Friday, March 27, 2009

Sustainable KM: The Challenges

Budget is not the only factor affecting the sustainability of knowledge management. In fact, it is only a minor obstacle that tends to impact all larger business initiatives equally. By far the most important factor is the people involved in the program and their willingness to participate.

When people talk about the "sustainability" of a KM program, they are usually referring to the level of engagement of the target audience and their willingness and enthusiasm to keep participating. No effort is sustainable if its audience is resistant. However, this is unfortunately the case for many KM programs.

Some of the common complaints I've heard about KM programs over the years include:

  • I don't know where to put things.
  • How do I use it?
  • Why do I have to enter this information again?
  • I don't have time to participate.
  • And (one of my favorites) how do I charge the time I spend on knowledge management?

This last is particularly confounding, because no one asks how do I charge the time I spend drinking coffee or the time I spend using the xerox machine?

Each of these complaints is often handled separately, by developing training on the benefits of the KM program or how to charge time (further increasing the size and complexity of the initiative). But they are really just symptoms of a larger problem, which is that KM is seen as separate and distinct, an "extra" activity from the normal work of the employees.

Trying to convince someone that an activity is good for them is always an uphill battle. So one of the first principles of sustainable KM should be do not to make KM additional work. Knowledge Management practices should be embedded in the existing business processes.

Note that I say "existing business processes". A second reason that KM initiatives are often so top heavy is that they attempt to alter business processes to make the processes more amenable to managing the knowledge. By attempting to change the process -- no matter how well-intentioned -- you are seriously adding to the "weight" (in terms of cost, both in resources and money) of the program and the likelihood of failure. Changing people's behavior is extremely hard to do from the outside.

Programs that are trying to externally influence behavior are easy to recognize. They inevitably include activities labeled as "change management", which can consume up to 50% of the project.

To put it crassly, change management means you are trying to get people to do something they don't want to do. This is both expensive and usually only partially successful, if that.

That doesn't mean change can't happen. Often change is necessary. But trying to dictate change leads right back to the need for an executive champion -- someone willing to enforce the change -- and all of the deficits and difficulties such sponsorship presents.

So how does change happen if you don't enforce it? It happens because it benefits the people who need to enact the change. In other words, people change when they see value for themselves in the change.

It may seem like a contradiction, but changing processes is extremely difficult, whereas getting people to change the processes themselves (if they see fit) is much easier. An example might help:

Say you were building a skills database. (I am not promoting this activity, just using it as an example.) You will require all employees to fill out a form identifying their individual skills and level of ability. Managers will use the database to find resources with the appropriate skills and employees will need to keep their entries updated.

Now, even assuming this is a good idea, why would employees participate? They get no benefit from the results of the activity (only managers get to see the results) and it repeats work they are already doing (they already have to maintain an up-to-date curriculum vitae). The effort requires training for all employees and a significant management push to get them to comply with the initial loading of the database. Worse yet, once loaded, there are no triggers in their regular work that would initiate an update. So there will have to be an equivalent effort put into getting updates every six months. This is anything but sustainable.

Before you argue that this is a nonsensical example, i would point out that I know of at least two companies using a system like this. An alternative approach would be the following:

Build the skills database so that everyone has access to the results. Use the content provided by the users to generate intranet profiles. (E.g. employees immediately see the results of their effort and get feedback from their peers as to its usefulness.) Also, collect enough information to autogenerate the CV they need to maintain under current policies.

Which system do you think employees are more likely to contribute to? By extending the initial purpose and putting in the effort to provide extra functionality, you not only fit the new system into the existing process (i.e. employees maintaining their CVs), you significantly reduce the overhead required to enforce compliance.

So another principle of sustainability is avoid change management, help change manage itself.

[Continued in Part 2]


Enterprise 2.0 in Singapore said...

I agree with your views. It is easy to kickstart a KM initiative, but difficult to sustain it.

I worked with a team that tried to encourage participation to contributing knowledge by having a lucky draws. Once the lucky draws ended, the participation level dropped drastically.

This was very different from another group that did not have any reward system in place. The initiative was very successful because they have a valid need to exchange information for their work.

When it is beneficial to the workers, they will automatically join in over time and the movement can be self-sustaining with a bit of facilitation.

And it is crucial not to impose complicated workflows. If it is too complicated, it is likely that the people will revert to the old and easier way of doing things.

Michael said...

The root problem here is with the idea that KM is a program, i.e., a separate activity that stands outside the daily flow of work. You need to entrench knowledge codification and transfer into the way people do their jobs every day.

johnt said...

John Tropea

What a great post!

People don't resist the change itself, they resist the approach...instead as you allude to, it's all about creating conditions for people to absorb that change to their advantage.

As chris collison says, you don't want to be herding cats.

Agree that KM shouldn't be a separate activity, it's about making people smarter and more effective in how they work. Your ROI post explains it perfectly.

At my work there was discussions of expert locators and I told management, it's gonna get outdated in no time, and you will spend lots of money and time trying to get people to fill them out. As a result they are taking my advice in piloting a social network. I told them this is the new breed of expert locators, but more than that these things are alive. People will have a reason to update their profile, as it's their little piece of real estate which other people visit. Just like making your house look nice and tidy when people are coming to visit. People can have a blog space to express themselves (this is an incentive as you can become known as a subject matter expert, the more people comment the more you post), and they can have a contact section where they can list their network. Others will not only see your profile, but who you are connected to. And you can also have a watchlist page where you follow things.

Now if you ask me, this type of tool has the "what's in it for me factor" big time. People don't need to be told to use it, as there is an inbuilt personal incentive. Such tools by design and what they offer create the condition for change to be adopted, and it's not even seen as "change", it's seen as "new" and "better".