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Articles: knowledge management

Why Isn't Knowledge Management Working?
Author: Jerry Ash, Chief Executive
, Association of Knowledgework

Why Isn't KM Working?
Too much emphasis on technology and too little trust in the workplace

This article was written for the May, 2001 issue of Scientific Computing.

There wasn't much interest in television in 1875 when George Carey of Boston first suggested sending every component of a picture over multiple circuits. It was another 50 years (1924) before Vladimir Kosma Zworykin, a Russian-born American, invented the iconoscope and became the "father of modern television."

At about the same time Filo Taylor Farnsworth, a high school student in Provo, Utah, was busy thinking about making television work while his friends were outside playing.

Farnsworth invented his "black light machine" while a student at Brigham Young University; and, in 1927 he was the first to transmit a television image - a dollar sign.

The machine was showcased at the 1939 World's Fair where regular broadcasting began. NBC and CBS added network programming in the early 40s and by the middle of the decade over 20 local stations flourished.

  • Process of discovery: Fragmentary
  • Work process: Solitary
  • Collaboration: None
  • Time to market: 65 years

Here in the Knowledge Age, the demand on today's scientific community to produce new products and services or to meet fast-changing customer demand is far different and we are fortunate to have the tools necessary to do more, better, faster. But while the tools are in place, the management of our knowledge resources makes the same plodding progress as in the past 125 years.

Companies noted for the early adoption of knowledge management (KM) strategies five or six years ago have since fallen off the chart. Notable among them is the Life Sciences company spun off by Monsanto. When it was organized, the new corporate structure was touted as the KM-driven model of the future, but today all of its original Knowledge Management visionaries are gone and the experiment seldom mentioned. The story is repeated across a wide spectrum of corporate America where KM was considered a critical corporate strategy.

Does it mean Knowledge Management was a bad idea? Or it's dead?

Not at all. In the places where the Knowledge Management philosophy was understood and the vision correct, it has flourished and the companies have prospered. Among them, Buckman Laboratories, where Robert H. Buckman, vice chairman of the board, has fulfilled the role of what could be called "chief knowledge officer" long before the title was coined.

Where the Knowledge Management initiative has failed to produce results, there remains a void that must be filled because knowledge work requires a suitable knowledge work environment to succeed.

So, why isn't it Knowledge Management working?

There is no simple answer, but there are two major roadblocks to the development of a knowledge-based, knowledge driven enterprise - misunderstanding about what Knowledge Management is; and, resistance to cultural change. They actually feed on each other from top to bottom of the enterprise.

At the top, executives and managers are troubled by all the money they spent in the last age - the 25 years of the "Information" Age - without acceptable return on technological investment. They are uncomfortable with the revelation that the majority of the knowledge asset is not located in the company safe. And, this new soft (tacit) knowledge can't be controlled, measured and booked like the explicit assets showing in the old bookkeeping system.

Couple that with the modern technology fascinating knowledge workers in the workplace and at home, and you have the perfect environment for confusion and misunderstanding. Both management and knowledge workers desperately want to believe in a sure thing - something that can be seen - a formula that can be patented, step-by-step instructions, a computer-driven process, networking software, a neat new database. It is what we have been accustomed to. IT vendors see the opportunity to rename, remodel or reintroduce old information management software as new knowledge management tools. First thing you know, everyone is caught up in the technology trap and the "new" KM program becomes a rehashed IM program not even well disguised.

But Knowledge Management isn't like that.

Knowledge Management isn't information management with a twist; it's much less about technology than it is about changing the way we work. It's not so much about the hardware and software as it is about the "wetware," the human resource. Knowledge Management is about helping the modern-day Careys and the Zworykins and the Farnsworths connect quicker to multiply the power of their individual minds collaboratively - not over generations, but together.

Those executives who understand this and manage to avoid the technology trap find an equally formidable impediment to KM-cultural resistance. If Albert Einstein still lived, he would characterize the root of the problem with his humorous formula for success: "A=X+Y+Z. X is work. Y is play. Z is keep your mouth shut."

The relationship between management and the knowledge worker continues in the command-and-control mode of the Industrial Age. Employers have difficulty learning how to lead, not "manage," using open range corporate structures. Workers are extremely cautious about open communication and knowledge sharing for both political and professional reasons.

Financial managers still think of human resources as a liability and carry them in the cost column even though they "speak" of the knowledge worker as an "asset." Employees continue to try to ensure their professional existence by using the Einstein formula for success, even though they learned to the contrary during the downsizing period when shortsighted cost accountants used business process reengineering to capture short-term financial gain at the expense of wholesale dismissal of deep knowledge assets.

No wonder everyone is confused when the manager and the consultant enter the meeting room and announce the new Knowledge Management project built on trust and collaboration and knowledge sharing.

These are neither words of desperation nor despair. They are just pieces of a frank assessment of the knowledge work environment with which every knowledge worker, every knowledge manager and every knowledge-driven organization must recognize, accept and come to grips.

Knowledge management in one form or another will continue as long as a company's worth depends more heavily on what it knows than what it owns. There will be many experiments and many false starts. But in the end, we will get it right.

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