Friday, May 2, 2008

The Four Paradoxes of KM

Knowledge Management is a big topic. There are different models and approaches for managing knowledge -- any of which can be helpful in establishing goals, a strategy, and tactical initiatives for a corporate KM program. Each model narrows the focus to a subset of the larger problem. Some focus on communities, some focus on capturing tacit knowledge, some emphasize best practices, while others target search and/or structuring knowledge that already exists.

However, whichever approach you take, at some point you will come face to face with one or more of the paradoxes of corporate KM. These are problems without a solution. They trigger intense philosophical debates when they arise and can lead to quite heated, sometimes personal, attacks on one position or another. The professional careers of a number of consultants in the field are based on advocating one side or the other of the debate.

Why? Why must it be one or the other? Why can't there be a middle ground? The reality is that any given KM program has only so much time, money, or attention to spend and must tactically select what problems to attack and how, thereby staking a position on each issue. And when you do, there will be advocates within management, among your professional peers, and in your audience base who will argue -- loudly -- for the alternative.

Be prepared. These issues cannot be resolved by pure logic or persuasion. They must simply be faced as a hazard of the profession.

The four paradoxes of KM are the following:

Tacit vs. Explicit

This is perhaps the oldest of the paradoxes and the most intractable: whether to focus on explicit or tacit knowledge. Explicit knowledge is information that is written down: project documents, white papers, lessons learned, best practices, etc. Tacit knowledge is all the information your constituents have garnered from experience but still have locked up in their heads.

A focus on explicit knowledge usually leads to an emphasis on search, taxonomy (categorizing the explicit knowledge), and sometimes selection (e.g. qualifying best practices). A focus on tacit knowledge often requires a concentration on establishing and encouraging communities (where tactic knowledge can be shared), story telling, and the technologies and events that support them (forums, blogs, SIGs, face-to-face meetings, etc.). Search is also important, but often focuses on people rather than documents (finding expertise rather than static information).

Local vs. Global

The second paradox concerns the geographic scope of the knowledge sharing. It is relatively easy to establish a community for knowledge sharing within a local area. Sharing involves trust and trust is easier to establish among people who share physical and cultural proximity. A small localized community also has more opportunities for face-to-face meetings that further increases trust and understanding between members. So you frequently see requests to create a local group, forum, wiki, or repository, although the topic at hand is itself universal (such as a Project Management community for the Boston area, say).

However, once a local community is established, either consciously or subconsciously, it creates barriers to those outside of the group. Just the existence of a local group will create an emotional barrier to people not within that area. They do not advertise their activities outside the region and often think their concerns are unique to themselves. In many cases, they even use security mechanisms to restrict access to their local members only.

But for large companies, sharing knowledge locally is not the problem. Making information and problem solutions visible and available across the corporation is the issue. Consequently, these localized efforts actually create barriers to sharing knowledge between regions and organizations.

Global communities are harder to get started. Individuals don't feel as connected and, for multinational companies, different languages can create an additional barrier. So, if there is a local community, employees will tend to expend their energies participating in the local activities and ignoring the global efforts. (There is actually a chicken-and-egg situation that arises, where people will claim, fairly, that there is no benefit in their participating in the global community because it isn't as active as their local group. But the global community cannot thrive until the individuals get involved...)

So, the individuals would prefer and will -- in the absence of any outside influence -- create small, closed, local groups. But from a larger corporate perspective there is a critical need to establish and foster global sharing. And until the global communities are firmly established and prove their worth, there can be continuing and sometimes heated battles over who gets to establish communities and how.

Open vs. Closed

The third paradox focuses on the tension between security and sharing. This paradox is closely related to the issue of global vs. local, but is not restricted to geographic proximity.

The goal of knowledge management is to maximize the value of the corporation's accumulated experience and wisdom by sharing them and applying them wherever possible: i.e. using knowledge as a business asset. But, in business parlance, assets need to be protected against misuse or -- worse -- industrial espionage. This is usually done by restricting access to the assets to only those who need to know. In other words, putting them under lock and key.

This approach may work well for machinery and a few highly confidential business strategy documents, but it does not work well for knowledge. As soon as you restrict access to knowledge you drastically reduce its ability to be applied and consequently its value.

