There are a few things that act as talismans for traditional knowledge management. Here’s a couple of blog posts undermining commonly-held KM superstitions.
Superstition 1: We need an expertise directory
This sounds like a great idea. Clearly “know-who” is an essential part of good knowledge management. Without it, how can we justify David Weinberger’s claim that “A knowledge worker is someone whose job entails having really interesting conversations at work.” So what should we do? The obvious answer: get everyone to add their details to an expertise directory.
My instinct is that this approach is doomed to failure. In order for an expertise directory of this kind to work, a couple of things need to converge. First, we need to be able to identify what information might be useful to people in the future. This obligation might fall on the system designer — to build a taxonomy that encompasses all possible future eventualities. Or it might rest with each individual — to describe in free text what they do in a way that includes all the topics that might be relevant. That’s a challenge. The other thing is that the right people (as many people as possible) need to contribute.
My experience, and the reported experience of IBM (over a much larger, and therefore more authoritative, sample) is that this approach fails because neither of these factors is realistically achievable.
After almost 10 years of from-the-executives, repetitive, consistent pressure, only 60% of all IBM profiles are kept updated.(Note that Lotus Connections Profiles is the productized version of IBM BluePages, which has been around since 1998.) And that’s even with an automated email sent out every 3 months to remind people to update their profiles, plus a visual progress bar indicating how complete or incomplete a user’s profile is, plus people’s first-line managers constantly reminding them to update their profile.
So what should go in its place?
Once we gave Contributors the choice about how to share their knowledge and experience, we found that they were more likely to contribute using these social options, since they realized that the result would be fewer emails, IMs and phone calls asking for their basic expertise.
“Read my blog.”… “Check out my bookmarks.”… “Look at my activity templates.”… “Read my community forum.”
…became the new ‘RTFM‘, if you will.
Now, once Seekers find an expert via Profiles, they are able to consume some of their knowledge and expertise without disrupting them. The nature of the remaining email/IM/phone requests from Seekers were about their deeper experience, their knowledge that will always remain tacit.
In practice social bookmarking, internal blogging, communities and activity tracking (all “in the flow”) beats voluntary confession of expertise (“above the flow”). The tools? For (and by) IBM: Dogear for social bookmarking and Connections for blogging, communities and activities. Surely law firms (even those without social networking tools) should have a head start in this area. There is huge scope for leveraging the information about people’s work in existing databases: document management systems, billing and time-recording databases, CRM systems. If we get our systems to talk to each other, we can enable real human conversations.
(For those who prefer a visual approach, there is a video.)
Superstition 2: KM efforts need incentives
I think I have said before that I am not a fan of knowledge repositories and the Field of Dreams triumph of hope over experience. Received wisdom says that in order for such know-how systems to work well, people need to be encouraged to use them. Neil Richards was sceptical, and asked for people’s experiences. An unscientific approach, to be sure, but the anecdotal evidence is unequivocal. Incentives don’t work. Some quotes:
While an initial advocate of incentive programs for fee earner participation in KM programs, over time I found it tended to be the same fee earners participating each time and, in most cases, these fee earners informed me they would have participated in the program regardless of whether or not there had been an incentive program.
They decided to offer a bottle of wine to the person who made the most contributions. At the next annual meeting of the group, one of the team members indeed received a bottle for having made four or five contributions over the year. (The firm’s target was four a year.) And that was the end of the program! Never revived or spoken of again. The contribution rate, which was always fairly low, didn’t change, either during or after the contest.
We have tried incentives for KM participation, and I don’t want to go there again. Our worst mistakes were done when we deployed our global Knowledge Management program for Customer support back in 2000. One country unit decided to give away a Swiss army knife to every engineer that wrote 10 knowledge objects. This was one of our larger Country units, so we got >1000 knowledge objects written (and very armed and dangerous engineers…). Why did this fail: There was no incentive on writing anything useful, or to adhere to any of the internal format guidelines. These poor knowledge objects polluted the search for ALL country units for years.
I am looking forward to Neil’s promised further thoughts on incentives, because I think one of the real challenges for knowledge management is to embed good knowledge-related behaviours in the organisation.
(A footnote to the expertise directory issue: a comment on the blog post refers to people’s use of profiles on Myspace and Facebook. I have entries in Facebook and LinkedIn, amongst others, and I find it hard to keep them up to date. However, I also catalogue my library on Librarything, and iTunes synchronises my listening habits to last.fm. These information flows combine in Facebook to give people a picture of my interests without me having to lift a finger.)