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Articles: Knowledge management

Communication Missing from KM's Core Strategies
Author: Michael Robins

After a two-year review of literature written by the best thinkers in the Knowledge Management (KM) field, I kept thinking something important was missing.

There seemed to be a gap somewhere in the emerging jargon, the theories, the strategies. It finally came to me. Communication. How strange.

Then J. David Pincus, Ph.D., MBA director and professor of communication in the College of Business Administration at the University of Arkansas, explained it to me in an article in Communication World.

Business schools do not ordinarily include communication in the core curricula. "What is required (by business schools) tends to be almost exclusively basic writing and verbal skills training," he wrote. "Rare is the MBA program that insists students be exposed to strategic communications topics/issues, such as persuasion, issues management, customer relations and employee communication. Usually, such issues are incorporated as modules into elective courses, which are easily avoided by those who probably need them most. "

Teaching communication skills without also teaching communication strategy (i.e., the rationale) is like telling a joke and forgetting the punch line." Well, here's the terrible punch line for KM: we appear to be constructing KM communication networks without accessing expertise in communication strategy.

This, however, is no joke. Effective communication is essential to the success of any KM program. It is also essential in a decentralized, flattened organizational structure that can no longer depend on command and control from the top down to achieve corporate goals and objectives. Communication must become the business tool that provides continuity and interaction across a horizontal structure. The architects of knowledge sharing initiatives, however, are management wonks who, for the most part, are products of business schools fitting the Pincus description.

The fault, however, does not lie in the management track alone. With rare exception, professional business communicators are unaware of the KM movement and the potential and need for communication to move from the fringe to the business core.

If business communicators think much at all about management, it is to voice woe begotten laments about how they are unappreciated in the executive suite. Among the 50 presenters at the November,1997 annual meeting of the Association of Business Communicators (ABC) in Washington, D.C., only one topic reflected a focus on management strategies of any kind, let alone an interest in the KM movement. Associate Professor Peter Saunders, Ph.D., director for the Centre for Business Communication at Lehigh University College of Business and Economics, Bethlehem, Pa., addressed the failure of communicators to contribute to business strategies as a lead-in to a demonstration of his multi-media training model which is intended to introduce incoming MBAs to strategic planning.

He hopes to take the product out of the classroom and into the corporate arena. "Why," he asked, "does business communication remain a marginalised discipline outside of the core of most business programs? Why have the proponents of information technology within only a few years succeeded in getting their discipline recognized by academics and industry as essential to the success of American business while business communication faces faculty cuts and further exclusion from the core of business education?"

The problem predates KM and is a major factor in the failure of many previous business strategies. Saunders said his research team did a factor analysis of all the major strategic management texts and discovered communication was missing from the core elements.

"Then we surveyed management consultants and found that a large percentage of companies that form strategies fail to implement them," he said. The consultants pointed to communication as the principal reason for failure.

"The consultants all agreed that very few companies came up with a good communications plan to follow through on business strategies," Saunders said. This is a serious problem for any knowledge-based business preparing to compete in a digital economy which will rely on the convergence of management, technology and strategic communication. There are some points of light in this otherwise bleak picture, however. Lucent Technologies told Saunders, while he was shooting for his multi-media presentation, that the success of their divestiture from AT&T was due to the fact that Lucent "learned to communicate."

There are other encouraging signs:

  • Professor Leslie Hitch, MBA, director, graduate programs in communications management, Simmons College, Boston, plans to add a four-week module in KM to her course on issues management. She also proposes to teach a full course on KM communications next year.
  • And, Mary Schaefer, director of communication, MIT Sloan School of Management, is writing, speaking and conducting research and workshops on the changing communication needs for managing knowledge.

Although Professor Hitch is teaching in the College of Arts and Sciences and Professional Studies at Simmons, her communications courses are flavoured by her own MBA foundation. Unlike most business communicators, she is an astute observer of trends in management and looks for a useful connection between business strategies and business communication. She is aware of the KM movement and in touch with some of the best known thinkers in the KM field including Debra Amidon, founder and chief consultant for Entovation International, a Boston-based consultancy.

Her students are also responsible for her practical focus, since they are usually working professionals who are looking for courses that will help them improve their performance and advance their careers.

Hitch ultimately proposes to team teach KM communications with a colleague -- Sue Stafford, a professor of philosophy at Simmons, who is an expert in artificial intelligence.

