InnFig 1a
Over the past couple of years, I’ve read a lot of blogs, and a lot of books, from people who work in Information Technology (IT) or in Knowledge Management (KM). At a KM conference last year, I somewhat timidly suggested to the audience that KM has become the organizational ghetto for the most creative minds in business. I explained that almost everyone I knew in senior positions in KM was brighter and more inventive than their peers, and had self-selected or been hand-picked by management to lead their organizations’ KM programs for that reason. There was a belief in the dot-com ’90s that knowledge was the critical strategic asset of business, and the gateway to innovation. KM was going to make a difference, and allow people enamoured with creativity and change to lead that change.

A decade later, most people left in KM are disillusioned. The culture of big business has shifted sharply back right, and cost reduction, not innovation, is Job One. There has not been much to show for all that promise and creative ambition. But those in KM should not blame themselves. They were unwittingly set up for disappointment. Executives don’t know what to do with creative thinkers, and putting them into KM was, at least in hindsight, a perfect way to ‘institutionalize’ them, keep them visible as innovation role models but marginalize them so they don’t actually do anything, or spend much of the company’s money. They are the corporation’s lip service to diversity and creativity. The problem is, unless they want a life as starving artists or starving writers, they really have no place to go. They’re trapped in this creative ghetto.

When I said this to the KM crowd I expected a lot of push-back, but I got a lot of nodding heads. I’d come to know many of them over the past decade and I knew them to be an exceptional group: Far more imaginative, more intelligent, more right-brained, more stimulated by ideas, more idealistic than their organizational peers. But a lot of them had also been misfits, non-conformists, constant questioners, thorns in the side of their managers, who had wished they would just shut up and do what they were told. KM provided a sanctuary for those driven by ideas, but it was a sanctuary that was starved and marginalized. It was a dead end. I’ve never met a Chief Knowledge Officer who made it any further up the organizational ladder.

The people who work in KM report to a variety of different bosses — some of them report directly to a CEO or VP, but most report to a Director of IT, HR/Learning, Marketing or Sales. Those that report to Sales Directors are the unhappiest, because their bosses belong to a totally different culture, driven by short-term results. To many people in Sales and Marketing, KM is synonymous with research, and KM people are just overpaid librarians. Those KM people who report to HR, Learning or Marketing Directors tend to have more sympathetic bosses, but those bosses are going through an unprecedented crisis of their own: The prevailing view in many organizations is that almost everything in HR, Learning and Marketing can and should be outsourced, and if the load can be lightened by outsourcing most of those KM people as well, all the better.

Although the relationship between KM and IT was rocky from the start (they compete for increasingly scarce resources), it has turned out to be the healthiest, safest, and most logical and satisfying partnership for KM people. For a start, IT has a budget, and so much tied up in legacy systems that it’s harder to outsource (and even when it’s outsourced, it’s often insourced again a couple of years later when outsourcing fails to deliver cost savings). IT also has a much greater appreciation than most other departments for what people in KM do, and for the value they provide. They’re both parts of ‘infrastructure’, those back-office guys who are perceived to be eating up the profits that the real workers on the front lines produce.

But what I’ve come to realize is that one of the reasons for IT-KM kinship is that IT people, too, live in an organizational ghetto. Like people in KM, they are under-appreciated, starved for budget resources, and complete cultural misfits in most companies. It was the IT people in the 90’s who, during their brief wave of popularity and scarcity, smashed the 200-year-old business dress code, and as suits and neckties are coming back, are most resistant to their return. If KM people are the most creative in the company, IT people are the sharpest analytical thinkers. They have a passion for their craft, and are the world’s best collaborators, but they rarely have the opportunity or the budget to do more than a minuscule portion of what they know could be done, and which could bring real value to the organization. To senior executives (an echelon IT people rarely penetrate — in most organizations IT is a career dead-end and a revolving door), IT are the menial technical people who make sure the clunky, horribly designed (by senior executive committees), outmoded, centralized information systems spit out their management reports. The revolutions in open source, desktop, connectivity, collaboration and personal content management technology that have been going on might as well be occurring in a parallel universe as far as senior executives are concerned. The only pleasure most IT people I know get from their jobs is working with wonderful, sympathetic IT colleagues. And perhaps they also get cold comfort knowing they’re part of the minority in IT who aren’t unemployed or working at McDonalds or Wal-Mart since the dot-com bust. Most of them tell me they do their best work outside the office, outside of working hours, online collaborating and conversing with people who appreciate what they can do.

