” and “how”, with a disregard for the “why”, KM will continue to seed mid to long term dissatisfaction, regardless of short-term success. For knowledge to become a well managed resource in organisations interested in designing, developing and delivering desirable products and/or services, there will be a need to develop ‘integrated’ tools, methods, systems and even integrated organisational forms.

This is the final message from my New Year look at what 2014 could hold; you can continue to plough the field, but until you address the “why”, your field will remain fallow.

I hope this series has stimulated your thinking as you make your plans for the New Year and beyond.

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