The conundrum focus

A discussion is currently taking place on the ActKM mailing list about the theoretical underpinnings of knowledge management. Joe Firestone, reaching into the language of philosophy, has consistently taken the view that KM only makes sense when related to the need to improve underlying knowledge processes:

I see [knowledge management] more as a field defined by a problem, with people entering it because they’re interested in some aspect of the problem that their specific knowledge seems to connect with.

Unfortunately, in more quotidian language, the word ‘problem’ suggests difficulties that need to be overcome, but sometimes KM is actually not dedicated to overcoming difficulties but to taking maximum advantage of opportunities. When Joe refers to a ‘problem’ I think he means it as a puzzle or conundrum: “how do we fill this knowledge gap?” Stated thus, I think this is a less objectionable aim for KM.

What about the nature of the conundrums that face organisations? Rightly, in linking to an earlier post of mine, Naysan Firoozmand at the Don’t Compromise blog suggested that there was a risk of vagueness in my suggestion (channelling David Weinberger) that KM might be about improving conversations in organisations.

Which is all true and good and inspiring, except I want to wave my arm about frantically like the child at the back of class and shout ‘But Sir, there’s more … !’. There’s a difference between smarter and wise that’s the same difference as the one between data and information: the former is a raw ingredient of the latter. And – when it comes to organisational performance and leadership (which is our focus here, rather than KM itself) – simply being smarter isn’t the whole story. Clever people still do stupid things, often on a regular (or worse, repeated) basis. Wise people, on the other hand, change their ways.

This is a fair challenge. Just improving the conditions for exchange of knowledge is not enough on its own. (Although I would argue that it is still an improvement on an organisation where conversations across established boundaries are rare.) There are additional tasks on top of enabling conversation or other knowledge interactions, such as selecting the participants (as Mary Abraham made clear in the post that started all this off), guiding the interaction and advising on possible outcomes.

Those additional tasks all help to bring some focus to knowledge-related interactions. The next issue relates to my last blog post. In doing what we do, we always need to ask where the most value can be generated. The answer to that question, in part, is driven by the needs expressed by others in the organisation — their problems or conundrums. However, not all problems can be resolved to generate equal value to the organisation.

The question, “what value?” is an important one, and reminds us that focus on outcomes is as important as avoiding vagueness in approach. How can we gauge how well our KM activities will turn out? Some help is provided, together with some scientific rigour, by Stephen Bounds (another ActKM regular) who has created a statistical model for KM interventions using a Monte Carlo analysis. His work produces an interesting outcome. It suggests that on average, the more general a KM programme, the less likely it is to succeed. In fact, that lack of success kicks in quite quickly.

To maximise the chance of a course of action that will lead to measurable success, knowledge managers should intervene in areas where one or more of the following conditions hold:

  • occurrences of knowledge failures are frequent
  • risks of compound knowledge failure are negligible or non-existent
  • substantial reductions in risk can be achieved through a KM intervention (typically by 50% or more)

Where possible, the costs of the intervention should be measured against the expected savings to determine the likelihood of benefits exceeding KM costs.

So: simple, narrowly defined KM activities are more likely to succeed, all other things being equal. Success here is defined as it should be, as making a contribution to reductions in organisational costs (or, potentially, improving revenue). Stephen’s analysis is really instructive, and could be very useful in encouraging people away from a “one size fits all” organisation-wide KM programmes.

In sum, then, our work requires us to identify the conundrums that need to be solved, together with the means by which they should be addressed, and to define the outcomes as clearly as possible for the individuals involved and for the organisation. We cannot hope to resolve all organisational conundrums by improving knowledge sharing. So how do we choose which ones to attack, and how do we conduct that attack? Those are questions we always need to keep in mind.

9 thoughts on “The conundrum focus”

  1. It sounds like Stephen Bounds is really saying that KM is only worthwhile when it can make a significant difference to a specific problem. That’s a reasonable management response and I imagine that’s true of many management themes – what do you think? I’ve often wondered if this whole discussion about ‘knowledge management’ should be broken into three parts: the ‘knowledge’ bit, the ‘management’ bit and finally ‘knowledge-management’.

