Sunday, March 22, 2009

Notes Towards a Theory of Sustainable Knowledge Management

This is the first in a series of posts.

For a number of years there has been a growing interest within the field of physical design for "sustainable architecture". Definitions may vary, but the general theme is to design buildings that do not drain the pool of natural resources: buildings that generate their own energy through solar power; that minimize the need for mechanical heating and cooling; even buildings that can be recycled without harmful bi-products when their usefulness is over. In other words, buildings that have a positive impact on the environment.

For some time now, I have thought that knowledge management as a discipline could do with a similar initiative.

Now, there are certainly things that can be done to make knowledge management systems and the computers they run on "green" or greener. However, these ecologically sound IT practices are not specific to knowledge management. They apply equally to all computerized business applications: supply chain, document management, accounting, etc.

What interests me is looking at knowledge management in a new way to see if we can reduce the impact and cost it has in terms of human resources. Can we design knowledge management initiatives with a smaller "footprint" in terms of cost in dedicated headcount, learning curve, and unique time away from people's "real" work? This is the concept I am calling Sustainable Knowledge Management.

Why Sustainable?

Knowledge Management has a reputation for requiring large, expensive initiatives with questionable results. That reputation is not entirely unwarranted. Many of the early KM programs were overly ambitious and software vendors have often sold large, all-inclusive systems (e-mail, document management, CRM, etc) as KM solutions.

Even smaller KM initiatives often require a significant upfront "push" in terms of cost, headcount, and executive attention to get them started.

Is all this effort necessary? More importantly, once the effort is underway, how much does it cost to maintain the initiative? Knowledge management is not unique in this respect. The same could be said of quality initiatives, change management, business process reengineering, etc. But my focus is KM.

Although I have no objection to having a career for life, there is a serious danger that knowledge management programs are pricing themselves out of the market. This is particularly true when there is no reliable or believable way to calculate Return On Investment (ROI) for most KM programs. This is because KM is focused on the longer-term improvement of business and employee performance and expertise, not bottom-line financials.

So without the direct-to-the-bottom-line connection between KM initiatives and improvement, it is important that KM programs reduce their disruptive impact and avoid becoming a ready target for cuts.

One common approach is to find a sponsor or a champion within upper management. Within KM circles, the need for "senior level" support is often discussed as a key component of a KM program. This means a VP or other high level manager who can influence budget and ensure the program is not axed. However, proponents of this approach are not so quick to explain what to do if you can't get that support.

Even if you do find a champion, relying on one person for your existence is risky. Management, particularly in western corporations, have a habit or restructuring and repositioning themselves frequently. It's called climbing the corporate ladder. What happens when you champion changes jobs? Can they still support your program?

Over the past 5-8 years, I've spent a nontrivial amount of time creating presentations explaining and justifying various KM programs to new managers. Having senior management support -- short of the CEO, and not even reliably in that case -- does not ensure that a KM program can be seen though to completion.

What we need is a more systematic approach to designing KM initiatives that are sustainable over the long-term.

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