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The Impossible Application

Posted by Colin Kingsbury

Dec 28, 2005 4:35:00 PM

Knowledge Management happens to be one of my extracurricular interests, but, like Artificial Intelligence, it's a field that has over-promised and under-delivered more consistently than the Boston Red Sox, at least prior to 2004. Via Gautam Ghosh's blog comes an interesting post by Tom Davenport on the BabsonKnowledge.org website about knowledge worker productivity, provocatively titled, Was Drucker Wrong?

Management theory giant Peter Drucker is widely seen as the father of the concept of "knowledge work" and he said, "making knowledge work productive is the greatest economic challenge of this century." Davenport asks, "If improving knowledge worker productivity is so important, why aren’t more companies doing something about it?" and gives three reasons:
1. It's hard.
2. It takes a fair amount of up-front investment.
3. Knowledge workers, like Greta Garbo, like to be left alone


As a former CTO for a KM vendor I would like to add a fourth reason:
Internal rent-seeking
Rent-seeking is a term economists use to describe the way businesses or individuals seek private advantage through government action. For instance, a real estate developer might campaign to have a parcel of property that is up for sale turned into a park. While parks are nice, this also ensures that the developer's buildings keep their waterfront view and increases the value of his buildings by preventing newer ones from being built in the area.

I used to pitch KM to companies with the message that "it will turn workers' private knowledge into a corporate asset," which I think still sums up the value proposition pretty well. It also sums up the key difficulty. It's axiomatic that knowledge is power, and this is certainly true at the corporate level. But it's also true at the individual level. A lot of analysis seems to assume that employees always act in the company's best interests, except when they're being lazy or incompetent. That leaves a lot out.

The larger and more complex the organization, the more need there is for good systematic KM practices. The problem is that the larger and more complex the organization, the more room there is for private agendas, cliques, and cabals. Dick doesn't want Jane to know what he knows. It's not because he's too lazy to write it down, it's because his knowledge helps keep Jane from _________ (fill in the blank).

I was in a meeting once where an upper-level manager bemoaned the fact that so much company knowledge was tied up in unstructured email messages. They used a centralized email infrastructure, so I suggested it would be pretty easy to run a search engine over the entire email repository and make every message sent or received in the past 2 years searchable, "just like Google."

Everybody's eyes lit up for a second as they imagined the possibilities. No more "could you send me that email again" or "I know Rachel solved something like that with her client but I don't know how." Plus, it was stupid-simple and didn't require users to learn a hideously arcane new tool , and would even encompass their old data, again with no "data cleansing" or other costly pre-processing to work.

But I think we can all guess how fast that idea was shot down. Such a system would have created total transparency, and a manager threatened with transparency will fight like a cornered mama grizzly protecting her cubs. Knowledge hoarding is a way to maintain power and you will not succeed in getting anyone from the CEO to the janitor to do that without giving each of them something in return, and that's always the fuzzy part.

Topics: Knowledge Management

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