When I was young and even more naive than I am today, I used to believe that if you did good work it would get recognition. If you did something that made a contribution and were able to prove it with hard numbers, rational people would inevitably recognize your success.
I was therefore somewhat surprised when I found that most of the great knowledge management programs that I observed in large organizations around the world were eventually closed down, sidelined or shifted to the periphery. The managements of these organizations didn’t seem to appreciate great KM accomplishments right in front of their noses.
I am not talking here about badly managed KM programs, such as programs with unclear goals, or no communities of practice, or an excessive reliance on IT to address human problems. I am talking about well-run internationally-recognized KM programs.
I saw the phenomenon at BP. I saw it at IBM. I saw it at Ernst & Young. I saw it at Hewlett Packard. I watched it happen to a certain extent after I left the World Bank. These were world-class programs, with demonstrated results that were not understood appreciated by the management. In due course, they were closed down or undermined or sidelined. Why?
These great KM programs would flourish for a while, and even receive widespread recognition. But then something would happen. For instance, there would be a merger: in the name of rationalization, the KM program would be declared a success and the leadership unit of the KM program would be gutted. Or there would be a cost-cutting drive, and the KM program would be one of the sacrifices. Or the organization would decide to appoint a leader of the knowledge program who was docile and didn’t rock the boat, so that the death became a long drawn-out affair.
Why, I asked myself, did managements act this way? Why didn’t they recognize that knowledge was the very lifeblood of these organizations? Why didn’t they examine the metrics of success? Why did they take such thoughtless decisions, almost by accident, and kill something of central importance to their organization’s future?
Web seminar: slides and recording
I gave a web seminar on these issues last Tuesday for the SIKMLeaders group. You can see the slides here:
and listen to the audio discussion here:
You can also read an earlier blog post on the same subject here.
Options for knowledge managers
The bottom line of these discussions is that the horizontal, collaborative, value-adding principles of knowledge management are barely compatible with the top-down, bureaucratic, efficiency driven preoccupations of traditional management. Even KM programs that by all measures are doing well and enjoy significant top-management support are still at risk. In any efficiency or cost-cutting drive, knowledge management will usually be seen as “a low hanging fruit.”
The practical options for a knowledge manager in the light of this are as follows:
- Wear a parachute at all times. One never knows who will wield the axe or when it might fall.
- Educate yourself about the nature of traditional management and realize that there is a fundamental difference in values.
- Make sure that your knowledge management operation meets all the metrics and responds to the efficiency concerns of traditional management.
- Learn about how some organizations are managing themselves in a radically different way that is compatible with knowledge, as discussed in, The Leader’s Guide to Radical Management: Reinventing the Workplace for the 21st Century as well as other books such as The Power of Pull by John Hagel, John Seely Brown and Lang Davison, or Reorganize for Resilience by Ranjay Gulati, or The New Capitalist Manifesto by Umair Haque, or Leadership in a Wiki World by Rod Collins.
- Join together with allies both inside your organization and outside. You may well find that there are groups already practicing radical management within your organization in software development (under titles like “Agile”, “Scrum”, “Kanban”) or in manufacturing (under the title of “Lean”).
- Spread knowledge about radical management within your organization. We now have reliable knowledge that traditional management is leading to disastrous long-term business result. The extraordinary financial gains that come from making the shift to radical management (e.g. ten times increments in share price over ten years) will far outweigh the gains from any other knowledge that KM can disseminate.
To learn more: May 12-13 in Washington DC
If you would like to get together with others who are intent on mastering what’s involved in creating a workplace of continuous innovation and customer delight, that is compatible with the values of knowledge management, please join me, Rod Collins (author of Leadership in a Wiki World, Seth Kahan (author of Getting Change Right) and others for two days on May 12-13 in Washington DC. Cool, innovative and serious fun.
Don’t delay: the early bird discount ends March 31. More details here.