Why do you want to ‘do KM’?

My recommendation to anyone new to knowledge management is to start by reading and reflecting on David Gurteen’s presentation to KM Middle East in 2011, “Don’t do KM.”

Despite David’s high profile, and the fact that this message has been repeated by him and many others over the past four years, I still see the same mistake being made. But it’s now being made at an organisational level, and that causes problems further down the line.

Here’s an example. A law firm has decided that it should have a knowledge management function. So headhunters are briefed to find someone to lead that function. Sadly, neither the firm nor the headhunters understand what is needed.

The firm probably has a sense of what might need fixing, but they don’t know what measures could be taken. The headhunters have a better understanding of the ambit of traditional KM, but may not be allowed any insight into the firm’s real needs.

The result: a role description that indicates how important KM is (“a strategic function”), but also lists various ‘information assets’ that need to be managed. In short, a description of KM that limits the function to pre-defined boundaries separated from the performance of the firm.

In reality, of course, a role description can be ignored. But it acts as an anchor. Presented like this, it is difficult for a new recruit to persuade the firm that they shouldn’t ‘do KM’. It also means that investment in change or in unexpected activities that would make a real difference are harder to justify.

By contrast, advertisements for leadership roles in business development and marketing are much more likely to refer to the need for things like “new and innovative approaches on winning business”, “driving forward pioneering initiatives”, or “distinctive client experience”. Even though firms may have a better idea of what might be involved in this discipline, they rarely dictate at the outset in detail what these roles should do. The result is that these recruits are trusted much more to lead the firm (not just their own teams) in the right direction.

Just as people with ‘knowledge management’ in their titles should avoid ‘doing KM’, firms should avoid thinking that they need KM. They don’t. They may need to use their knowledge better because they have identified a problem. That’s a much better starting point for recruitment. You don’t need a Knowledge Director or CKO just because everyone else has one.

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