It’s not my problem

As I was catching up on my RSS feeds this morning, something by Jack Vinson caught my attention.

Tools of the trade

When LinkedIn launched groups, in which like-minded people could discuss topics of common interest, it seemed like a sensible idea. Unfortunately, it is much easier to start a group than to search for an existing one, so there are many groups covering similar ground. As a result, one ends up being a member of a multitude of groups and participating in none.

Unlike me, however, Jack has engaged with some of these discussions, and in one in particular (referenced in his blog post) he tries to move the responses to a standard question in an interesting direction.

The question (posed by a knowledge manager in the mining industry) was simple enough:

I need to put together an AFE (authorization for expenditure) to start the KM program in my company, but the executives are still asking ROI questions. They have the mandate to innovate but just don’t get it. KM is about setting the baseline for indirect ROI or am I wrong?

Naturally enough, this produced some interesting answers focusing on measuring ROI or on ways of persuading the executives by other means. Jack’s response came from at the problem from a different angle:

Maybe it is not time to implement software? Instead approach the executives with the problems they have articulated (such as “innovation”), and propose changes to the process that will help remove or reduce the severity of the problems. A lot of that will have to do with the way people work, regardless of whether there is specific software in place to make it happen. What can you do with the software you have today? What could you do in addition if you were to buy the software you are proposing to buy?

I found this recasting of the question really valuable. Too often, issues are raised about the ROI of particular interventions (social software, KM activities, and so on), but account is rarely taken of the price of doing nothing. The fact is that these projects are rarely undertaken for their own sake — at least, they shouldn’t be. Instead, they are (or should be) proposals to deal with an existing business problem. That problem usually belongs to someone else — whether that be a manager in a particular part of the business, or someone in the leadership team. As Dave Snowden put it in a discussion panel at last weeks KCUK conference, we need to think about what the objects of KM are. He proposed just two:

  • improving decision making
  • creating the conditions for innovation

Given that the decision making process generally belongs to someone else, they need to judge whether (a) it is in need of improvement and (b) how best to improve it. We have a role in helping them with those judgments (by showing them alternatives, for example), but they have to make the call whether a KM approach is the right one.

Ultimately, then, it is our job to show people what is possible, and to offer a variety of options for resolving problems. Our preference for one solution over another may well be misinformed — we can rarely appreciate the full context. That is one reason why many big KM projects have failed in the past — they were not driven by the business, and so the investment that really counts was missing.

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