More on Whatever Happened to KM

RenderMeThis week I read an article in WSJ Whatever happened to KM by Thomas Davenport where he discusses some anecdotal and data driven evidence of a decreasing interest in knowledge management.   I found the article interesting but it felt a lot like Anne Thomas Manes 2009 declaration on the death of SOA .   The points that Thomas makes on the decline of interest in KM make sense but there are some hidden subtle areas of interest that he mentions that I believe we should talk about.   Below is the list of some of his ideas on why KM has faded.

  • It was too hard to change behavior. Some employees weren’t that interested in acquiring knowledge, others weren’t interested in sharing what they knew. Knowledge is tied up in politics and ego and culture. There were methods to improve its flow within organizations, but most didn’t bother to adopt them. Perhaps for this reason, the Bain survey (for example, the one from 2005) suggests that corporate satisfaction with KM was relatively low compared to some other management concepts.
  • Everything devolved to technology. KM is a complex idea, but most organizations just wanted to put in a system to manage knowledge, and that wasn’t enough to make knowledge flow and be applied.
  • The technology that organizations wanted to employ was Microsoft’s SharePoint. There were several generations of KM technology—remember Lotus Notes, for example?—but over time the dominant system became SharePoint. It’s not a bad technology by any means, but Microsoft didn’t market it very effectively and didn’t market KM at all.
  • It was too time-consuming to search for and digest stored knowledge. Even in organizations where a lot of knowledge was contributed to KM systems—consulting firms like Deloitte and Accenture come to mind—there was often too much knowledge to sort through. Many people didn’t have the patience or time to find everything they needed. Ironically, the greater the amount of knowledge, the more difficult it was to find and use.
  • Google also helped kill KM. When people saw how easy it was to search external knowledge, they were no longer interested in the more difficult process for searching out internal knowledge.
  • KM never incorporated knowledge derived from data and analytics. I tried to get my knowledge management friends to incorporate analytical insights into their worlds, but most had an antipathy to that topic. It seems that in this world you either like text or you like numbers, and few people like both. I shifted into focusing on analytics and Big Data, but few of the KM crowd joined me.

How *Some* Consultants and Vendors Make Money

My job as a contractor or a consultant was to find pain points, clearly identify them and work to either provide solutions or partner on finding solutions for my clients.   Pain points always exist and there are always opportunities to help organizations do a better job in management of people, process, methods and tools.   The questions around knowledge management through consulting are specifically around a clear realization of benefit through a short-term engagement.  That being stated, “you can’t get fat or fit in a day” and that is key to understanding how and why knowledge management is a hard pill for companies to swallow.   My experience as a consultant and through discussions with industry experts is clear and consistent, the client wants “a result” in a specific period of time.

The only way to demonstrate results with some level of assurance is to provide a technological capability or clear consistent organizational trends proving that the knowledge management exercise is working.   The price of waiting for results on the latter is too high.  From a profitability perspective, it realistically makes sense to implement a technological capability because we can prove and demonstrate  capabilities.   As the old saying goes that is “solving the wrong problem precisely” aka type III error .    From a sociological standpoint this challenge is not limited to this area of concern, it is pervasive.  Doctors are prescribing pills to lower cholesterol because it is “fast acting” and “easy” as opposed to going to the gym and changing a diet.   If consultants or vendors want to succeed they need to have a new pill and “Ted Talk” to go along with it.    The only difference is that you don’t see the pharmaceutical disclaimer at the end of the talk.

Notional Disclaimer

Some people have had changes in behavior, hostility, agitation, depressed mood, suicidal thoughts or actions while using Sharepoint to help them quit their siloed thinking behaviors. Some people had these symptoms when they began taking Sharepoint, and others developed them after several weeks of treatment or after stopping Sharepoint. If you, your organization, or partnered consulting firm notice agitation, hostility, depression, or changes in behavior, thinking, or mood that are not typical for you, or you develop suicidal thoughts or actions, anxiety, panic, aggression, anger, mania, abnormal sensations, hallucinations, paranoia, or confusion, stop using Sharepoint immediately and call your Knowledge Manager right away. Also tell your consultants about any history of depression or other mental health problems before taking Sharepoint, as these symptoms may worsen while taking Sharepoint.

