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« What HBR won’t say: Why BPR failed | Main | Steve Denning on YouTube »

July 04, 2010


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JT Maloney

Hi - Great post. For once, I'm speechless! You said it all very well. Maybe HBR will pick-it-up. Not. Thanks. -j

Luke Grange

Thank you for this inspirational insight and summation. As we say in Australia this article is "going straight to the pool room."

Sui Fai John Mak

Hi Steve,
Well said. Here is my response to your previous post on the kind of management for the 21st century that I think I would like to resonate with your views here again. I understand that you have been educated in Sydney, Australia and as I am also living here, I could sense a lot of traditional management philosophy well in place in many companies on this side of the globe. I applaud you in having such a deep insight into knowledge management and its impact on organisation. Relating to knowledge management, it was once thought to be the panacea to many large (US) organisations in the 1990s. Management gurus like Peter Drucker and Peter Senge who were the pioneers in those areas emphasised the importance of KM in the modern era. However, as you have pointed out, it has always been a tension between the traditional command and control style of management and the modern networking organisation where a lot of "networking" management practices (with COPs) could be viewed as too risky, "un-controllable", not following a "static vision and mission" and thus not sustainable. Also, restructuring an organization is no longer a one-time deal, leading to discontinuity in knowledge management programs. The dramatic reorganisation of AT&T in the fall of 1995 is an example of such restructuring. So, given such ongoing process of re-structuring in lots of business, dictated by the changing needs in the business environment, what might be the value of knowledge management (based on the previous organisation) on those re-structured organisation? Besides, most organisations are looking for profits and growth in response to stakeholders' needs and expectations, not "knowledge management" per se. So how could one convince the long term benefits of knowledge management to an organisation? Finally, is the word "management" appropriate in the knowledge management? Would it be a leadership quest for innovative "knowledge management" that is more important? Should that be based on nurturing of the knowledge workers to network, rather than the pure management of knowledge itself that could bring about the transformation and real change to management practices?
Thanks for your insightful post.

Mark@Maple Syrup Diet

You really sound like a reverend with that post dude. I was in awe and out of speech the whole time!

Benjamin Ellis

Brilliant post! It's going to take me a whole blog post to respond, but that will have to wait until later. For now: The numb of the problem, to me at least, is the rate of change. For most businesses, the rate of change is now so fast, that anything that depends on codifying processes is bound to fail. Knowledge is a social construct, not a material one, and until businesses treat it as a social product, KM will fail.

Anne Marie McEwan

Bravo! "Vatican of management: Harvard Business Review" - genius.

Sebastian Schaefer

Great post showing that it is still a long way from compelling insights to a sustaining change in human habits. It also reminds me of the saying that organisations remain 'stable' as long as those who are in power to make change happen fear personal discomfort (e.g. loss of control) in doing so.

Matthew Mezey

Hi Steve,

I think Prof Bill Torbert's research on leadership maturity stages explains a lot about why KM, Learning Organizations et al don't take off.

Only 7 per cent of leaders have the leadership maturity (eg openness to vulnerability) that makes them capable of transforming their organisations into 'Learning Organisations'!

But these 'post-conventional' leaders – that we need – are often seen as (dangerous) mavericks!

I blogged about this topic here:

... in relation to Enterprise 2.0 and 'Open Leadership', and what we really need to do, if we are to get there.

It sounds just like 'Radical Management' to me! ;-)

Matthew Mezey
(Chartered Insitute of Library and Information Professionals)


Hi Steve,

KM is a business proceudral that once embedded and run automatically by itself, then there's no need for further KM Program Office in the organization. At that time the unit can be shut down.

"Preparing to let go" is the common theme that you would expect when running a KM program in the organization. Once everyone has this knowledge sharing, and learning together habits, then there's nop need for KM program office. The KM practitioners will have to adapt themselves to this natural -pheonomenon. It's a fact of life. I beleive that what happened in BP and many world class organization that had been practicing KM for quite sometimes.

