I just got back from a two-day conference in Ottawa on Knowledge Management, sponsored by the Conference Board of Canada. The entire discipline is at a crossroads, and the discussion was urgent and intense. I have already written about where I think KM is headed:

  • From content to connectivity, with social networking applications and expertise-finding and community-building processes taking over in priority from the populating and management of massive, just-in-case, context free repositories of documents, and
  • From corporate content management to personal content management, with simple, intuitive tools, personalized processes and one-on-one personal effectiveness training taking over in priority from complex, one-size-fits-all intranet tools, portals, ‘productivity’ software, and undifferentiated training

What was eye-opening to me was the perspective of the substantial number of representatives from the public sector present at the meeting. I tend to think about KM in the context of large corporate and entrepreneurial environments, which I’m most familiar with, and how their information needs dovetail with those of individual citizens and consumers. But I often forget that public sector organizations have different needs, and it’s dangerous to assume that the answers that make sense in the private sector translate to not-for-profit organizations.

So I decided to see if I could develop a Knowledge Management model that would work for any user, public or private, organization or individual. Models that focus on strategy, systems, information structures and value propositions didn’t work — they vary too much by organization type and size. I found only two bases for KM models that seem to apply ubiquitously: principles, and processes.

I’ve addressed what I believe to be the ubiquitous principles of KM in a recent article, and will have more to say about that soon. But as I started to think about the processes of KM, I realized that we have been looking at it all wrong, from above, from a systems perspective, instead of from ground level, from an activity level. The best-known KM process models are Nonaka’s four-step ‘knowledge creation’ process — codification, enhancement, internalization, sharing — and the consultants’ megaprocess model — acquire, store, add value, apply/deploy. Show either of these models to a front-line worker or an individual citizen/consumer, and you’re likely to get either yawns or raised eyebrows. They just don’t describe in a meaningful way what people do — their ‘knowledge activities’.

After a few hours’ research and discussion with some of my KM colleagues, I came up with this alternative model:
knowledge activities
This chart would be enough to make most systems people shudder: it has no sequence, no flow. Instead, it is an undifferentiated set of twelve ‘knowledge activities’ that, for most of us, comprise most of what we do at work, and no small part of what we do in our personal lives as well. It describes human intellectual activity, and the reasons we partake of it. The rest of human activity is either instinctive, emotional or physical — not the domain of ‘knowledge management’.

I’ve never liked the term ‘Knowledge Management’, so having circumscribed the set of activities that KM was supposed to be about, I decided to ponder what would be a less presumptuous and more precise name for a discipline that would purport to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of how we do these things. It is broader than just ‘thinking’ or ‘information processing’ or ‘learning’, but narrower than ‘productivity’ (which can describe physical as well as intellectual activity). It has much to do with helping people carry out these activities better — enablement and facilitation and making work easier. There are no words for this in the English language, or any other language I’m familiar with, which is perhaps why the awful term Knowledge Management came to be used. How do you reduce making workers’ intellectual activities easier, and more effective to a couple of words? The best I can come up with is the clumsy ‘Intellectual Work Effectiveness Improvement Facilitation’, and since most work today is intellectual, and most of what support departments do is facilitation, we might drop the first and last words. But ‘Work Effectiveness Improvement’ is perilously close to the ’90s fad called Business Process/Performance Improvement (BPI, also known as Re-engineering).

As noted above, KM has traditionally been about building and populating databases with useful content, creating portals — generally, making more information readily available. The consequence has often been to drown workers in hard-to-find information of dubious value just in case they should find themselves in a position to use it. We have actually made workers’ intellectual activities harder rather than easier, by presuming, top-down or back-office-to-front-lines, to understand what information they need, and how, when and why they need it. In a world where jobs are more and more specialized, and everyone’s information needs are increasingly unique, it’s not surprising that KM has failed to live up to its promise.

