Blogging was where we began, and how we built our company so we have preserved this archive to show how our thinking developed over a decade of developing the use of social technology inside organisations

ReBooting and Aligning KM (people)

by Olivier Amprim

Jack Vinson recently reported the NY-Toronto Law Firm KM Summit 2008 in Boston, in which he writes about the distinction between KM and Enterprise 2.0. It’s not the first time this sort of distinction is being made. In reality it is a common process for those who try to get a sense of their identity. What is at stake here what is the role of a knowledge manager now that Enterprise 2.0 is trendy?

A remark for the good sake: Jack restricts Enterprise 2.0 to social computing. By doing so, he’s putting away cloud computing, which is understandable from a KM perspective.

Jack summarizes Dan Keltsen’s approach: “there really isn’t that much different in terms of KM.  It’s just that Enterprise 2.0 brings some new technologies and different focus in terms of speed and ease of use.  And these new technologies — and the way they are implemented — allow for a number of interesting new behaviours.  One of the big elements is the emergence of knowledge and people that is much easier with E2.0 tools than with email or other traditional tools.”
I like this pragmatic approach, but I think we can go a bit further than that. Personally, I see Enterprise 2.0 as an evolution and a deepening of the silent, necessary and often painful transformation of organisations to adapt to a knowledge economy. This transformation is what I call the “rationalisation of design”, in the sense that we have had previously rationalised production (with Taylor, Ford and likes) and administration (with Weber and followers). [rationalisation is to be understood in its positive form: "stable ways of making things right".]

This explains why I consider the distinction that was drawn between KM and E2.0 during the first session (as reported by Jack) as highly debatable.

Jack Vinson KM E2.0.pngauthor: Jack Vinson

The exercise is debatable, but the result too. For instance, classifying “social networking” in KM is not what I have experienced. KM has never ever been in a position to deal with that. The farther KM went down the road of focussing on people was “communities of practice”, thanks to the great work of Wenger, Mc Dermott and likes. That is probably why there was apparently so much focus on blogging, despite the fact that today blogging is a commodity integrated as a feature in richer systems to a point that blog is almost history. [to make it short: the issue is not there anymore]
This exercise shows how people are confused and how people in charge of knowledge are not “in the know”. Has anyone noted the current total absence of key thought leaders of “hard core” KM and CoPs? (Except Dave Snowden and David Gurteen). Where is Wenger? Why “enterprise 2.0″ was crafted by McAfee, and not Daveport or Prusak?

The whole thing also illustrates that the great majority of KM people missed the social computing / E2.0 train.
This majority was in …
1 – an intellectual (document centricity, “Explicit – Ontological – Private” approach to knowledge, CoPs as mere rebranded forums, people is HR business, Best Practises as sole source of innovation)
2 -  and political position (KM ceased to be trendy, KM job was restricted in most cases to librarian work)
3 – as well as daily working routines (heavy systems to maintain with strict and time-consuming approval workflows)
… that prevented them to focus on knowledge sharing and user-centricity. Mashups, RSS, instant notifications, awareness, ambient knowledge, personalised content organisation (notably with user driven tags) are social computing stuff, not KM stuff. This is the reason why, KM people – a bit like IT people – were bypassed by communication, marketing, R&D and sometimes operations people. In fact, the only ones who got it are KM people who were embedded in services, notably those in the anglo-saxon legal sectors who where collecting, analysing, making sense and diffusing knowledge to colleagues in practices (see Allen & Overy work with Headshift).

That being said, what we witness with Enterprise 2.0 is the success and disappearance of KM. Disappearance being the result of success :-)
What Enterprise 2.0 show is that KM is not restricted to documentation and archiving, to data and information. Knowledge maybe data and information, but principally is knowledge. Knowledge is a fluid mix of framed experience, values, contextual information, and expert insight that provides a framework for evaluating and incorporating new experiences and information. A working definition of knowledge is Actionable Information (credits: Raju Buddharaju, NLB Singapore).
My point is that social computing helped diffuse knowledge related practices in the whole organisation, principally on the knowledge sharing and diffusion sides. KM is now pervasive. People collect (bookmarks, rss feeds, emails), organise (tags, folders), make sense and analyse, share (produce and diffuse), evaluate (rate) information and knowledge by themselves. This success kills the idea of having a peculiar and distinct KM function, which had been for a while the motto of KM people. The “We want a CKO, we want our KM Dept” claim is pointless. KM people seem to have profoundly misunderstood the lessons of Quality Management, which has been influential thanks to the “learning organisation” approach that served as intellectual bridge between Quality and KM and the launching ramp of KM.

Quality Management succeeded not because they managed to get influence with political seats (reporting directly to GM), but because it was providing a brand new philosophy to make things work better in organisation. Techniques was only a way to make things happen. Power in the organisation was only a side effect to their concrete ability to reduce waste, adjust to demand, increase productivity and finally create value. As soon as they got back to techniques only (e.g. Six Sigma), they disappeared of the radar of influence in the organisation.

Here is my point: the majority of KM people have to do their own revolution. They have to focus on the philosophy of KM, rather than techniques and tools in the first place. This is incidentally perfectly in line with Quality Management: find ways to make things better. Such an approach earlier would have helped them to catch the social computing train (that is my experience at least).

In a knowledge economy, organisations create value because their people accommodate processes thanks to situational arrangements (practices). That’s what I call “conception”. For that, they need information from and interaction with others. Most of the time it is all supported by IT systems. Around formal and complicated processes, there is a bunch of informal interactions constantly happening. Knowledge bases are just a shortcut, one way among others, as social computing and everyday life at the office demonstrate. What is important is not the stock of, but the access to information.

If we get this, KM people are in the position to continue playing the ball.
- Wherever relevant, librarian style work (documenting, centrally organising and archiving) will remain, in giant organisations mostly. Social computing complement, not destroys the need for organising, memorising and
maximising the use of documents. Librarian style work is only one form of managing knowledge, even if its the common understanding of KM (KM = Librarian work), These people can simply not claim the KM word being their own. We need to do some rebranding here: it’s librarian work, no more no less.
- For the rest, KM people are evolving into change management people. The work of KM should be mapping existing processes and practices, finding ways to improving them and favouring adoption, with a clear focus on knowledge all along the way. This calls for a variety of skills: strategic thinking, ethnomethodology, information management techniques and functional expertise (marketing, logistics, legal, …). Knowledge Management is Knowledge (focus) + Management [a bit like in the Humboldian University a Professor in Philosophy of Science needed to have a PhD in Philosophy and a PhD in the Science in reference]

And when you think of that, you end up being very close to Taylor’s “Principles of Scientific Management” (not its second hand, betraying implementation aka Taylorism). No surprise: the finality of organisation has not changed: efficiency and profitability are drivers (the later being the financial expression of the former for private organisations). What changed is the nature of the economy “developed countries” live in (knowledge over physical strength). And in this brave (not so) new world, KM people should normally be essentials.

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