Some people can have serious reactions while taking Sharepoint, some of which can become life-threatening and overly costly to an organization and/or a person’s career. These can include rash, swelling, redness, and peeling of the skin and many trips to the unemployment center and/or a technical recruiter. Some people can have allergic reactions to Sharepoint, some of which can be life-threatening to an organization and include: cost overruns, cost underruns, poor results in knowledge transfer, mass exodus, performance failures, higher overall costs to infrastructure and support, poor or uninformed change management, lack of governance, decrease is sales, decrease in operational funding, decrease in margins and overall liquidation of departments or teams. If you have these symptoms or have a rash with peeling skin or blisters in your mouth, stop taking Sharepoint and get medical attention right away.


As a consultant,  I knew going into an engagement what would happen based on my experience of watching organization after organization take the same actions over and again.   That is why my team and I started with talking about why KM fails.   Sometimes it didn’t matter to clients why others failed because they had end of year money to spend or other reasons that they didn’t care.   Vendors and consultants can capitalize on organizational change and lack of knowledge around what it takes to make knowledge sharing practices successful.   Enough of this has happened over the course of the past x amount of years to give KM and other areas of work that deal with human behaviors a bad rap.    The pill is the quick fix and the quick sell but it only works if there is a health plan in place that encourages organizational recognition of the importance in human factors.

This is not a referendum on consulting or vendors as I would not knock a doctor for prescribing a statin.  This is about an understanding that until Ray Kurzweil realizes his dream of uploading his soul into the grid, knowledge management will be a part of life in organizations whether they choose to fund a practice or not.   Consulting firms and vendors will simply create solutions or leverage old solutions with new names and sell the capability or services under a different set of words.

Pay Now or Later

Knowledge Management won’t fade or go away or die because the concepts of KM are fundamental to an organizations ability to perform.   Consultants, vendors, academics, industry experts and others can call KM something else or stick the concepts in a different bin but water is water or a rose is a rose.    Agree or not this is a simple concept,  organizational knowledge is a generally replaceable intellectual asset in the form of capabilities, services, process, tasks and associated methodology the more an organization knows about “how” to do something the better the organizational ability to optimize performance, agility, productivity and innovation.    In the end, an organization will pay for “ability to execute and perform.”   If you lose the knowledge and the “how to” you have to pay to replace or substitute with some “like” knowledge.   That may or may not get the organization to the required results but then again that is very much like a fad diet or pill to solve the problem.

A Fish Can’t Whistle

Davenport says “Any chance that this idea will come back? I don’t think so.”    I think the question is upside down.   Is there any chance in the next 20+ years that concepts under the knowledge management umbrella will go away? I don’t think so.   Ask an Oil and Gas company what they would do if all of their engineers were replaced by robots.  Ask doctors and nurses what they would do without lessons learned, best practices, fresh information on current medical news or journals.   Hand a classroom of children all the classical instruments of our history and ask them to play the 5th symphony.     Organizations need people, process, methods and tools.   KM by any name is the “right information to the right people, at the right time for the right purpose.”     Watson can’t teach people how to feel or provide immediate feedback on “am I doing this right”?     Learning and development itself is part of the equation in KM but useful feedback by someone who knows and understanding of time to competency relative to an organizational requirement for competency is where the rubber meets the road.

Forgetting Practice

Shake and Bake Medical Center has decided to convert all of their hospital services to a flexible workforce urgent care center.  They have invested in all of the latest technologies and the finest most up to date infrastructure.   The medical center uses big data and Watson like technologies to perform analytics on each patient.   They converge data provided from a patients history, labs, DNA, feed from public google content, paid for data from Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and other social outlets, data from purchases on food and buying habits through an agreement with banking systems, data from Fitbit or like devices  and data from government sources as part of a sanctioned data exchange program.    On arrival, a doctor or nurse practitioner could run thousands of queries and sift through petabytes of data to come up with a comprehensive profile about a person.    If we consider moving forward with a homogenized and pasteurized flexible workforce augmented by big data and emerging futuristic technologies what could go wrong?    One of the greatest challenges in healthcare today is communication.   Surgeons make critical mistakes and errors due to many factors but communication is one of the top.

