Why is knowledge management failing?

knowledge management

6 November 2005

Martin and Dave wonders why knowledge management has failed: the grand (and sometimes successful) projects of the late nineties and early noughties have come to nothing, and today’s businesses pay only lip-service to being part of “the knowledge economy”. Martin, always perceptive, suggests that the challenge may be cultural.

At CYBAEA we tend to talk about innovation management rather than knowledge management. We prefer to talk about the active utilization of knowledge over the pure gathering of information, which reminds us of dusty libraries run by aging spinsters. But whatever you call it, we agree that businesses are not doing very much about it. With the results we have seen from the brave exceptions, and given that innovation is probably the only thing that keeps your job out of India, this is surprising.

Martin paints a picture of the inflexible organization:

What is frightening is to find so many similarities between our large industrial multi-layered organizations and the former Soviet Union, which proved totally incapable of modernizing itself and eventually collapsed.

There may be some millage in this. Most current managers became successful in a company that was largely hierarchical and where the manager’s leadership abilities, this is to say their ability to institute change from the top down, were valued. Dave spells it out:

Business leaders see their leadership role as critical to the organization’s success; their frame of understanding is hierarchical – they tend to believe that knowledge and value increases with experience and that rewards should go disproportionately to identified superstars and up-and-coming leadership candidates.

In this context, innovation management, enterprise social software, and, yes, even knowledge management, whatever you call it, represents a cultural change and therefore a threat. Change is diffucult and why change a formula that works?

Except, of course, that it isn’t working very well anymore. All the easy jobs have already gone to India and China. Your job is going next, and you are not going with it. Unless you can innovate and show a clear and sustained benefit of keeping you around.

If you look where innovation has historically happened, you would look to universities and other scientific institutions. That’s my background. The management there is traditionally collegiate rather then hierarchical. A system of essentially peers where everybody’s contribution is valuable within an established method or way of working, seems to produce the most new insights.

Of course there are problems with a pure collegiate structure. Universities are not usually the best to capitalize on the applications of their innovations, and even just looking within pure research they can lack a certain amount of urgency and accountability.

That, then, is the challenge of the modern Western business. To change its structure to a more collegiate approach and foster innovation without sacrificing the ability to execute. To find the equivalent of the scientific method for successful businesses in the new knowledge economy.

Knowledge management, by whatever name, may help or hinder, but it is clear that it is not about the technology or the systems. It is about changing the way you manage your business. It is about saving your job.