KM nirvana?

KM nirvana?

Organisations collect it and individuals hoard it, but nobody quite knows where to go from there. Mary Ann Maxwell has the lowdown on knowledge management.

If you look at the top technology initiatives over the last decade, knowledge management can be found on almost every list. However, over that same period, companies have poured tremendous resources and spent billions of dollars on KM implementations that have either failed miserably or shown little results. Much has been written about the power of KM (Google shows 58.7 million hits on the phrase). The cynics label it "nonsense" - a management fad promulgated by consultancy companies. The lack of a KM system has been blamed for the failure of information-sharing between the FBI and CIA about the activities of the September 11 terrorists. Most companies believe KM should deliver top-line growth, improve operations, and increase profit margins. But most KM systems fail to deliver on this promise - at least to the extent that they should.

Why do we see such a high rate of failure? It's not the technology... Organisations usually do a good job of building a technical KM environment that will enable employees to collaborate. Organisations also provide adequate training and support in using these tools. The problem is they then sit back and wait for the magical "cultural change" to occur, for employees to use the KM system, and managers to lead their employees to use it. When KM never materialises, the organisations blame a lack of cultural change.

The key reason for the absence of that cultural change is the failure to acknowledge the reality of human nature. Team leaders withhold information and dole it out on a need-to-know basis. Executives ask for collaborative input when what they really want is a rubber stamp.

Some people don't know or trust their fellow employees, and some people just want control over others. Some fear that their ideas may be ridiculed. And some simply forget, are too busy or don't want more work or responsibility.

If you want to minimise or eliminate some of these barriers to the sharing and management of knowledge, you have to concentrate on the people, not the technology.

Cumbersome layers of approval

Start by determining the fundamental atti-tude of your organisation toward trust and the willingness to share information - both key attributes for successful KM programs. Most companies will say trust and sharing are part of their core values. But often their actions belie their words when they begin to implement KM systems.

They build cumbersome layers of approval for contributing or accessing information because they don't trust employees to put the right content in the right place at the right time. Or they behave like they don't trust employees at all. One organisation installed a customer knowledge system but limited access for the sales force - the people most in need of the data - because it feared that defectors would take the information to competitors.

Another important thing for companies to recognise is that the "return on investment" in KM programs is a two-way street. In most knowledge or information management and collaboration initiatives, employees are asked to contribute their knowledge, rely on the knowledge of others, and work collaboratively.

Employees often believe that, when they share their knowledge with others, they diminish their own value to the organisation, including their ability to compete for individual rewards.

To counter the tendency to hoard knowledge and the resulting resistance to change, organisations must define clear payback for their employees. Try switching a substantial percentage of individual rewards to team rewards to encourage collaboration and knowledge sharing.

Also, include measures for individual contributions to team performance in all performance plans. And, if you really want to highlight the importance of intellectual capital management and collaboration over the long term, develop career paths to acknowledge this. Positions such as chief knowledge officer and knowledge specialists should be defined and given visibility in the organisation.

In 1969, Peter Drucker wrote: "To make knowledge-work productive will be the great management task of this century." Peter was targeting the 20th century for success. As we move into the 21st century, I think we have the technology in place for success in KM. Now we just need to get the "people part" right.

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