At last week’s conference, one of my presentations was on PKM. Since I haven’t written about this in awhile I thought I’d bring you up to date on what’s happening in this space, and some of the discussions I have had with others on the subject.
I first got interested in the idea of bottom-up knowledge management, focused on the unique needs of each front-line employee, in 2003, my last year as Global Director of Knowledge Innovation for a major professional services firm. I’d been asked to investigate a leveling-off of use of the firm’s award-winning centralized knowledge resources, and decided to do the research through personal interviews with non-users, rather than the usual user surveys. We did about 100 interviews, and tried to get at the root causes of the problems and concerns they cited. So for example while many interviewees said they ‘couldn’t find’ what they were looking for, we tried to discover why this was: Was the tool too complex? Was the training inadequate? Was there too much content to wade through? Did they just not know where to look? Was the content badly indexed? Was it in the wrong format for convenient (re-)use? Or perhaps what they sought didn’t exist at all. Or worse, they weren’t motivated to make the effort to look for it.
In describing this work I’ve used three of the interviews that were especially illuminating. One of these was a corporate finance practitioner who confessed he’d completely stopped reading newspapers because ‘general’ knowledge was unnecessary for his work, and used his PC only for e-mail and business valuation spreadsheets. A second was an audit manager who said she couldn’t ‘afford’ the intrafirm charge for research work and simply had no time to do such research herself, so she did without; she also confessed that she’d never been taught how to find stuff on her own PC and could never find what she needed on her own hard drive. A third was a tax partner who delegated all ‘knowledge work’ to subordinates or assistants, even printing out and routing his e-mails. When I asked him about Instant Messaging, he said he ‘handled it the same way’. Ouch!
My conclusion from the interviews was that most of the firm’s front-line people didn’t use the knowledge resources because they didn’t know how. I had been reading about a KM process that entailed one-on-one coaching of front-line people to use knowledge and technology effectively, and named this (for internal selling purposes, and with a tip of the hat to the late Peter Drucker) Personal Productivity Improvement (PPI), since its goal was to address the knowledge-worker productivity problem that Drucker called the greatest challenge of our century. When I proposed PPI as the solution to ineffective knowledge use, however, my boss said he was doubtful that, if they weren’t willing to take the time to attend the firm’s courses or computer-based training on the use of knowledge resources, they were just as unlikely to make time for PPI. He sent me back to find out why practitioners didn’t know how to use the resources effectively.
When I went to conduct the second round of interviews, it became clear that some of the interviewees had given me the answers they thought I wanted to hear because they didn’t know the real answers. They were also blunter and more forthcoming when I went back to suggest that perhaps their ignorance of use of the firm’s knowledge resources was partly their fault. This time, the corporate finance practitioner told me he was paid for his specific technical knowledge, not for his understanding of business issues. He described the powerful, integrated newsfeeds and personalizable news profiles, the paintakingly populated databases, and the collaborative spaces we provided as “nice to have, not need to have”. He was, he said, “unmotivated” to learn more about what we had made available.
The audit manager pulled out an independent consultant’s report that listed in the criteria clients used to select a professional services firm. In order they were (1) strong pre-existing relationship with someone on the team, (2) fit and likability of the pursuit team, (3) senior face time spent with client key decision makers during the pursuit process, (4) technical competency and experience of the pursuit team, (5) understanding of the client’s processes and organization, and (6) understanding of the client’s business and industry. There is just no time, she told me, for stuff that clients don’t think very important. If she had more time, she said, she would be spending it out at clients building relationships, not at her PC looking for knowledge.
And the tax partner grabbed me as I passed near his office, whisked me inside, and told me how delighted he was that, after I’d mentioned it, he’s got his assistant to show him how to use Instant Messaging. “If a client calls me on the phone with a question, sometimes I can IM a staff member and get confirmation of the answer while the client is still online, so I save research time and the client is very impressed”, he told me. “It’s stuff like this IM that really makes you guys valuable, not those giant repositories you build.” If that weren’t distressing enough, he confided that he was concerned that some of those ‘giant repositories’ were accessible to everyone in the firm, and could we pleased restrict access to these to tax practitioners only? He patted me on the back. I sighed.