John Roots

Great article, and a valuable reference for anyone involved in KM. Only comment I'd make is that trying to 'sell' a concept called Radical Management to a firm that is run on the basis of a traditional approach to management would be next to impossible. Maybe it's just the name that would be a stumbling block, but my suspicion would be that any firm managed this way has already decided it's own fate


Totally rocking post. It leaves me, like many of the folks above mentioned, speechless. Your analysis is spot on, to my mind. I am particularly impressed with the end notes on what KM programs will have to be wary about. The only thing I perhaps do not agree with is your perception that HBR encourages traditional management techniques even today. To my mind, most of the current HBR articles and blog posts are brilliant and step out of the conventional management boundaries. In fact, I've personally read many HBR articles that emphasize on KM as a management tool.

roel lakmaker

Great article. Thanks so much for sharing. Sharing this knowledge with us and not keeping it from us makes you a true visionary in two ways. Obviously you understand the change companies have to make. Publishing this article and sharing your knowledge would also be recognized by your (potential) customers. Most people are online and accustomed to the use of internet technology which makes it easy to find people like you, and products and services they like. So writing this article also makes you a great example of the benefit of sharing knowledge. With this in mind only those companies (people in companies) understanding this dramatic shift in customer behaviour will flourish. Others will keep on “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” -Albert Einstein

MIchael Ricard

Nicely said Steve, especially how you pointed out the difference between static knowledge (rapid obsolescence) and what customers want today - flows of new knowledge. I also enjoyed the arguments you put forward about the fundamental assumptions, attitudes and values of traditional management.

I haven't come across 'delighting the client' before - customer satisfaction is the usual term used. Though the post was long, it wasn't too long.


Steve - so true! When I lecture to MBA students about KM I have to remind them that this is not a function within an organisation carried out by a group of KMers but an holistic approach to management that recognises and places the application of liberated human cognition at the heart of an organisations success.

I also remind them what Ackoff said about business classes and, by extension, what you often read in HBR,

It gives students a vocabulary that enables them to speak with authority on things they do not understand.

It gives them a set of operating principles that enable them to withstand any amount of disconfirming evidence.

It gives them a ticket to a job where they the can learn something about management.

I also get so sick of hearing about how to calculate "ROI on KM projects". The onlly ROI worth looking at is the success of the organsation.

Atle Iversen

Very interesting and thought-provoking post !

However, I'm not sure I agree with it. One of the major problems is that a lot of people consider a KM program a success if everyone contributes and shares their knowledge (most KM programs doesn't even reach this point).

However, a KM program is only a success if people actually use it to help them get their job done !!!

I'm pretty sure that if everybody needs to use the KM system to access knowledge on a daily basis in order to get their job done, the KM system will *not* be shut down by management.

I believe most upper management recognize that knowledge is the very lifeblood of the organizations - but that doesn't mean that the KM system is !

How do you protect your program against inevitable death threat posed by traditional management?
- by ensuring that people needs it, wants it and actually *use* it to get their job done.

My 2 cents on the future of KM:

Steve Denning

Atle--One of the subtle ways that traditional management kills great KM programs is to declare victory. People are using it. It's working. Great! So we don't need a KM leadership team any more, or any funding for that matter. KM has been internalized! It's part of the way we do business!

But come back a while later and you see that without leadership entropy is setting in, energy levels are falling, and the firm is slipping back into the old siloed way of doing business. Some communities of practice soldier on with no support, as they contain true believers. So there are still oases of excellence, but from an organizational point of view, the KM program is a shadow of its former self. The life has gone out of it. It's no longer at the cutting edge of the organization.

Ann Lee Gibson

Steve, I just discovered your blog. Good stuff, man!

But if doing things differently to do things better is so hard to accomplish and preserve, the ultimate question is: Can humans transcend their inclinations to cave to strong alpha leaders (whose instincts are NOT to share power and invite more stakeholders) and resort to traditional tribal behaviors?

Put another way, is the transformation of law firms into KM-based organizations as inevitable as Richard Susskind thinks it is?


Steve Denning

Ann--In the overall scheme of things, the answer is yes: because this way of managing entails leaps in productivity, its eventual triumph is inevitable. Firms managing this way will put the old-style firms out of business. It's not whether but when. In the long run, resistance is futile.

But "the long run" could take a while. It took centuries for the scientific method to prevail. It took decades for traditional management to prevail over craft approaches to work. But in the end, the economics is inexorable.

Radical management is two- to four-times more productive than traditional management. So again, the economics will be inexorable.

If entrenched managements dig in and resist, it will be done to them, rather than by them. And it could take quite a while.

If it happens intelligently, it could happen quite quickly. Obviously I'm doing my best to accelerate the process.


