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The Changing Face of Knowledge Management March 19, 2008

Posted by Eyal Sivan in Producer.
Tags: , , , , ,

In a past life, I worked with E&Y‘s Knowledge Management (KM) division to help them build their first Web-based Knowledge Sharing tools, and develop their KM practice. One of the tools my company built for them, brilliantly named KnowledgeWeb, was a Web-based Document Repository. It featured all the trappings one would expect: top-down, hierarchical categories based on a common taxonomy; discrete roles and permissions; and an administrative back-end to manage it all.

Much more recently, I went through the arduous task of introducing wikis and other “Web 2.0” technologies to the KM division of the large financial firm I’m with today. The exercise was very illuminating. The challenge was not in explaining the technology or even the driving process; the challenge was explaining that wikis and other technologies like it represented an abandonment of control.

Adopting wikis in the enterprise requires more than technology adoption – it requires cultural adoption.

The open, collaborative nature of a wiki is more transparent (and more prone to abuse) than almost any other Knowledge Management solution. Whether this openess is an advantage or liability depends on the wiki, but one thing is for certain: managing a wiki demands a completely different approach than managing traditional collaboration / KM tools.

Traditional collaboration / Content Management / KM tools employ a top-down control mechanism (in KM, this would be ontology and eventually the taxonomy). At a high-level, management defines a fixed process or structure, and business units execute according to the set process or structure. The goal of this approach to create processes and structures that are efficient and meet business requirements.

Wikis (and other Web 2.0 technologies) employ a bottom-up approach, whereby communities formed around common goals self-organize, holistically and naturally resulting in useful processes or structures. With a wiki, it is not so important to get things “exactly right” the first time, because the content is constantly changing and improving. Even if it isn’t perfect when first published, the community will self-manage the content until it becomes valuable.

Those responsible for implementing Knowledge Management solutions are facing nothing short of a culture clash.

Wikis and blogs encourage participation and transparency. Through no fault of their own, the average employee at a medium-to-large sized company has been trained that these are the exact qualities that can end up getting you into trouble. The oft-repeated mantra is: Don’t make waves.

Some degree of governance and top-down classification is no doubt important. However, often these problems are shifting, moving targets. Many KM practices were built on the idea that you can capture and freeze the ideal classification & structure for a given problem. Wikis and blogs say you can’t — they say the classification & structure itself has to be holistically grown and remain always growing.

Frankly, it is very difficult to imagine all the employees in a Fortune 500 company, from grunts to VP’s, posting daily progress reports on their blogs, or collaborating on wikis to generate documents. In a world of participation and transparency, there are no shortcuts and accountability is built in. For some, that reality, that inevitability is alarming.

“What about security?!” they cry. “What about offensive material?!!”

It’s plainly obvious the problem is deeper than specific concerns about abuse. Don’t blame the tools, blame the culture.

The ideas above are somewhat in response to two posts from Lucas McDonnell on his blogs (lucasmcdonnell.com & memetiks). Lucas is a KM professional who has vast experience providing KM solutions to large firms. In his posts, he questions whether KM is “dying a slow death” (based on a quantitative analysis of Google searches).

It seems to me it is not dying, so much as evolving into something else entirely. The challenge for KM professionals is to make the shift as rewarding as it can be difficult.




1. Misha - March 28, 2008

Self-organizing community mentality will always clash with the corporate hierarchical frame of mind!
In the past (Web 1.0) people have tried to implement KM in large companies. The benefits of leveraging the “company intelligence” by capturing and making available the wisdom of the knowledge workers. Any attempts to establish proper KM environment were accompanied by creating a new organizational structure of knowledge custodians/administrators. I am sure that one can not ignore this top-down enforcement of a “who is responsible” corporate culture.

2. trev - May 30, 2008

Eerie parallels here. I work for a financial institute, and find their desire to be innovative at direct odds with their infrastructure. I was asked to build a tracking tool. When I asked to install the Access dbase software, I was told i couldn’t because it was a security issue. I pieced together a far less functional and more awkward to use tool in Excel, that no one really liked. Comments included “the las thing I need is a another damn window open,” and ” I prefer pencil and paper.”

The skills, values and tools that built so many companies into powerful mega corps in the 20th century don’t hold in the 21st.
The culture must change if the workplace is to change. Unfortunately, when the skills and knowledge once associated with managers starts to manifest in the workers, workers are too often viewed as dissidents or threats to the hierarchy. Frankly, I think we are often mis-understood and undervalued because our leaders and managers don’t have clue what we are talking about ,and can’t afford to risk showing their ignorance.

The hierarchy invests in the past, the connective invest in the future.

3. Eyal Sivan - January 6, 2009

Misha, hopefully when large companies start adopting Web 2.0 tools, these will facilitate the necessary cultural shift. But I agree that there is and will continue to be cultural resistance from the top.

Trev, I agree that many IT leaders could stand to be more informed about the potential of social applications. That said, I don’t think that all top-down decision-making should be removed; security, for example, is a top-down problem. KM, however, is better done bottom-up.

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