So my conclusion this time around was that the centralized stuff we spent so much time and money maintaining was simply not very useful to most practitioners. The practitioners I talked to about PPI said they would love to participate in PPI coaching, provided it was focused on the content on their own desktops and hard drives, and not the stuff in the central repositories.
From these interviews and subsequent discussions with leading KM gurus, notably the UK’s David Gurteen, emerged the concept of Personal Knowledge Management (PKM). While we did not coin the term, what we use the term to mean has received considerable uptake in the KM community, and is starting to be used, at least in part and in pilots, in quite a few organization. And some of us have become evangelists for PKM, out of concern that the old model of KM has fallen out of favour, and the term KM has lost its sheen, and a new model is needed if KM is to realize its potential to make all of us more effective in the use of knowledge, technology and learning resources.
The drawing above shows the old KM model and the new PKM model. The old model, which we pursued from 1994-2004, is focused on content and collection — the acquisition, organization & aggregation, storage and dissemination of content under organization-wide taxonomies using customized tools and containers, just-in-case it might be reusable. The new PKM model, which we believe will replace it, is focused on context and connection — connecting to the right people just-in-time, canvassing them to gain their knowledge and advice in the context of a particular business problem or pursuit, synthesizing that knowledge and applying it to the issue at hand. This new model entails three significant shifts in approach:
PKM, therefore, has four components, which can be represented in this equation:
These four components enable the connect, canvass, synthesize, apply, model of PKM. They also reflect the way knowledge has always been shared by most people in most organizations: You walk down the hall or pick up the phone and call the people you think have the knowledge you need, you have a conversation with them to canvass what they know, you pull it all together with the knowledge you already have, and you apply it to the challenge, task or decision at hand. All PKM does is make these steps easier and more effective by facilitating them with some surprisingly simple, low-tech (but high-touch) programs.
Here’s how each of these four components is being implemented by some organizations today, and how they could be implemented in your organization.
Know-Who Canvassing & Connection:
Personal Content Management:
Personal Productivity Improvement:
While PPI in particular may seem too high-touch to be affordable, just remember that the breakeven point for an investment of two hours of personal coaching for each employee is a mere 0.1% improvement in that employee’s work effectiveness.
Many organizations that have designated network coordinators have instituted some form of simple, streamlined canvassing program, because it eliminates the need for the scourge of ‘blanket’ e-mails sent to everyone. Although they are largely ad hoc, new e-mail technology that accommodates dynamic, subscribable e-mail lists, and e-mail forms and templates, are enabling more robust canvassing programs to be developed. Lend Lease corporation, for example, is using a canvassing tool called ikonnect to do this.
The organization that I know of that is leading the way in knowledge harvesting is Hill & Knowlton. Perhaps surprisingly given their controversial business, they have a culture of openness that encourages all employees to share information about themselves and their projects far beyond what I have seen in most other organizations, and they are using some interesting tools to do so.
Personal content management has received a huge boost from Google Desktop and similar products that have been released in the last few months. But I am not yet aware of any ‘leading practices’ in helping employees of an organization to organize their desktop content and subscriptions in such a way that they don’t have to use broad-brush search tools to find documents and messages on their own PCs.
The professional services firms, such as Ernst & Young and KPMG, are piloting PPI programs. If you know of others, I’d like to hear about them.
PKM is not for every organization. Some companies coming late to KM, or overly enamoured of their legacy KM systems, may not be ready to think of KM as a means of improving productivity, capitalizing on the best available knowledge and experience, tapping the collective wisdom of employees and customers, facilitating more robust collaboration, improving the quality of decisions and enhancing agility and innovation. This takes a relatively enlightened management attitude on KM. Many companies still see KM as a means to reduce cost and headcount, ‘re-use’ intellectual capital and ‘accelerate employee learning’. But as awareness of these new value propositions for KM grows, I think you’re going to hear a lot more about PKM.
And although technology companies, by coopting the term Knowledge Management and making it synonymous with centralized content management, have played a role in tarnishing KM’s image, some technology companies are now developing simple, intuitive tools that will make each of the four components of PKM easier to implement. I’ll talk about some of these tools in a future post.
Top cartoon by the expert in making naive statements funny, Charles Barsotti.