Ann Lee Gibson

Thanks for your response, Steve. I'll continue to follow you and learn more about radical management.

Laurence Lock Lee

I can totally empathise with "Death of the KM programme"...."it was fun while it lasted but then just as we were getting somewhere the executive declared it a success....and that was the end...". While I'm totally aligned with your radical management thinking, isn't it just another KM to be cautiously accepted and then killed off by declaring success far too early? I'm not convinced that this sort of change will happen in established / mature organisations ... which includes all the public sector. I think we have to find those new firms and governments that start out using radical management techniques (because it makes sense) and who are then wildly successful using traditional business metrics. Certainly management practices at Google and Cisco have received lots of attention for their ability to grow shareholder value at an astonishing rate. Are there examples in the non-technology sector?

PS I don't expect BP will re-engage with their KM programme now despite their current misfortunes in the Gulf. Will they accept that the spill was a knowledge problem or a process one?...I'm betting on process!

Steve Denning

Laurence--You mention Google's astonishing growth, though one does have to wonder whether that is really due to radical management. Read an interesting post about Google here:

It's seemingly written by someone who knows the inside story and suggests that Google doesn't "get it" either. They lucked into a search engine and business model that made a humongous amount of money, but outside their core search business, they have had real trouble innovating. An interesting read.

In my new book, I've tried to stay away from "celebrity" firms like Google, because we all tend to be dazzled by all the money they have made, and the halo effect starts to kick in.

I do have some examples from the public sector--the World Bank and the US Navy--although the private sector has been doing most of the early work in radical management. I believe that the principles of radical management can be applied in the public sector, although they do face more constraints, as I discussed in my blog post here:

Best, Steve

Patrick Murphy

Steve, I think you are drawing lessons from a false conclusion, that great KM programs fail. Great KM programs put themselves out of business by thoroughly integrating KM practices into an organization's activities. Once that is achieved, the only thing left to do is assure that there's some kind of KM stewardship in place, some resource to keep the organization up to date on developments that impact KM practices, e.g., the way social media impacted practices.

Steve Denning

Patrick--You write: "Great KM programs put themselves out of business by thoroughly integrating KM practices into an organization's activities."

The question I am raising is: what kind of "organizational activities" is KM being integrated into? If the "activities" consist of the principles and practices of traditional management, as it is in most big organizations today, then the life expectancy of KM will not be high.

You can see a vivid illustration of this in the case of BP and the brilliant map drawn by Ed Rogers of NASA:

The CEO declared that KM had been "thoroughly integrated into the organization's activities" and canned even the "KM stewardship". The result after a few years is a calamity of Biblical proportions.

When the driving dynamic of the firm is to cut costs and make money, then KM will always be an endangered species.

Put in another way, you could say that KM will only be safe if the organization's activities are integrated into the values and principles of KM. In effect, you are talking about running the whole organization in a very different way from traditional management.

That's what my book tries to describe: what is the "very different way" of managing. What does it look like? Who is practicing it? How does it work?

Even when you have that kind of management in place, KM is not entirely safe, because there are armies of MBA graduates and consultants wandering around the middle management, with the mental model of traditional management in their heads and looking around things to cut. KM is usually an easy target--a low hanging fruit.

The story of Toyota is illuminating. Even after fifty years of running the organization in accordance with KM-style values, in 2004, the top management started focusing on growth and cost cutting, and within a few years, they had a major crisis on their hands. This may indicate that KM will NEVER be safe unless and until we can do something about business schools and management textbooks and re-educate a whole generation of managers.

Kent Greenes


you make an interesting point here. there is an obvious lack of attention to KM in MBA programs. should be no wonder that it's not on the leadership agenda of our new leaders either!


Steve Denning

Kent--KM is in the curriculum of MBAs, but it's usually a footnote on page 398 of a 400 page textbook, along with lean manufacturing, leadership storytelling, innovation and other right-brained thinking. The real drivers--the headlines in the front of the book--are common sense linear thinking, cost reduction, economies of scale, making the numbers, and so on.

So we have an army of MBA graduates, consultants, and middle managers wandering around looking for things to cut, and very pleased with themselves when they have been able to do so.

We need to reverse the order of the textbook. The footnotes on page 398 about innovation, adding value for clients, knowledge management and so on, need to be at the front of the book, and the cost-cutting should be at the back of the book--something to be aware of, but not the main agenda.

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