History shows KM to be slow to learn its lessons

History shows KM to be slow to learn its lessons

History shows KM to be slow to learn its lessonsThose of you who follow my blog will know that I have been left frustrated lately by the lack of progress in the Knowledge Management or Knowledge Services field over the last decade and a half.

To emphasise my point, I want to share three stories from the last 15 years. Have a read, check out the foundational research, and then spend some time combing the various KM discussion boards. I will wager you will find, for the most part, that the KM profession today seems to be stuck in a poor version of Bill Murray’s “Groundhog Day.”

The problem is exacerbated by the fact that since the solutions below were put into place there has been a greater focus on complexity, closing the complexity gap (anticipate – innovate – accelerate), and the need to integrate, collaborate and treat the whole, as opposed to isolated “solutions” that miss the bigger picture. So why is that on the whole the profession still seems to be stuck in the past? Why is it that all too often the profession does not understand the answers to the questions that are being asked of it? This is the nub of the KM challenge today. When we look at the complexity gap and parallel challenges around learning agility and adaptive capability, KM, using legacy based approaches such as those below, is only feeding the here and now and is missing the real challenge, which lies in the future.

Siemens (Observation 1999-2001 – Published 2002)

Source: Davenport, T.H. and Probst, G.J.B. (2002) Knowledge Management Case Book, Germany, John Wiley and Sons

Siemens set out with a KM strategy focused on social and technological KM systems, culminating in ‘ShareNet’, an IT-enabled KM tool/platform. At the time (1999), Siemens were interested in knowledge repositories; stocks of explicit information or knowledge that could be accessed by their global workforce to assist in developing continuity of service provision or standard operating procedures. What was established was predominantly an information portal, designed to quickly connect the global workforce with information that could expedite solutions to common problems. However, Siemens came to realise that people acted as ‘gatekeepers’ to information or knowledge, both in uploading the necessary information or knowledge required to solve any given problem and in the accessing and applying that information or knowledge in the best interests of the organisation and its clients.

Siemens had to evolve its thinking, realising that while procedural information was relatively ‘easy’ to capture and store, more complex problems required person-to-person contact that moved processes away from databases to ways of connecting people, allowing conversations and a sharing of practice between those who held the knowledge with those who needed to access that knowledge.

“ShareNet…demonstrates the importance of finding the right balance between IT solutions for capturing explicit codified knowledge and leaving enough room to allow direct personal exchange of more implicit forms of knowledge” ( p. 59).

Lesson: You cannot remove human agency from KM processes and you have to enable people to integrate and collaborate

NASA (Observation 1999-2011 – Published 2012)

Source: Martin, K.P. (2012) Review of NASA’s Lessons learned Information System, Office of Audits, Report No. IG-12-012.

In 1999, responding to knowledge lost from the Apollo missions during the 1960s and being faced with an aging workforce, NASA developed a knowledge sharing system, implemented via the ‘Lessons Learned Information System’ (LLIS).

In 2012 a United States Government report recommended that after 13 years the system should be abolished. It was reported that NASA’s LLIS had received over $750,000 of funding on an annual basis and yet it was still unsuccessful. Key findings suggested that NASA had weakened its policy requirements for use and development of the system, a key coordination tool that set the context for its staff to engage with the LLIS and without this motivation, staff disengaged and the system stagnated and, in some cases, began to demonstrate decay.

“…Program and project management policies issued in 2002 and 2005 required managers to provide lessons learned for input to LLIS “throughout the project lifecycle, for example, at major milestones.” In contrast, NASA’s current policy, in effect since 2007, does not explicitly require the use of LLIS and does not require project managers to identify or archive lessons learned until project conclusion or closeout” (p. iii)

This reinforces that people-based processes, such as context-setting policy directives, influence the success of KM systems. A critical theme in the report is the lack of organisation definition and strategy for the LLIS; as a consequence, business processes were under-developed, especially when considering feedback processes, such as ongoing monitoring and evaluation (it took NASA five years (2005-2010) to conduct an assessment of the LLIS, and even that assessment was seen as “inadequate”, as it did not address the use of lessons learned throughout a project lifecycle).

