Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Knowledge Management as a Business Cliche or, Avoiding Best Practices

I'm currently reading a great little book--one of those that I can tell I will read again and again during my career, and see more truths as I learn more about the way things work in organizations. It is called McLuhan for Managers by Mark Federman and Derrick de Kerckhove. Federman and de Kerckhove have taken lessons learned from Marshall McLuhan and applied them to modern organizations as McLuhan might have.

A few highlights:

"In the mid-1990s, the concept of Business Process Re-engineering (BPR) was promoted by Michael Hammer and James Champy in their popular work, Re-engineering the Corporation: A Manifesto for Business Revolution. In it, they describe a method for redesigning the processes within a company by which it is run and managed. The authors advocate beginning with a 'blank sheet' in order to redesign the operations of the company from scratch, thereby increasing efficency and effectiveness, resulting in potential significant cost savings.

"Although not necessarily intended by Hammer and Champy, BPR was the justification by which senior management initiated massive rounds of layoffs under the banner of 'downsizing'."
(p. 43)

" It is interesting to note the reaction that the BPR management cliche caused when it was extended beyond anything that could be considered reasonable. The resulting loss of the collective experience and know-how directly led to the mirror-image management cliche known as Knowledge Management."
(p. 51)

--> a lightbulb goes off in my head at this point. Is this why KM has felt so familiar, it is just a repackaging of concepts already in existence, and not just in the library world? It is a challenge to separate the wheat from the chaff i.e. the useful concepts from the buzzwords. It is just a reaction to trying to capture all the lost knowledge from employees who were let go in the "downsizing" and the "rightsizing" of the 90s. Organizations must take care not to take this to the other extreme, obsessively following KM while ignoring real problems that exist in the organization. There is no point in pursuing KM unless there are components that will actually help achieve or resolve something specific within the organization. What one organization impliments successfully will not necessarily work for another organization.

"This predilection for rushing to deploy 'best practices' is perhaps one of the more potentially dangerous management cliches of recent years.

"A corporation faces with complex problems and market challenges seeks to remedy those problems quickly, so as not to fall further behind its peers. It looks at other companies in the same industry or field of endeavour and attempts to determine which of their management processes significantly contribute to their apparent success. Once identified, these processes, or rather, an abstraction of these processes, is adopted in the hope that their magical effect will attract analogous success to the challenged company.

"Of course, there is no magic -- no practice can be best for every company in any arbitrary situation. So how does the trick work? Successful companies, which those in trouble seek to emulate, generally possess the attribute of shared, insightful, original thinking among their managers and executives, and often through the ranks of their key employees. They identify challenges and carefully contemplate the particular circumstances and environment before the determining a course of action. Often, the first solution is not successful and the process repeats. Eventually, a way out of the mire is discovered and the company progresses.

"The resulting success attains almost mythic proportions, especially if the company is sufficiently prominent. In the retelling, the story is abridged and perhaps embellished for dramatic effect in a case study presented at a conference or in an article in the business press. It then enters the management concordance as an industry best practice."
(pages 51 and 52)

--> Of course, no two organizations are the same. One needs to look carefully at the circumstances surrounding the success and not just apply the solution to another organization without thought. As I said earlier, don't just do something 'cause the cool organizations are doing it.

All of this reading has made me wonder....who originated the concept of knowledge management, and who coined the phrase?

(McLuhan for Managers seems to be unavailable at Indigo. I was able to find it recently at local Toronto chain Book City)


Jim Milles said...

I need to read this book. I've always had a deep mistrust of the "best practices" concept, but this is the first instance I've heard of a critique within the management literature.

Ton said...

Hi Connie

I think Karl Wiig coined the term Knowledge Management (which he now regrets, you can't manage knowledge, it's in your head)

As to best practice. Even if straightforward copying would work, completely disregarding context, then best practice would at most make you second best. A defensive approach really that does not seem very entrepreneurial.

Looking at other people to learn, and taking their and your own context into account, of course does make sense. So looking at good practices and also worst/bad practices, especially outside your own field, may make a lot of sense.

The problem with any management fad of course is that there are always those that think that *this* time it will provide the easy answer to all those complex questions. A lot of managers lifes would be a lot easier if they accepted the absence of easy answers to hard questions, embrace change as a given not as an incident, and treated people as the ones that create the revenue, not as a resource.

You can't hardly blame any management term, such as KM, for managers that really should know better :)

KM does contain an awful lot of good ideas, especially when you stop thinking it's about managing knowledge in your business processes, and start thinking it's about facilitating people to be the most effective and creative in a given circumstance.



Connie said...

That makes good sense, Ton.

In my organization we have avoided explicitly doing KM. It was too much of a buzzword for us. However, at this point I have watched how it has developed at other Canadian law firms, and we can now see what is useful and what won't work here. For instance, I can't picture us hiring lawyers to work on precedents. I would rather have our efforts facilitate people connecting with one another on a personal level, something we used to be very good at but has waned slightly.

I like to think that we are that we are that successful company others will try to emulate as described in the quote.


Connie said...

Incidentally, Jim reports that he managed to find this title via Amazon's used books.