Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Sustainable KM: The Challenges (Part 4)

[Continued from Part 3]

There is one more principle of sustainable KM that I personally have struggled with, but ultimately been forced to accept. That principle is the need to eliminate the competition.

At first, it seems to contradict the second principle: let change manage itself. In fact, it does. It also goes against my own natural style and approach, which tends towards inclusiveness. But the fact is, within corporations, competition is not productive, it is divisive.

Knowledge management programs tend to be additive -- new systems and processes are added on top of the existing infrastructure. If distribution lists aren't working, add forums. If forums aren't working, add blogs and wikis.

On the internet, this isn't a problem; the audience is large enough to sustain all of these interactions, and people will over time migrate from one to another. But within corporations where the audience is much smaller and resources are limited, continually adding new processes and technology has several very negative impacts:

  • You confuse the users. People are always asking which system are they supposed to use: the old ones or the new ones? Even if a strategic direction has been chosen and announced, the more systems there are, the more likely people will either A.) use the wrong one out of ignorance or B.) not even know the right one exists.
  • You invite resistance. People don't like to change how they do things, even if the new method is better in the long run. If the old system exists, some percentage of the audience will insist on still using it, often bad-mouthing the new system as they do so.
  • You more than double the expense. Within corporations, all programs cost money, even when they are not in use. Systems cost money for IT to maintain them. They cost money for the sponsoring organization to advertise and teach them. And it is not just twice the cost. Because there are two, there are additional expenses needed to explain when and why to use each and to migrate people and content from one to the other.

These rules are not specific to KM. They apply to any technology. But in the absence of overwhelming management support, KM tends to suffer them more than other line-of-business programs do.

Ultimately, unless you are implementing something totally new and so innovative it does not replace or overlap existing processes, there is going to be competition between the old and the new.

However, eliminating the competition right away can have an equally negative impact. If you change the process, people need to be made aware of the change. Unless your organization is preternaturally well organized, this is nearly impossible to achieve in one fell swoop. So there will be some crossover period. Even if you switch over technology "under the covers" leaving the interfaces and processes the same, there are likely to be glitches and unforeseen differences that will be noticed by the users.

So the key questions are when do you make the switch over and what do you do in the interim to mitigate the negative impact?

The answer to the first question is as soon as possible and plan it from the beginning. It is usually best, even if you must keep pre-existing processes and/or systems for some interim period, to schedule their removal from the beginning so everyone is aware they are going away. A swift changeover can be painful, but a long drawn out battle (with users) is worse.

What you do in the interim depends on the nature of the change and the influence you have. If you cannot shut off an existing process or system because you don't "own" it (a common problem in hierarchical organizations), the best approach is to integrate with the other process and make the new process demonstrably better.

By integrating, you do not penalize people who adopt the new system (they can still interoperate with others who have not). By being demonstrably better, you are able to sway the target audience and encourage adoption -- to the point where the old processes can be shut down. In other words, you win.

Even if you do control both the old and the new processes, it is important to provide a clear migration path: convert old data, map old processes to new, integrate with other processes, etc. Theses steps all help smooth the path for the users and reduce pain for both them and yourself.

[Continued in Sustainable KM: Principles & Approaches]

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