If we were to start over again, with the mandate to help make people’s intellectual work (the 12 activities in the chart) easier and more effective, what would we do differently? Consultants will tell you there are four ways to make work more effective: Improve the tools, the information (content), the processes, or the behaviours. Tools have always been the primary domain of the IT people, and behaviours (culture) have always been the primary domain of the HR and Learning people. Re-engineering tried to focus on the processes, only to discover that standard business processes and procedures still exist only in a few highly-prescriptive jobs, most of which are subject to automation or offshoring. That left only content for the KM people to focus on, and they’ve done their best for a decade to improve the amount of information available to front-line workers, working with the IT and Learning people. But for the most part, the information people want either doesn’t exist, or is only valuable with the context of the person who provides it (most effectively communicated in conversations), so the plethora of massive new databases and information feeds are of limited use.

What is the problem KM has been trying to solve? What problems do front-line workers have doing the 12 intellectual activities in the chart above? I surveyed the people of Ernst & Young about this three years ago, and here’s how some of them answered this question:

  1. “We don’t know how to effectively organize, manage and find the information we have now, in our offices, on our laptops, and in the few shared databases we use, so we waste a huge amount of time ‘looking for stuff’.”I heard this a lot, and only personalized, one-on-one coaching, can alleviate this problem.
  2. “We don’t know who to talk to, to get information we need quickly, inexpensively and effectively.” I heard this a lot, too, which is why I’m such a fan of expertise-finders and other social networking applications, even though the first generation of such tools fall short.
  3. “When we do know who to talk to, we can’t get hold of them.” It’s a tragedy that we have these wildly over-engineered communication tools with 1001 useless functions, but no one has grappled with the very human, critical problem of setting priorities for conversations, and getting the people who most need it access to the experts quickly. There has to be a better answer to telephone-tag and e-mail tag.
  4. “Meetings, training courses, presentations and other group activities are largely a waste of time — they’re badly managed and often unnecessary, but we participate because we’re told we have to. Teaming and collaboration are largely management myths — the real, important, effective, valuable work is individual or one-on-one, and we know how to do it.” Many business-people spend up to 30% of their time in group activities scheduled by others.
  5. “We need to find ways to stop doing a lot of things that aren’t important.” E-mail and other new technologies are causing people to spend more and more time doing things that are urgent but not important, and sometimes things that are neither urgent nor important but easy to do, so the important things get deferred and added on to an already long and onerous workday. Paperwork from management is another contributor — front-line people say it’s all one-way communication (up), that most of it is unnecessary or automatable, and that cutbacks in administrative support staff simply shift this administrative work to front-line people, adding to their job.
  6. “We don’t know what we don’t know. When we fail (to win a proposal, to complete a project on time or on budget, to keep an important customer or employee etc.), it’s almost always because of what we didn’t know, not because we did our jobs badly. If that knowledge was available, we’d have it, and we’d never fail. It’s not, and nothing anyone can do will change that. The famous saying ‘If only HP knew what HP knows’ is wishful management thinking — HP does know, 99% of the time, what HP knows. And in the other 1% of cases, the problem is size and bureaucracy, not bad knowledge management systems.”
  7. “We’re past information overload, we’ve reached information exhaustion. There’s not enough time in the day to read everything we should, let alone everything we’d like to.” How can we help workers filter and rank the material in their various reading stacks and inboxes, and how can we get it to them in more succinct form without sacrificing important context?
  8. “We spend far too much time wordsmithing and writing, and not enough time talking to people — customers, employees, colleagues, experts and thought leaders in our field.” ‘Face time’ is a critical factor in relationship building, in selling, in customer and employee satisfaction, and in learning effectiveness. Key decisions are made and key contracts won more often on a few well-spoken words than on a finely-crafted written report or proposal. And most workers’ oral communication skills — one-on-one and in group settings — are sorely lacking.