In this great articleConnecting with Patients: The Basic Ingredient of Care,” written by Colette Herrick, published on the Six Seconds website, Colette discusses the reality of diminishing time for the patient provider relationship. – HLBlog

The financial reality of modern healthcare creates a relentless pressure to reach a swift diagnosis and treatment plan, to get the billing codes captured, and to move on to the next patient. These objectives are not conducive to empathy.

In her experience seeing the struggle to find enough time to apply the nuts and bolts of medicine, many professionals have difficulty using empathy and emotion in their encounters and decision-making.

When I raise this topic … there are typically two objections:  “I don’t have time”; and, when they are really being honest: “I don’t know how.”

With the pressures of applying the medical science we’ve been taught, using the art we’ve learned along the way, and facing the administrative burdens that go with the territory, we can find time to learn and effectively apply Emotional Intelligence (EQ) to our work. Colette explains:

The reason real empathy takes no extra time is that true empathy is not about an action it’s about a feeling.

How do we get there? How to we learn Emotional Intelligence and synchronize that with our skills, our science, and our time pressures? One of the keys is to know that using EQ results in real, positive changes for the patients and clinical outcomes. A study of diabetic patients in Parma, Italy concludes:

 [The] results suggest that physician empathy is significantly associated with clinical outcome for patients with diabetes mellitus and should be considered an important component of clinical competence.

The question isn’t about what the doctor knows about the patient as much as what the doctor knows about how to interact with a patient and others involved in patient care.

Knowledge alone is not enough..

The notion of a knowledge management program is great but in consideration of ROI or TCO or strategic investment, innovation, research and development etc,  the focus must be on gaining the basic information required in order to perform tasks that serve business requirements.   This drives a need to focus on areas that can return great value through analysis.    The concept is logically sound but flawed by humanity.    Google is showing great promise in AI which lends itself to fears around the singularity concept.   In our business world, we are forcing ourselves to be desensitized and emphatically stating that “it is just business” and that we should focus on facts.  If we base all of our decisions on facts we will still find ourselves with undesirable and costly results.    Imagine that you are using only data to make decisions without any consideration for morals, values or ethics, would that be a business that you would want to be a part of?  Would that be something you are proud of?   We balance our knowledge by experience, facts, and other data points to make decisions that have positive outcomes.   There are many occasions that someone would make a seemingly illogical business decision at that moment in time.  Those aren’t decisions that would convey well coming from a best practice through a Sharepoint repository.  In fact,  storytelling is an important part of KM but the stories have to be meaningful and be in relative context.    There are many tacit factors that have to be considered.   These become very clear when a gap is created from their lack of existence.

A young doctor tells a family “Your grandmother is very sick and dying, we are going to do nothing for her because statistically speaking, she doesn’t have long to live anyway.”   It’s just the facts…

Solving the wrong problems with great rigor

If we leverage the doctor consultancy or “Nurses R Us”  model for healthcare how could we ever know to gauge emotional intelligence?  The concept of EQ or RQ is addressed in knowledge management and can’t be ignored until the rise of the machine.   If organizations seek to switch people and/or technologies to create cost savings and efficiencies these will simply shift costs.  History says, it will increase costs overall because organizations will need to hire consultants to fix the new more challenging problems they created.   Will the machine now tell the doctor as part of the checklist

  1. Present facts to patient.
  2. State facts in kind manner.
  3. Create sense of emotional connection.
  4. Hand patient overall diagnosis.
  5. Enter information into billing system.
  6. Have patient sign in 17 places that they understand their rights, the facts and that you doctor_____<–fill in.. have been emotionally sufficient.
  7. Collect payment and refer patient for funeral services. ** Please Note: Shake and Bake will get 7% of all funeral service dollars with doctor allocation of .07%


KM is not dead.  KM is not dying. Knowledge will continue to be shared.   Organizations will have to deal with knowledge management and they may call it something else but it will still have the same properties as knowledge management.    As companies get closer to the non technical Y2K of our time known as “crew change” we will gain more insight as to how important knowledge sharing is.   I am confident that between now and 2020 companies will spend a lot of real dollars on knowledge transfer.   Maybe they won’t call Mr. Davenport for help or call it KM but they will call for help until 2030 when the machines take over or Ray has us all sharing our hopes, our dreams and bottled tacit knowledge in the Matrix.


