Knowledge Management Needs to be Agile, Too

I was speaking with a potential client about their approach to knowledge management. They think they need a senior person to organize a top-down appoach, and build a custom tool, so they know what knowledge they want to manage and have a place to put it.

I don’t think that’s going to work. That approach requires they know what kinds of knowledge they need to store and who will need access to it, and when. They don’t know any of that now.

Here’s what I know about knowledge management:

  • You can’t create an electronic system until you understand what you’re trying to manage. That’s because the kind of information changes over time, not just the content.
  • The Dreyfus model of knowledge acquisition infers that electronic systems are fine for novices, advanced beginners, and maybe the competents. But the people who really make a difference in the organization are the proficient and expert folks. Those people cannot easily put their knowledge into an electronic system, nor can the other people acquire their knowledge that way. Knowledge has to be transferred one-on-one, within a team, inside groups, between groups, and company-wide as the very last step.
  • If you put people in competition with each other *in any way*, they will have dis-incentives to share their knowledge.

Given all of that, it’s not clear to me a top-down approach to knowledge management can work at all. What I do see as necessary is to have the managers (or some person):

  • See the pockets of knowledge
  • Plan some adaptive, people-based, timeboxed systems of knowledge management
  • Measure where the knowledge management systems are headed
  • And steer the people to do better

To me, agile approaches would work well. You could try something for a short timebox and see if it’s working. If so, keep doing it until it doesn’t work or needs another storage mechanism. Now you’ve got some experience to know what you need.

Starting with a tool is backwards, if you really want the experts who have substantial intuition to impart their knowledge.

7 Replies to “Knowledge Management Needs to be Agile, Too”

  1. Years ago I worked with some people who were infatuated with databases (Oracle at that time). Every week they wanted to have someone build them yet one more database. I felt that before building a database, keep track of your information with pencil and paper for six months to a year. Then you would understand what you wanted to keep and how you would use the information.

    No one took my advice. We wasted millions of taxpayer dollars.

  2. Great advice Johanna. I get frustrated with folks that want to start with technology/tool first rather than trying to figure out what it is you are trying to accomplish.

    Agile might make a lot of sense here…I’m looking into KM for my doctoral research and may have to look at agile methods as applied to KM.

  3. I’d love to see you elaborate on your statement that “If you put people in competition with each other *in any way*, they will have dis-incentives to share their knowledge.”

    Intuitively this seems right, but I’m having trouble articulating for myself why.

  4. Nice article. I certainly agree that using a KM tool as the (or even a) key element in the KM process is not the right approach, and it has been a major contributor to the failure rate of KM over the years.

    I always considered that the best role of top management is guidance, and aligning the KM and corporate strategy so as to ensure relevance as well as exploitation of competencies, innovation, etc. The extent of involvement probably varies depending on the firm. Its tricky, since KM is tied into just about everything in one way or another.

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