"At first we considered developing a full graduate program in KM communication," Hitch said. But Stafford left for a one-year sabbatical and Hitch plans to begin the project on her own next semester with a four-week module in an existing course. Hitch hopes to team with Stafford in the fall of 1998 to offer a full KM course in academic year 1998-99. "Whether it evolves past that depends on how the field develops and whether there is a need," she said.

Hitch expects the first enrollees will be communication students, but thinks the course will have to eventually reach out to an interdisciplinary audience. Hitch agrees with another colleague, that "the way to bring communication to the KM field is not to get the communications person to understand KM, but to get KM people to understand the importance of communication."

That colleague is Mary Schaefer, who -- prior to joining MIT -- was a futurist and analyst who helped companies develop more creative, effective ways to communicate and work in the 21st century. Schaefer published a piece in Strategic Communication Management earlier this year that presented "Eight Things Communicators Should Know and Do About Knowledge Management."

"My theory, though," she confides, "is that communicators won't be the ones to do knowledge management. Too many think of themselves as information disseminators. Instead, we must educate knowledge managers about the need for using communication fundamentals to do effective knowledge management." That is her message as a speaker at a KM conference in San Diego in December.

Others are also pessimistic about the potential for business communicators in KM roles for the same and for different reasons. "Communication is this lost child that's kind of floating around out there," Saunders observed. At the college level, it is a field pushed and pulled by political forces that either compete for "ownership" or dodge the responsibility. The subject can be found in a number of schools from the English and Journalism Departments to Business and Education. Content and emphasis vary widely, depending on the community of interest and too little of it is focused on business strategies. In the same manner, communication continues to float around when it reaches the business world.

On top of that, "communication" -- as an act -- has lost its identity. Ask any search engine for the word and it will send you to the Internet, the telephone company, the cable operator or a host of technology sites. Even Merriam-Webster reflects the confusion, defining communication as both an act and a means. But communication is not technology and communication technology cannot produce the act of communication by itself. It is an enabler with a power that can be awesome when placed in the right hands. But where are the right hands?

They have to be found; or they have to be created -- quickly. Here are a few suggestions:

In the short term:

  • As a company, or as an incubator of KM within a company, include communication as a primary element in the campaign to change organizational culture.
  • Since KM is a cross-functional process, bring professional business communicators to the table, not as ancillary support people but as strategic partners.
  • Begin the relationship with cross-training. If there is a genuine exchange of knowledge, both managers and communicators should experience a fundamental change in their professional approaches. The process should lead to an attitude adjustment as well as broader understanding of the changing roles.
  • Learn not only from each other, but learn together in the new context of KM communication. Using third parties, the communicator can learn how to apply communication in a new way, as a value-added business tool; and, the manager can learn how to incorporate good communications planning into the strategic workplan.
  • Expand this process from the leadership team throughout the developing KM network. In the Knowledge Age, communication becomes a major part of everyone's job. All will need to understand it in the KM context. Many will need retraining. Some will learn quicker than others and become champions, mentors.
  • Write communication into every job description, and create new jobs for communication specialists that redefine the role of communication to fit the core mission of the business process. Let them know that simply writing and verbalizing won't do in the Knowledge Age.
  • Make certain that recruiters let colleges and universities know you are looking for a new breed of business and communication graduate. Many educators do try to teach according to perceived business needs and they learn from job descriptions presented during the recruiting process. Mixed messages are sent when recruiters present traditional job descriptions even though they are really looking for people to fill non-traditional roles.
  • Also, let students know you are looking for a new breed. Just as schools will not invest in business communication offerings, students will not take communication electives if they are not aware that it will make them more marketable and successful in their ensuing careers.

In the long term:

  • Encourage business schools to move business communications into the core curriculum as a strategic issue, not just writing and speaking.
  • Encourage educators in communication programs in other disciplines to introduce students to the business process -- including KM -- and connect the purpose of business communication to strategic action. This will be of particular benefit in the PR sequences of journalism schools.

These suggestions reflect my belief that potential KM communicators can be found everywhere -- on both sides of the management/communications divide. Even though managers may have missed out on business communication 101 during the MBA chase, that does not mean they have not acquired varying degrees of communications skills and strategies on the job. Conversely, every large organization likely has business communicators, public relations practitioners, marketing people who have enough interest in the business process to become savvy KM communicators. If they are retrainable, they will likely be eager to refocus in order to finally have the chance to join the business core.

Whether or not we can find or develop KM communicators is not the issue. The real question is, when will we add communication to management and technology as a central element of the business process? Until then, we aren't really looking.

Jerry Ash is Senior Counsellor, The Forbes Group and
Chief Executive, Association of Knowledgework
Article used with permission