There are a number of myths surrounding knowledge management and how it affects business. My british collegue Ian Windle had some good insights which are not new but so true. I like to share that even today.
The first myth is that it is based in information technology. Knowledge management did not arrive with modern technology: it is about people, not IT. Technology merely enables knowledge to be captured more efficiently. But knowledge management can exist in a simple form between two people. If Mr A tells Mr B how a particular machine works and Mr B then goes on to explain this to some staff, the knowledge is being managed. IT has an important part to play in large conglomerates, where vast amounts of information have to be captured. But merely capturing knowledge in a database, no matter how sophisticated it is, is not enough. Access to information placed by someone else is not access to knowledge. Knowledge can be acquired only through learning and learning can take place only when a subject is understood and new information can provide new insights. Just as learning by rote may help people pass exams, knowledge management is little use unless there is a true understanding of the subject. A formal programme helps people to learn for themselves and share information more freely. For this to work properly, a number of things must be in place. People have to be motivated to search out information, through people or systems; in other words, information has to be perceived to add value to the individual’s role. Once it has been „accessed“ it has to be user-friendly and relevant. It is no good being an expert and telling people all you know, because the recipient will not necessarily take it in. If the information is relevant and meaningful, people will listen or read and think about it. They need to be able to use others as a sounding board to confirm their thoughts and will need time to consider the information. From an organisational point of view, the important thing is that the conclusion, or the learning, is the „right“ one. If the information is confusing, obtuse or incorrect, then so will be the conclusion. The idea of lining people up in the direction the organisation has mapped out is then lost.
The second myth is that knowledge management is new. Knowledge management is a philosophy of allowing people to perform to the best of their abilities, using knowledge available to them from sources within and outside the organisation. It was around long before the first intranet. Organised agriculture was developed in the eastern Mediterranean and spread to Europe 4,000 years ago as an early form of knowledge management. A group of people took their knowledge and shared it with others, developing processes along the way.
The third myth, knowledge management is not a fancy new management tool; it involves everyone in the organisation. If a company is going through a change such as a merger or acquisition, staff need to know the reasons for the change and how it will affect them before they will „buy into“ it. A memo from the chief executive is not enough. Consider the acquisition of a small company with a strong brand presence by a large global blue-chip company. Staff in the smaller company will have many questions about the rationale for the acquisition – who they will work for, whether the brand will be protected and so on. The senior team from both organisations may have sat down over many months, to analyse the market, the acquired company, the competition, the value of the brand and internal issues such as the restructuring. The senior team’s conclusions are then sent out in slide presentations, e-mails and corporate newsletters. What they overlook is that people need to hear the story for themselves and then be allowed time to understand the issues for themselves. They need to figure out that the acquisition was essential for both organisations and that the merger will provide a more successful organisation than two separate entities. Only when people have been allowed to reach these conclusions themselves will they have really transferred knowledge, learnt and bought into the change. Of course, true knowledge-sharing and learning do not always mean agreement. But they do allow people to understand the issues and, if they feel strongly, they can always leave.
The fourth myth is that knowledge management is a passing fad. Many blue-chip companies have long had knowledge officers and departments. Shifts in job expectations mean that employees will not just go to the company offering the highest salary but to an organisation that develops and nurtures its employees, allowing creative input and self-development. Companies need to trust their staff and allow them greater freedom. The culture of a company has a big impact on whether people share knowledge or just keep it to themselves. You cannot manage knowledge; you can only manage the environment that leads to the knowledge being shared.
The final myth is that knowledge management is expensive to implement and makes no difference to the bottom line. If you think knowledge is expensive, try ignorance. Knowledge management programmes are not there just to increase staff morale. A knowledge management strategy is a commercial one. It is true that at 5.30pm, a company’s most expensive assets walk out through the door. To improve the bottom line, your assets must work efficiently. Do they?
The writer was managing director of Celemi Learning Change in the UK and published this lines in the Financial Times, February 21, 2001. Still so valild. Thank you Ian Windle