That’s fun, and intellectually rewarding, but, let’s face it, it doesn’t really accomplish much. Although IT people can create wonderful software, quickly, effectively, to accomplish almost any information processing need, it’s all really just a hobby. It rarely makes the world a better place. Most of the world isn’t online at all, and most of the people online are still struggling with simple things like e-mail. And I don’t think that’s going to change in another generation: As I’ve said before, unless a technology is dead easy to use, it will never catch on, will never become mainstream, will never be more than a passing fad. All the social software tools, blogs, and cleverly coded programs that have been and are being developed are just a recreational drug for us, a tiny minority of the population bored with the inanity of our 9-5 jobs. It’s largely a hobby destined to be no more significant in historical terms than ham radio, CBing, or scrapbooking. The best that can be hoped is that all this software will ultimately be built into very simple, ubiquitous tools that will allow people to network better, find people and communicate with them more easily, and learn faster and more easily.

Stack those modest benefits up against the crises facing our world today: Poverty, violence and war, disease, inequality, crime, famine, overpopulation, pollution, waste, cruelty to children and to animals, addiction, mental illness, corporatism, lack of access to and poor quality of health care and education, fraud, political corruption, stress, oil shortages, water shortages, spousal abuse, consumerism, tyranny, ignorance, hate-mongering, social disintegration, abuse of power. There may well be answers to many of these problems, but they’re not going to come from IT tools developed and used by a small minority separated from the rest of the planet by a vast and growing digital divide. In fact, no one is looking for solutions to these problems. The few people that care about these problems are busy treating their symptoms, mostly as volunteers, and have neither the time nor the resources to address the underlying causes.

Here’s my point: For restless and dissatisfied IT people, unlike their KM counterparts, there is an alternative, a career path that could really make a difference: Science-Based Enterprises. Your bright, disciplined analytical minds are desperately needed to develop practical new technologies that can solve the global problems of our world. But instead the majority of you are marginalized in IT, one of the few branches of science and technology that really can’t help solve these problems. And paradoxically this is happening at precisely the time when there is more knowledge about science and technology, more power of individual and collaborative enterprise to introduce new technologies at a modest cost than ever before.

Notice I said Science-Based Enterprises, not going to work for a science or technology company or a government or university research facility. Unemployment among science and engineering graduates is, while lower than that in IT or the population as a whole, still quite high. The Bush Administration does not believe in science. They have reduced government spending for scientific and technical research as a percentage of GDP to its lowest level in decades. And both government and private industry have reduced no-strings-attached support for universities, so universities can’t afford to pay for more scientists or research either. And the private sector is only interested in profitable, commercial development, leeching off university research and content to produce ‘me-too’ copycat products. Go to work for a pharma company and instead of helping find a cure for AIDS you’re more likely to be put to work developing a stronger version of Viagra.

If you’re really interested in making a difference through scientific and technological development, you’re going to have to become an entrepreneur. That’s not as risky as it sounds: Just follow the advice I’ve laid out in Natural Enterprise, starting with identifying an unmet need. But I mean a fundamental human need, not a commercial need. We really don’t need any more stuff. If the list three paragraphs back doesn’t give you enough ideas, I can give you more.

