Like many other KMers, I hear a lot about why KM initiatives failed. Among the most popular reasons for KM failure, three reasons stood out: (i) lack of senior management support; (ii) weak change management efforts; (iii) weak alignment between KM and corporate goals.
So to ensure the success of KM in their organisation, KMers should do the following best practices:
- win senior management support by telling them about the advent of knowledge economy,
- ramp up their change management efforts by producing nice collaterals (posters, newsletter, etc)
- somehow (often in vain) try to align KM with corporate goals such as shorter learning curve, protecting intellectual capital, retaining organisational tacit knowledge – which is a competitive advantage to the organisation
I wonder how effective the above best practices are. I’ve tried them all and thus far I only have mixed successes in my five-years endeavor in KM. You probably think that I ought to “do better” and “never surrender” in the three KM efforts listed above. I beg to differ. It’s not a matter of competency or perseverance. I think trying better and harder wouldn’t help. There is a deeper underlying issue on why getting KM off the ground is so god darn difficult!
So why so many KM initiatives failed? What’s the root-cause? No one seems to be able to offer satisfying answers to the question. I too don’t have a good answer to the question until I’ve read Richard Rumelt’s Good Strategy/Bad Strategy book and Atul Gawande’s New Yorker article: Slow Ideas. Now I’ve finally understood the root-cause of KM failure.
The root-cause of KM failure is not so much about senior management support, or about better change management, or about aligning KM with corporate goal. But it is about lack of focus in KM initiative and about the invisibility of organisational pain point that KM is trying to address.
1. Lack of Focus in KM Initiative (Vagueness in KM Initiative)
A typical KM initiative suffers from an identity crisis.”KM initiative should be interwoven into the fabric of the organisation” – the thinking goes to rationalise the identity crisis.
So according to this thinking, KM must be practiced by everybody in all aspect of their work. And KM technology should include CRM system, intranet, HR database and system, e-Learning platform, and practically every other IT system (since all IT systems contain data – which, according to DIKW model, can be converted into knowledge).
Therein lays the problem. While I admire the brave and bold thinking, I have doubt on how such philosophy can be realised because it simply doesn’t have any focus. Without a focus you can’t have a robust coherent KM strategy. And without strategy you can’t implement KM.
To be successful, KM initiative needs to have a focus in its purpose/vision. Using vague, motherhood language is not going to impress anyone and is definitely not going to sell any KM initiative. People, especially C-level executives, need to understand what is the specific problem that KM initiative is trying to solve.
So how could you call CRM / HR / intranet issues (and other seemingly KM-related issues) as KM issues when the owner of the problem-area doesn’t define it as KM? You can’t. And most likely the C-level executives don’t see the issues as KM issues too. That means there won’t be resources allocated for KM. And KM initiatives will be buried under other organisational initiatives and will soon be put in the back burner.
2. Invisibility of Organisational Pain Point that KM is Trying to Address
Even if KMers managed to inject a worthy cause to their floundering KM initiative such as organisational learning or internal communication excellence, KMers still facing uphill battle because the specific problem that they are trying to address is not visible to the organisation.
Just like what Atul Gawande highlighted in the story about Anesthesia and Listerism (Anesthesia gained faster adoption than Listerism), KM suffers from the lack of immediate tangible output from its initiatives. Yes organisational learning is important. And yes internal communication is important. But these organisational pain points are hidden in plain view.
Yes, you can highlight immediate success stories in KM by showing “low-hanging fruits” (low-impact tangible results) such as improving information findability. Alas the stories will remain good-to-have stories in the ears of C-level executives. It’s unlikely that the senior management would make KM a priority after hearing such low-impact stories.
Therein lays the problem. Chances are the senior management will lose patience with KM long before KM initiatives begin to show strategic impact to the organisation. KM is a long term organisational-wide strategic endeavor (about 7 – 10 years) and unfortunately organisational KPIs, even the “strategic” ones, are much shorter than that.
And before you blame the senior management for their lack of support or for their “short-term” thinking, you should consider whether it is realistic to expect people to have an unwavering support on a corporate initiative that lasts 7 – 10 years. I don’t think it is realistic unless the corporate initiative is about organisational transformation