    1. I’m not sure Stephen’s analysis is concerned with the question of worth — it is simply a model that looks at the probability of success and failure. He found that (statistically speaking) as KM interventions become more complex, the risk of failure increases much more rapidly than might have been thought. The analysis does not take into account any practical issues which could mitigate or hasten failure, so it is only a partial guide. However, I think many managers overestimate the likelihood of success for their projects, and the Monte Carlo analysis potentially brings a hefty dose of reality to those estimations.

  2. PS And of course this is where social computing makes it the KM discussion interesting, as its a strategy of multiple low cost interventions (lowering the risk-return threshold) where the most valuable ones emerge… but that’s not an anti-KM pattern, its an anti-(traditional)management pattern. :-)

    1. I think this is exactly right. Social software We have an opportunity to move away from the traditional approach to KM (and work generally). I am brewing another post on Olivier Amprimo’s IKMS presentation on this topic.

  3. I too think KM is broken into two areas.

    One is to fix a problem of coordination, communication, flow, awareness, collaboration, etc…

    The other is findability, connecting to people, conversations, emergence.

    NOTE: I guess there is also the bit about documenting best ways to do things. Hopefully with new tools, teams will do this themselves.

    The first one (demand approach), as you are focused on delivering an outcome based on a plan, easy ROI…and you need a KM body as a consultant.

    The second one (supply approach) is a more enterprise wide thing, where we are creating an environment of opportunities, connections, crowdsourcing (a more self-organising organisation). There is no plan and outcome to achieve, it’s just a better ecosystem to live in than Outlook. And it mimics the intangible networks of our offline lives.

    Therefore ROI and value becomes a question that is more fuzzy, yet people will still complain that they can’t find things, that we re-invent the wheel, that we are not capitalising on our talent as we don’t know who they are and what they know. If you talk the talk you gotta walk the walk.

    Another prob is my boss aint’ gonna be happy about me roaming around helping other teams. Plus I need to be measured on my performance not just on my team efforts, but how I help the whole org.
    Senior management will be happy with me, but my boss won’t as I spend less time on the team.

    It’s inevitable the social networks will create a culture of a role-based org

    Going back to point 1, once we have an online social network, and DIY tools. Will a nominated person in a team be able to replace the KM consultant. ie KM as embedded (incentive to naturally share and communicate), and the nominated person as the facilitator/gardener.

    1. Wow John! This is a magnificent comment. I like the supply and demand model (it crystallises some of my own thoughts).

      The question of performance measurement is one that I haven’t really grappled with. I think often people find themselves in a position where their work in one team adds less value to the organisation than if they were able to adopt a roaming brief. If we limit people to pre-defined SMART objectives focused on performance in one area of the business, I think there is a risk that the organisation can miss out on potentially high performance elsewhere. However, such definition is important if people are to be kept focused. Have we got the balance right? I am not sure that we have at the moment — many organisations face an uncertain future, and their response to that challenge may need to be more flexible than the way they operated in the past.

  4. All very thought-provoking. Coming from an organisation where we’re more concerned with behaviours than knowledge, there’s at least one double-edged instrument here.

    If the impact of social media – where company firewalls and policies don’t block their potential in-roads into organisational culture and practice (and I’d argue an intranet isn’t really the same thing) – is such that we start to look beyond role definitions at how we inter-relate, then the embedded facilitator/gardener in each little organisational plot is a very attractive model. (It’s also an attractive vision of the workplace as something more like the local allotments, but I’m concerned that rosy image is tainting my vision.)

    But how do we get organisations to give people the freedom to play those roles – sectors with a history of cross-disciplinary interaction (academia specifically, the public sector services more generally) may find this comes rather more naturally than mainstream industry, which is focused more on competition that collaboration? Unless performance management practice decides there is worth in doing so, this won’t happen – this won’t be valuable behaviour, it’ll be time-wasting. Which takes us back to square one and the need for metrics to prove the case. (Is KM on the same degree of “difficult territory” here as learning & development?)

    From our point of view over here in the subset of the world(!), I’m wondering how far this model might also work in terms of sharing behaviours rather than knowledge. Over here on our planet, we don’t so much want a facilitator/gardener who chips in with “Did you know?” or “I know who can show you how to do ..” as one who pipes up “Why do you want to do that?”, “Have we ever contemplated doing ‘x’?”. Which I guess makes them more of a Wisdom Worker than a Knowledge Worker – and the capital letters alert to the danger I may be daydreaming. What would my line manager make of me spending my time like that?


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