Knowledge is one of the few "renewable" resources in business. In fact, it is not only renewable, it is regenerative, because the more you use it the more knowledge you create.

Unfortunately, there are many urban legends that scare managers and reinforce the urge to secure any but the most innocuous documents against misuse. Stories of a contractor who also works for a competitor, takes documents, gives them to the competitor who then presents the information as their own work and "steals" customers out from under your company. Even within a company, many groups will protect process documents, examples, best practices -- even sales presentations -- against access from anyone but select members of their own subdivision.

This sort of intellectual property hoarding is hard to argue against because it is not based on rational thought; it is based on fear. If you perceive others within your own company as a threat, it will be very hard to establish a culture of sharing and trust. And as the the average time of employment shrinks and changing companies becomes commonplace, even the most trusted employees within your division become potential future threats.

Quantity vs. Quality

Lastly, the fourth paradox struggles with the choice between a few excellent examples and sharing as much knowledge as possible. The argument goes like this:
  • On the one side, you should save and share everything so as not to lose any of the valuable knowledge captured in your business documents. Besides, you cannot tell in advance what knowledge will be needed. Users can then search through and decide for themselves what is the most appropriate content.
  • On the other side, even if you save only part of the accumulated documents, you don't want your employees wasting their time sifting through piles of unstructured content. The best examples should be reviewed, approved and highlighted to make sure they get the most appropriate content quickly.

Note this argument tends to come up most frequently when dealing with explicit knowledge. But it can also apply to tacit knowledge, when you get into discussions about archiving and how long to store forums, blogs or other user-generated content.

In most cases, whenever I have been caught in the middle of this argument, it has been completely hypothetical. The organization having the argument is neither capturing any measureable amount of unqualified content and has no process, criteria, or personnel in place to locate and rate best practices from any other type of knowledge. However, the debate rages on, hindering any further progress in either direction.

But the paradox does not have to be taken to extremes to prove troublesome. Even when a company attempts to take the middle ground -- accepting peer submissions, then reviewing, selecting, and highlighting best examples -- arguments still arise. To begin with, identifying certain samples as high quality and raising their visibility has the natural effect of discouraging contributions from those who and are not selected. If you encourage people to reuse the "approved" entries, you are implicitly discouraging them from using the rest, so why bother submitting? The other common difficulty that arises is disagreements over who (which group or which role) should have the right or has the expertise to make the selection.


I say these paradoxes are unsolvable, but that is only when they are being argued in abstract. Given any specific business situation, there is always a better and a worse approach that will fall to one side or the other of each issue.

When dealing with call centers and help desks, there is a considerable amount of explicit knowledge required. The call agents are not experts; they rely on databases of "answers" to respond to calls. Any issues that are escalated need to be captured into the database to aid future calls.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, when dealing with consultants, there is a certain amount of explicit knowledge -- contract templates, legal boilerplate, even past examples -- but the critical issue is enabling them to share, combine, and reuse their implicit knowledge with each other as they face new challenges each day.

Unfortunately, people tend to see these paradoxes as abstracts, even when facing specific business challenges. So, although it ought to be possible to argue the merits of a knowledge management program based on the specifics of its strategy and alignment with the business situation, you will more than likely be drawn into a philosophical debate over one or more of the paradoxes at some point in the project.

Being an optimistic, you might view it as a positive sign of interest and enthusiasm for KM. Being a pessimist, it might appear purely as unnecessary interference from the uninformed. Either way, it is best to allot extra time in your plans for it because no matter what you do, you are unlikely to be able to avoid the argument.


Mary Abraham said...

Thanks, Andrew. You've hit the nail on the head with your description of the four paradoxes. While resource allocation undoubtedly plays a large role in the perpetuation of the paradoxes, I wonder if another culprit may be the reasonable tendency of knowledge managers to want to create and manage coherent and internally consistent collections? It would seem harder to do this when you make ad hoc pragmatic decisions on a case by case basis.

- Mary

marnix said...

Indedeed, each situation will be different, having a score from 1 to 10 on each dimension. I prefer the word dimension to 'unresolvable paradox'. It is not black or white ... it is grey.