Please forgive any spelling or grammatical errors as I outsourced my blog to Google's AI ChatBot.

Boiling the Frog – Human Factors around Sharing

The parable of the boiled frog is told to create a shared understanding around the key challenges in coping with change.

Frog in Hot Water

The story as told by many over the years is that if you put a frog in hot boiling water that it will immediately jump out as a natural response to the environmental conditions.   If you put a frog in a comfortable temperature and slowly heat the water, the frog won’t notice the changes over time and won’t respond to the temperature change until it is too late.

The frog tale has been debunked but the science behind it was never the point behind the story.  That is the focus of my thinking today.

When Facts Matter or Not

When I worked for a consulting firm, it was often stated that we should “focus on facts” or “facts are friends” but not unlike the tale of the boiling frog, the facts are not really facts, they are facts of convenience.   The personal and political agendas get in the way of sharing and the focus on self-centered and selfish behaviors is highly prevalent.  These behaviors make it very difficult at best to build trusted relationships.   The lack of trust makes it difficult to share information and knowledge.   People wind up feeling like they are in survival mode.    All the while information and knowledge does change hands but it seems to be a lot of noise and little signal.

More often than not, organizational sharing appears to have increased over time but has mostly decreased in effective or relevant content.  The fact is that content generation has dramatically increased but one has to question the sheer amount of content usefulness.


Why it Matters

If you throw the frog in the boiling water, there is a really good chance it won’t get out.   We have an expectation that we can place people in high intensity, high velocity and high stress conditions with an expectation that they can manage it or get out in a reasonable time.   Frankly, that is non-sense. We want these people to learn fast and suck the knowledge through a technical straw and become an expert within moments.  News flash, this isn’t the Matrix and Neo isn’t working for you.  We also are looking in many organizations to find ways to share information, data, and knowledge in an open and transparent way but not really.    For the past 5+ years all I have heard about is crew change concerns and subject matter expertise worries but they sort of equate to the boiling frog in the sense that we are watching the temperature rise a degree at a time.   Ultimately, it really “boils down to” the same things we recognize as true over human history.  You can fill your desk with the greatest books of all time but without the mastery of language and an understanding of the subject, you will still know nothing.   It doesn’t matter how smart you are either because you are dealing with unknowns.   If there is no trust,  you cannot transfer knowledge.   If someone thinks you have an agenda, they won’t teach you and they won’t listen.   All of the content and sharing that may come from you the learner or the teacher would be for nothing, just a number or artifact but potentially useless.

One must recognize that if we do not consider how we treat people who at the end of the day whether the frog was thrown into a boiling pot or it was trapped in the pot because the heat snuck up on it, both instances result in something bad for the frog.   Companies will spend millions of dollars on technologies to solve the problem of sharing but few will spend the time <– the time in understanding the behaviors.   If you don’t understand the behaviors and the human factors and they are left unattended, the result will be very bad.

Knowledge Driven

A trust driven organization will tell us that the frog story is a parable to help us think about the dangers of rapid change and our lack of awareness in change.  It would also say that the frog story is just a story.    It is that simple difference of being open and transparent that creates an environment that allows people to share.   If there isn’t a trust driven organization, there will never be a knowledge driven organization.


What we know is the frog story is told to help us understand and be careful in many situations, ultimately it is about awareness.  Gaining awareness is gaining knowledge.  We can only gain knowledge with trust.  Finally, just because we have content generated and information sharing occurring as an activity doesn’t mean that the information or knowledge is useful.   It can only be found useful from an authoritative source, authoritative meaning “trusted.” Additionally, if we don’t have trusted relationships, we may not even understand what we are looking at.

The answer..  start and lead with honesty, truth as you understand and clear intent.   All other roads will see someone boiled.


This post was written for my friends in consulting..