Saturday, November 14, 2009

Approaches to Sustainability: Design to Zero

[Continued from Approaches to Sustainable KM: Embedded KM]

Another approach to sustainable KM is "design to zero".

It's impossible to start a business initiative with no resources. Even if it is only your own time and attention, there is some expenditure required. And usually there is a lot more than just that.

Any new project requires a "bump" to get it started. This might include training, hardware and software expenditures, project management, etc. Any number of capital or resource costs are needed to get things going.

The problem is that budget planning often only accounts for the short term (2, 3 or perhaps 5 years at most). For projects with a defined endpoint, this is OK. However, almost all KM projects are intended to run indefinitely. (It doesn't make sense to stop sharing knowledge after 3 years, does it?)

This means that, although it may not show up on the plan of record, the KM program must account for the ongoing maintenance of long-term projects. If you load up your KM program with management of ongoing initiatives, there are two negative consequences:

  • If budgets and headcount are cut (or worse, eliminated), you have no choice but to abandon one or more of the initiatives, usually bringing the program to a screeching halt. Without the expected leadership and constant "push", non-sustainable programs fail when the budget stops.
  • Even if budgets stay the same, after a while, you have no spare resources to start new programs. Even if a good idea comes along (such as Enterprise 2.0) your KM team is fully booked and you do not have sufficient resources to start anything new without impacting existing programs.

How do you avoid this dilemma? The key is to design each project -- from the beginning -- to reach zero cost.

That doesn't mean management goes to zero or that residual effort goes to zero, but that the program is designed to become self-supporting at a set point in time.

So rather than planning for the the first year "bump" and letting maintenance trail on indefinitely, plan from the beginning that management of the program and responsibility for its ongoing success will be transferred to the appropriate people within the organization. Sometimes this means the project may need a bigger expense up front (as soon in the graph below). But the benefit is that the project then becomes self-sustaining and the KM team can move on to tackle other tasks.

Going back to our example of embedded KM, it is not sufficient to have the idea to invite architects from other disciplines to the project reviews. You need to make sure that the organization running the reviews understands that their success depends on this outside participation and, therefore, they are responsible for making sure it continues once the program is off the ground.

As with any sustainability practice, not all projects are suited for design to zero. But far more projects are than you might expect. The trick is to look for the part of the organization (usually lines of business) that will benefit most from the effort. Engage them early in the planning, so they feel responsible for its success. Then get them to commit to ongoing management as part of their regular business cycle.

[To be continued]

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