A serious issue for NASA was their fundamental view of knowledge resources; ‘Information’ in “LLIS” indicating the treatment of knowledge resources as objects; which does not taken into account the needs of the human resources that interact with the system. This can be in the form of motivation to engage with the LLIS or even the interface design of technical platforms that require human involvement. NASA ignored the influence of human agency upon their systems, which is a critical error in underpinning strategy for the management of organisational knowledge resources.

“Users told us they found LLIS outdated, not user friendly, and generally unhelpful, and the Chief Engineer acknowledged that the system is not operating as originally designed. Although we believe that capturing and making available lessons learned is an important component of any knowledge management system, we found that, as currently structured, LLIS is not an effective tool for doing so” (p. v)

The NASA case demonstrates that even when considering knowledge resources as being technical, procedural or explicit, it is still not possible to remove people-based processes from systems, to do so creates a situation where knowledge stocks stagnate and lose value.

Lesson: You have to be prepared to treat the whole in order to succeed and that means understanding the needs, values and motivation of the end user(s)

W.L.Gore (Observation 2000-2006 – Published 2007)

Source: Cohen, D. (2007) Enhancing social capital for knowledge effectiveness, IN: ICHIJO, K. and NONAKA, I (Eds.), Knowledge creation and management, Oxford, Oxford University Press

A contrast in early KM approaches can be found in W.L. Gore and Associates. There is often a belief that knowledge resources are developed at the desk, accessing knowledge stocks in databases or information portals, but while W.L.Gore see the value in these ‘foundational’ knowledge resources, it is the value associated with enabling social interaction that has also informed the design of their KM systems.

Within W.L.Gore, consideration was given to organisational structure, where no single business unit exceeds 200 employees, the organisation believing that beyond this point it is not possible to establish collaborative relationships. W.L.Gore also focused on space, limiting the physical design of its buildings to a single floor, as they believe that multiple floors create barriers to social processes that encourage the sharing of knowledge resources.

To complement this they worked to ensure that company policy and procedures allow employees time and space to meet – this included work programme policies that give the employee scope to explore interests that take them outside of their core remit, but benefit both the individual and the company. In this way, the organisation attempted to stimulate the ongoing development of their tacit knowledge resources, through social processes that encourage networking, collaboration and social problem-solving. This was partly enabled through the following Human Resource directives:

  • • “[Provide] environments that make it easy for co-workers to communicate directly and form close working relationships.
  • • [Demonstrate] trust and respect by giving workers autonomy. [Ensure] fairness of recognition and reward”

W.L.Gore believe that many organisations invest in open physical spaces to encourage social knowledge exchange, as part of a KM system, but it is their focus on the human resource perspective that brings about success.

Lesson: If you are working in a complex knowledge domain, you have to be prepared to think different in order to find ways to better integrate and collaborate

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  • Stephen Bounds

    The one thing I’ve learnt from KM is this: that technology can transform organisations when it enables latent or actual desires within that organization’s culture.

    And it’s useless at changing culture. New wheels on a car with a busted engine doesn’t make it go faster!

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

      Well said!

  • Juergen Saeftel

    I agree with the statements on the SIEMENS case and like to add this: The Knowledge Management Case Book by Davenport, Probst was published around the peak in members, performance and results generated by SIEMENS ShareNet.

    Management hoped KM usage to become a “natural part” of each workflow and all business processes. Consequently the KM support team was reduced over time, leading to degraded user experience, reduced internal marketing of KM successes, neglected maintenance of the knowledge base. Additionally did an IT platform change significantly increase response times alongside with reduced cross-linking of knowledge objects, lowering in turn the ease of use and employees’ willingness to contribute faded out.

    The aftermath of the dot.com crash drew focus to cost reduction which finally triggered the downgrade from a world-class knowledge management platform to standard document and Enterprise Content management.

    My personal key learnings:
    (1) Keep supporting KM and embed KM interfaces into all your Business Processes if you want your enterprise to benefit from the KM approach.
    (2) KM won’t be performing faster than the money generating parts of any enterprise, and it won’t be smarter than the enterprise’s HR policy.

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

      Juergen, thank you for that insight… really useful and links to NASA’s experience with their LLIS.

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