Why knowledge management failed

knowledge by Parksy1964
A Better Way to Manage Knowledge:
[Via HarvardBusiness.org]

We give a lot of talks and presentations about the ways and places companies and their employees learn the fastest. We call these learning environments creation spaces — places where individuals and teams interact and collaborate within a broader learning ecology so that performance accelerates.

During these discussions, it’s inevitable that somebody raises their hand. “Wait a minute,” they say, “isn’t this just knowledge management all over again?”

It’s an understandable concern. Knowledge management, after all, was probably the hottest topic in management in the 1990s. “If only our company knew what our company knows” was the mantra in those days. With knowledge becoming the most important factor of production, surely competitive success awaited those companies that could effectively manage what their employees knew.

But we all know by now that despite massive investments and a lot of highly motivated people knowledge management in some instances didn’t yield all the benefits it could have. The best KM systems succeeded at capturing and institutionalizing the knowledge of the firm. But for the most part the repositories and directories remained fragmentary and the resources didn’t get used. The folks with the knowledge were often reluctant to put what they knew into the database. The folks seeking the knowledge often had trouble finding what they needed.

Moreover, in their quest to capture what the firm already knows, most knowledge managers lost sight of the fact that the real value is in creating new knowledge, rather than simply “managing” existing knowledge. In this fast moving world, what we know — our “stocks” of knowledge — depreciate faster than they used to. So we've got to keep creating new knowledge in order to keep pace.

Most of us, as individuals, know this. That’s why we’re not keen to spend time entering our latest document into a knowledge management system. We know we’re better off engaging in the interactions and collaborations that create new knowledge about how to get things done.

In these circumstances, the last thing the world needs is another knowledge management scheme focusing on capturing knowledge that already exists. What we need are new approaches to creating knowledge, ones that take advantage of the new digital infrastructure’s ability to lower the interaction costs among us all — ones that mobilize big, diverse groups of participants to innovate and create new value.

We’ve found in our research into environments like World of Warcraft (WoW) that new knowledge comes into being when people who share passions for a given endeavor interact and collaborate around difficult performance challenges. Most long-time gamers, for instance, figured it would be months before anybody made it all the way through the many difficult performance “levels” involved in The Burning Crusade, the World of Warcraft extension released in 2007. But a French player named Gullerbone did so little more than 28 hours after the extension was released. His accomplishment made headlines in the gamer world.

Gullerbone succeeded by taking advantage of the tools and resources available to him (and his “guild” of teammates) in the vast creation space that has emerged within and around World of Warcraft. Creation spaces emerge from a careful recipe of participants, interactions, and environments blended by insightful designers. And they succeed where knowledge management fails.

Why? Because these creation spaces, heavily relying on shared network platforms, provide tools and forums for knowledge creation while at the same time capturing the discussion, analysis, and actions in ways that make it easier to share across a broader range of participants. Soon after Gullerbone and his guild figured out how to get through the new performance levels of the Burning Crusade, the details about how they did it soon became widely available in the social media “knowledge economy” surrounding the game — videos, blogs, wikis, etc.


Knowledge management is really a misnomer.

What most companies called knowledge management was actually information management. It was just a way for them to capture tacit information held by the employees and make it explicit. That is something companies are very good at but not how knowledge is created.

It is through the interconversion of tacit and explicit information that creates knowledge, which is the ability to take an action.

Employees see little value to their workflow by providing information to the company without any really effective enhancement to the workflow. People want knowledge in exchange for their information. Knowledge management tools were great at collecting information but very poor at yielding knowledge. They did not permit the easy interconversion of tacit and expiicit information, nor facilitate its exchange with others in the community. These are requirements for any sort of real knowledge creation.

It is through social interactions that information becomes knowledge.t That is how we evolved. Information management systems can be useful but people care about knowledge, as that helps them make a decision. The decision might be as simple as making a change in their workflow to use the new ‘knowledge management’ system.

Now, people will participate when there are direct benefits. Blogs and wikis have great benefits for a worker. An emergent property of this is that the community sees the information and can easily transform it into knowledge. That is because, as opposed to almost every knowledge management system, Web 2.0 technologies map almost one-to-one with human social networks, yet provide benefits unattainable before. One example is being able to carry on a conversation without having to occupy the same place at the same time.

These authors know this:

This focus on knowledge creation shifts the motivations of participants. Knowledge management systems desperately try to persuade participants to invest time and effort to contribute existing knowledge with the vague and long-term promise that they themselves might eventually derive value from the contributions of others. In contrast, creation spaces focus on providing immediate value to participants in terms of helping them tackle difficult performance challenges while at the same time reducing the effort required to capture and disseminate the knowledge created.

Creation spaces have the potential to generate increasing returns — the more participants that join, the faster new knowledge gets created and the more rapidly performance improves. They bring into play network effects in the generation of new knowledge. In contrast, traditional knowledge management systems are inherently diminishing returns propositions. Since existing knowledge is by definition limited, it requires more and more effort to squeeze the next increment of performance improvement as existing knowledge gets more broadly distributed.

Capturing information is easy and was the low hanging fruit that many so-called knowledge management systems used. It failed at creating knowledge mainly because it did not leverage the social aspect in worthwhile ways.

But, providing immediate benefits to the employees, while providing social links for others in the community, permits simple human nature to take over – the need to connect and transform information into knowledge.

The companies that recognize this – that create systems that permit their employees to easily create knowledge using social network paradigms that go back to our primate beginnings – will be the most adaptive to disruptive innovations.

They will succeed where others fail.

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3 thoughts on “Why knowledge management failed”

  1. I read only now what you wrote a year ago, and I can only confirm all your statements. We’ve established a KM department in 2007 and deployed it as service unit first, helping tackling difficult questions. In 2010 we rolled out our “Spaces” where structured discussions take place on the core of well defined content acquisition protocols so that users both find new information in-place and structured in a way their process / work benefits. After the first “division” rollout we now got asked to expand and expand.. Since we are a pharma and chemical company, and not a KM consultancy company, our methodologies are now also published and other pharmas are doing the same.

    Thankyou for your document, really good.

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