What an interesting experience it has been for me to participate in the discussion I referenced in my last posting! It started as a simple request for a distinguished group of knowledge management professionals, teachers and consultants to come up with a list of categories for the variety of activities people generally lump under the heading of “Knowledge Management.” It should have been a fairly straightforward exercise along these lines: prepare a “straw man” of about 6-8 proposed headings, debate the headings, suggest the descriptors and examples to be included under each of the agreed headings, and then debate and finalize the content of each. In my experience, it would have taken a work team about two days to create a two-page document, finalize the entire thing and have it ready for publication. That has been far from my experience on this exercise! We are now about two weeks into the task and it is falling apart. I’ve been thinking about why.
1. The group is a voluntary community. There is no organizational “owner” that stands to profit from the activities of the group, and none of the members of the group has a financial interest in any outcomes.
2. There are no personal motives to participate in the discussion except personal interest or desire to share personal knowledge. No one’s boss is pushing them to participate, no one’s career advancement depends upon the outcome, and no one will lose face or credibility by not participating.
3. The traditional heirarchy of the group’s leaders and experts have dominated the conversation and turned it into a theoretical debate on related, but tangential topics.
The last point is the one that is most interesting to me. This dynamic is recurrent. Nearly any time the group starts to discuss practical applications of KM in real organizations, the conversation gets derailed. Perhaps it’s because the theoreticians don’t understand the practical realities of the roles most people call “knowledge management”. In business, KM professionals have to talk about things like ROI and technology requirements and intellectual capital development and knowledgebases. Theoreticians want to create frameworks to define KM and publish papers or books to validate that they were the first to propose a concept or terminology. Business KM is about getting things done and getting results within a defined timeframe. Theoretical KM is concerned with defining labels, identifying valid sources, and making contributions to advance the field. There is a fundamental disconnect between the two, and it is really showing in the exercise to categorize approaches to KM.
After an initial flurry of discussion about the actual list, and moving the list to a wiki for further editing, practically no further work has occurred. One major addition has been an entirely different parallel list of “KM Interventions”. This is a classic theoretical vs. practical development. The practical list looks at KM activities in bundles as an ordinary person might understand them in terms that most people understand. (For example: Intellectual Capital = activities characterized primarily by valuation techniques that assign tangible value to intangible assets such as knowledge, expertise and customer relationships.) Each category or lens is based upon widely used terminology, technologies and concepts, and has the potential to be of practical help to people with little knowledge of KM or how it can be applied. The theoretical approach is to completely dismiss the “commonly used” terminology and attempt to define new, more global, more precise terms to help further the theoretical discussions. (For example: “KM intervention” – yet to be defined, but it sounds more important)
In addition to the division of the wiki work into two topics/approaches, the discussion group itself has digressed into quibbling over details. Debates, for example, over whether “knowledge processing” is an acceptable term, and whether the person who proposed the term is only furthering their own academic interest by attempting to force use of the term which is a keystone of their personal (copyrighted) “KM framework”. Long messages that pull apart the postings of others to comment or provide contradictory references so that the limited time the readers have is mired in details they aren’t interested to read (so they don’t). It’s simply interesting to watch how quickly various posters jump up to defend their theories or concepts while contributing very little actual information to the exercise that was originally proposed. Practically speaking, it’s an example of how an unmanaged community has little hope of accomplishing practical tasks.
It’s also interesting to see that by changing the names of the messages to reflect a point someone wishes to make, the thread that was making some progress and holding focus has now become scattered under so many new thread headings that no one can easily read and follow the development of the original idea. It has followed a process that is becoming lamentably common, where one or two people with time and energy dominate the conversation and move it in a direction they want it to go by voluminous postings, without attempting to draw others into the discussion and maintain the sense of “community” (or the original focus). They jump at any chance to win their point or force a point of view on others who may simply not have the same time available to respond, so just give up. It’s a sad thing to see that in a community. Often what results is that the people who don’t want to compete with the volume posters just take the discussion offline and hold it in private emails or in some other forum. The whole community loses out when that happens, not to mention that no further work is done on the original exercise — and that is where we find ourselves today. I will update if the situation changes.
Update July 7: After about two weeks of discussion and debating tangential issues like uses of terminology and definitions of terms, and encouragements to get the community to edit the list over on Dave Snowden’s Wikipedia page, the project has died a quiet death. One or two people did make a few edits on the wiki, but the impetus has died. My quick assessment of why is:
1. The person who started the conversation was too busy to continue, and sort of stepped aside after having thrown out the initial concept and made a few comments on it. There is no driver.
2. Most of the people in the community are writers/presenters themselves, and they prefer to have clear ownership of something they can point to as “theirs”, rather than an anonymous group initiative. There is potential monetary value in it.
3. Dividing an activity between two sources is never a good idea. Having the discussions in the online community, but doing the “work” in the wiki is not seamless. It takes users out of the applications they normally use and requires them to log in on some other system. It takes a high degree of motivation for participants to want to do that, and we just don’t have it.
4. The product that would have been produced would have been helpful to new KM practitioners or anyone who is trying to understand what KM is. Most of the people in this community are beyond that level of interest.
So, R.I.P. KM approaches/lenses. If it gets resurrected, I will update here again. Meanwhile, I’m waiting to see which of the people in the group who thought the list should be written up and published will run with it as their own. That’s the way it seems to work.