So if we started KM over again as Work Effectiveness Improvement (Drucker, who saw this as precisely the greatest business challenge of the 21st century, would surely approve), what would our ‘Job Description‘ look like, to address the eight problems above? Here’s a stab at it:

  • Identify and introduce easy-to-use, intuitive personal content management and social networking tools to improve workers’ facility in finding the information and the experts they need to do their jobs effectively.
  • Work one-on-one to understand the problems each worker is having acquiring and processing information, and finding, contacting and working with experts; provide them with personalized training, tools, suggested processes and ‘cheat sheets’ to address these problems; and, if these problems are endemic to the organization or can’t be solved at the individual level, bring them back to management with recommendations for more systematic changes. [this is the only element of this job description that would require any staff — all the rest is a one-person job]
  • Identify, and then with executive sponsorship establish standards, procedures, filters and measurements to reduce unnecessary e-mails, information flows, paperwork, meetings and interruptions that prevent and interfere with critical work activities. Track and aim to halve the aggregate amount of ‘non value added’ time.
  • Work with Learning leaders to develop voluntary training programs that can enhance time management, information management, work prioritization and oral communication (including story-telling!) skills.
  • Assess the aggregate cost to the organization of information (buying it, storing it, looking for it, reading it, figuring out what it means, managing it) and also the aggregate cost to the organization of not knowing — the cost of failures (lost contracts etc.) and errors that demonstrably could have been prevented or mitigated had there been more or better information available. Use these measures to objectively evaluate information adequacy, quality, and overload, and recommend changes to tools, repositories, and processes.
  • Develop a set of Work Effectiveness Principles customized for the organization that can be used to influence and drive strategy, structure, policy, and behaviour in the organization.

Ten years ago when I was first appointed Chief Knowledge Officer, one of my first tasks was to pull together my own job description. At the time, I did my best, but after reading all the hype about KM I fell victim to it — my job description was all about establishing a Knowledge Vision, Knowledge Strategy, developing Knowledge Infrastructure and Architecture, and changing Knowledge Culture from “knowledge hoarding to sharing, collaboration and innovation”. Pretty high-falutin’ stuff. It was fascinating, but ultimately futile, misdirected, overly ambitious, and endlessly frustrating. If I’d had the foresight to have put the six bullets above on my job description instead, it would certainly have raised lots of questions and eyebrows, but ultimately would have probably achieved much more substantial results, and made everyone happier, especially those poor, abused, neglected, front-line workers who, a decade later, are still waiting for the realization of KM’s extraordinary promise, and promises. If only they’d named me Chief Work Effectiveness Improvement Officer instead.

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  1. Matt Loader says:

    Fine article Dave, I found your comment ‘We have actually made workers’ intellectual activities harder rather than easier, by presuming, top-down or back-office-to-front-lines, to understand what information they need, and how, when and why they need it’ to be a key point. Being of an ethnographic bent, I can see the areas where anthropology can be dragged in, in a spirit of true interdisciplinarity, to assist in the work you mention later: ‘Work one-on-one to understand the problems each worker is having acquiring and processing information, and finding, contacting and working with experts; provide them with personalized training, tools, suggested processes and ‘cheat sheets’ to address these problems; and, if these problems are endemic to the organization or can’t be solved at the individual level, bring them back to management with recommendations for more systematic changes. [this is the only element of this job description that would require any staff — all the rest is a one-person job]’. I love the idea of ‘cheat sheets’, and have strongly suggested we adopt these: faced by learning a new software app. who sits down and reads the manual straight off? We need these ‘quick starts’, and they are at the task / activity level. Major respect Dave, for dragging KM back to the immediacy of The Task- if we take the time to look at how people are working; if we understand the poetics of their jobs, we can see that here is where the difference can be made…

  2. Jon Husband says:

    My sense is that you would have found the “work effectiveness” part more gnarly when it came to culture and structural bottlenecks (and the politics therein) than with respect to the range of quasi-reengineering elements you mention above.Just a guess. I know that you are very aware of the issues of culture and org structure.

  3. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks, Matt. Love the expression ‘the poetics of their jobs’ — really makes the olverused and inappropriate expression ‘management science’ look righteously silly.Jon: It’s interesting how everyone except top management is largely above the culture, structure and politics — they just appreciate someone realizing that their job is much more difficult than it should be, and offering to help. The problem, ultimately, is entirely a management one: Management prides itself on not using knowledge (“they pay me a million a year to draw on my experience and gut, not to ask other people what to do”, as one put it), refuses to pay for ‘work effectiveness improvement’ programs or services (“if they’re not effective at doing their jobs, they should be fired, not coached”), and generally look at employees as a necessary evil until the opportunity to outsource or offshore presents itself.

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