The next step is to do some research, some homework into what really underlies these basic human problems, and talk to potential customers (that would be all of us) about root causes and possible solutions. Talk to other scientists and technologists (and us creative types in KM) about solutions, about what’s possible. Ask us what we’d be willing to pay for the solution you have in mind. If it solves the problem, we’ll find some way to pay for it. Do all of this before you spend one penny setting up your enterprise. The next step involves making sure you or your partners have the scientific and technical skills to develop the solution. Some of you may have to (or want to) go back to university to get what you need, but I bet you’ll find you learn what you need a lot more effectively in the process of simply researching the problem. You know, “most of what I needed to know to cure AIDS I learned in kindergarten”. Don’t be intimidated by the mystique of higher education, or the complexity of big-business processes — they’re there for a reason, but it has nothing to do with the requirements of innovation or entrepreneurship. The knowledge to do almost anything technical is out there — you only need to know enough to know where to look, and with your web savvy and your background in IT, that should be easy.

Now, at last, with the knowledge of the solution, and the assurance from ‘customers’ that there’s a market for it, you’re ready to set up your Science-Based Enterprise. If you’ve done it right, you’ll probably have people lined up ready to invest. Don’t give up control when you take their money.

Why haven’t I taken my own advice? I’m one of those creative KM guys. I’m hopeless with the details, destined to come up with tons of good ideas (most of which won’t work, but a few of which will) and watch the money and fame go to those who have the patience for, and know how to go about, the details of implementation.

I’m not saying this is easy. Entrepreneurship isn’t for everyone. But if just a select few of the millions of under-employed IT professionals in the world found the courage to end-run the politicians only looking at the next election, the bureaucrats only looking at their job security, and the corporations only looking at their bottom line, and put their remarkable minds to analyzing and solving some of the world’s neglected and critical problems through real science, the world would be a better place. And amazingly grateful. And you probably wouldn’t be restless and bored in your job anymore.

For more information on the figure at top, please see my Prescription for Business Innovation., section 1

This entry was posted in Working Smarter. Bookmark the permalink.


  1. lukerazzell@yahoo.co.uk says:

    Yes, great points Dave. I always test ideas with the “could my mum use it?” yardstick. If we can develop tools to help people search and bookmark the web and their own digital content more intuitively and meaningfully (i.e. semantically), but with an interface that requires no more digital sophistication from newbies than Google does, we could really broaden the scope of social software’s impact. A key, perhaps, is in having the application adapt to the user. Also, focusing on online-offline integration of concepts.

  2. Life Tenant says:

    Another wonderful post, Dave; thank you. The question of what makes for true inventiveness is interesting. Experts in a given field, such as IT, tend to enjoy technical problems and solutions for their own sake. That’s why they focus on that field. Yet their output is most meaningful to the large majority of people, to society at large, when it solves a problem that is beyond the bounds of IT. Who are the people who understand enough IT to handle the technical issues, but are aware enoug of problems in the larger world, and interested enough in them, that they can shape IT products and services to address them?

  3. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks, everyone. Subdude, I think a lot of people in IT are unusually aware of the problems we face in the world, and IT products and services have done a lot to *try* to address them. But there’s only so much you can do with bits; the most important changes and technologies we need are going to involve atoms, not bits. And that will need other kinds of science, and a lot of entrepreneurship.

  4. Tris Hussey says:

    Dave,Fantastic post. I posted my comments on my site here is the link: http://blog.larixconsulting.com/blog/_archives/2004/10/29/171018.html (Since the trackback didn’t seem to take).

  5. Thought-provoking essay. I’ve been reluctant to get too involved in KM myself but was unsure why; you have expressed some of the reasons I was unable to articulate. I have linked to this article as well at: http://conniecrosby.blogspot.com/2004/10/reasons-to-get-out-of-km.html#comments

  6. Don Dwiggins says:

    Good article. I’d like to add another option for IT people, and possibly even KM folks: community improvement technology. Here’s a good link to get started with: Doug Schuler’s “New Community Networks: Wired for Change” at http://www.scn.org/ncn/. Another good reference is the Asset-Based Community Development Institute at http://www.northwestern.edu/ipr/abcd.html.

Comments are closed.