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What Made Knowledge Management go flat?

Updated: Nov 17, 2021

What made KM go flat And what can you do about it?

The Earth is not flat, regardless of what Flat Earthers might think. In 500 BC. Pythagoras argued the Moon to be round by observing the shape of the terminator. Progressing his theory, he hypothesised that if the Moon was round, then the Earth must also be round. It was the beginning of the end for the Flat Earth myth.

What Made Km go flat and what can you do about it?

KM is in a sad state of decline, even though organisational knowledge is valuable. Read the 2020 Deloitte Human Capital Report and compare it to the NASA report from 1999, both linked later in this article. You'll see that KM has and continues to fail in the delivery of meaningful organisational value. Why?

Unflattening Knowledge Management

If knowledge is a human condition, then Knowledge Management cannot solely be a library or IT function.

However, talk about Knowledge Management, and the reflex response will be one of libraries, taxonomies, SharePoint lessons learned sites and communities of practice. However, as I will discuss, KM has been stuck in a hamster wheel, treading failed approaches for decades. Double-loop learning shows us that when things fail, we need to break the reflex response to move away from applied strategies to question founding principles. However, with KM, the tendency is to repackage and repeat failures. If that is not insanity, then I am not sure what is.

Knowledge Management is not about libraries, taxonomies, lessons learned or communities of practice; it is all of that, and it is none of that. Knowledge Management is the falsely held belief that people can create processes and systems that control knowledge as an organisational asset. It is false because knowledge is a human condition. Suppose you agree that knowledge is a human condition. In that case, you are saying that Knowledge Management sets out to control people and how they acquire, share, use and develop knowledge. And that is where the problems start for the taxonomy/SharePoint/IT KM movement.

"A dilemma for the library culture

of access for all, no matter who, how,

why. A big Western principle stressing

egalitarianism. My respects.

However... knowledge brings many

together to share their passed down wisdom

in person to verify inheritance;

without this unity to our collective knowledge

dissipates into cults of personality" (Sullivan, 1999, p. 59)

How do you define Knowledge Management?

What is Knowledge Management? If you are struggling with a succinct, robust definition, then you are not alone. So, let us go back to the beginning. Did you know, Knowledge Management first appeared as a term in an article on Public Administration in 1974?

"By Knowledge Management, I mean public policy for the production, dissemination, and use of information as it applies to public policy formulation" (Henry, 1974)

You'll note that Henry introduces Information Management in the definition of Knowledge Management, a problem that still exists today. I say this because if we cannot differentiate between information and knowledge management, why do we need to separate the functions in organisations?

Unflattening Knowledge Management

Historically, KM has become a catchall for everything from Taxonomy Boot Camps to lessons learned knowledge bases to communities of practice to Artificial Intelligence-driven Learning Organisations. But, of course, all these things are a response to a need. The question, therefore, is what are these needs and what drives them? Quite simple, knowledge as a value-creating resource:

"The greatest problem for any nation is that of developing its resources to the utmost. The solution of this problem involves a thorough knowledge of all resources – natural, intellectual, manual and financial – and thorough knowledge of all means of making the most of them."** (guess the date II, answer at the bottom of this article)

Knowledge Management is about people, processes and systems in organisations or societies coordinated to influence value creation positively. So, where are the edges of KM, the boundaries to be managed, monitored and challenged? Perhaps a clue into how the C-Suite views those boundaries lie in the following quote from Lusty:

"...[A knowledge-driven organisation is] An organisation, so arranged that the results of all its efforts are recorded and analysed. The lessons to be learned and the experience to be gained are thus made as much as a company's asset as more tangible things, and can be used in the direction of future undertakings" * (guess the date I, answer at the bottom of this article)

Pause right there. Is Knowledge Management anything and everything related to knowledge in an organisation? Because, if so, it means Knowledge Managers are responsible for everything that happens in an organisation on any given day. Why? Because organisations are human constructs that continuously acquire, store, share, use and develop knowledge. So think about that, every human decision taken, every challenge taken, every problem solved requires knowledge. So what we are speaking of here is a 50-year organisational challenge:

"The knowledge flow system in management and organisation includes all resource and user subsystems involved in development and application of meaningful management knowledge" (Duncan, 1972, p. 274).

To think, people have flattened Knowledge Management to be a library, taxonomy, SharePoint site, Lessons Learned or Communities of Practice. The Knowledge Management you experience today results from all decisions taken to this moment. Sadly, those decisions too often failed to deliver meaningful value (read the 2020 Deloitte Human Capital Trends Report here).

Deloitte Human Capital Trends Report

"Our research this year shows that many organisations remain focused on - and struggle with - the basics of Knowledge Management." - Deloitte 2020

The Deloitte report shows that, as a collective, KM does not understand the need to advance knowledge to action to create value. I wish the Deloitte report presented new findings, but history shows this to be anything but true.

NASA fails to move knowledge to action

In 1999 NASA (North American Space Agency), faced with an ageing workforce and worried about knowledge loss from the 1960's Apollo missions, developed a Lessons Learned Information System' (LLIS).

"If we want to go to the moon again, we'll be starting from scratch because all of that knowledge has disappeared. It would take at least as long and cost at least as much to go back" (DeLong, 2004, p. 11-12).

Thirteen years later, after spending c$9.75m, a United States Government report (Martin, 2012) recommended that the system be abolished.

"Users told us they found LLIS outdated, not user friendly, and generally unhelpful, and the Chief Engineer acknowledged that the system is not operating as originally designed. Although we believe that capturing and making available lessons learned is an important component of any knowledge management system, we found that, as currently structured, LLIS is not an effective tool for doing so" (p. v)

Knowledge Management is not flat!

Knowledge Management is not a library, taxonomy, SharePoint site, lessons learned programme or community of practice.

Knowledge Management is every person, organisational process or system that requires knowledge to function. Knowledge Management is the cumulative effect created not by a single node but by tens, even hundreds of thousands of organisational nodes.

Do you see KM through the eyes of Pythagoras?

Do you see a world of people and objects, known and unknown, observers and participants, where you cannot know both the system's current state and its momentum?

If you do, you are standing on Earth, looking at the Moon, being struck by the notion that the Earth is round. You are Pythagoras, and KM is not flat!

If you see an unflattened world, then you see the opportunities to influence and positively impact the organisational environment, creating conditions within which organisational knowledge and learning can thrive.

Try these articles if you want to learn more about systems and influence for impact and results:

What does Knowledge Management mean to you?

2.3.4 Anticipating Change Management Wildfires

I don't have time! Now, what do you do?

The KM Change Delta: PRO-PIE & the case of missing value

Six questions good change leaders ask about good ideas

Have you been struck?

If you have been struck by the content of this article and would like to collaborate or partner with me, contact

*Lusty, I. (1942) Airline engineering management, Aircraft engineering, July, 201-2

** Nutting, P.G. (1918) The application of organised knowledge to national welfare, The Scientific Monthly, 6(5), 406-416

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