Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The Fallacy of KM

While on holiday, I have been researching and writing this week for my forthcoming book on collaboration.  As I was searching for papers on discovering and mapping the knowledge relationships in an organization, I had the serendipity of finding Noshir Contractor, a professor at Northwestern University in the US.  

One of the things I learned from Professor Contractor's work is that knowledge management (KM) is not about the content; it's about the relationship[1].  We thought by putting Jane's content on a web site, we would leverage her knowledge, making a place where we can read the info rather than contact her (something Jane may also value). But the opposite happens. We contact Jane more. Why?

By virtue of the expert's web content, Prof. Contractor tells us we learn three things. First, we find out Jane is knowledgeable. Second, that she knows others who are knowledgeable. Third, we find out she is willing to share. So we contact her and she tells us or refers us to someone who can.

"I am actually using the web site to find out about someone's expertise,"[2] Prof. Contractor notes.  The web site becomes a knowledge directory rather than a repository, our efforts at the latter notwithstanding.

What happens if Jane leaves the organization? Traditional KM plays on the fear that her knowledge leaves with her, and her replacement must start anew.  If we are lucky, Jane introduces us to her contacts before she leaves.  So we ask Jane to put her documents in a library so we can access her knowledge rather than her.  But that almost always fails.  The shelf life of such "snapshot" knowledge is limited and quickly goes stale without a regular updates. The library without avid librarians dies.

For the same reasons, even if Jane stays with the organization, the content dies. What we really want is Jane (and her connections) not a print out of her brain.
So what to do about it? Prof. Contractor demonstrates a compelling example of a knowledge map that shows the relationships in Communities of Practice[3].  This is a visual representation of how people and ideas are connected.

Each organization has a network of connections.  Over time we learn who to contact about what subject. For example, I know if I have a Disaster Management (DM) question, I will ask Gisli. He may confer with Pieter and Dorothy in DM.  Gisli is my DM connector. What he does not know he knows who knows. So the content of disaster info is connected through a web of relationships.  There are things I can look up for myself, but when I have a decision to make, I confer with the expert network. 

And that's the point: The decision support system is the network, not the application.  When we design our KM applications, we should keep this in mind.

The network is more a matter of discovery than creation.  Where are the hidden knowledge relationships in our organization that I can tap into when I need to know something?  How do I find this connection, especially when I am new or the situation is crisis-new as in a disaster? 

A case I came across when researching social network analysis (SNA) is interesting.  A large pharmaceutical organization invited its top 200 scientists from around the world to a conference at headquarters.  Each attendee's name tag had a computer chip that transmitted who else they spent time with during the breaks and meetings and posted it to a large scoreboard.  Six scientists were evidently the focal points; three were unexpected in the hierarchy of relationships[4].  These were the hidden connectors.  If I want to grow my knowledge in an organization, I would do well to seek out and cultivate a relationship with all the connectors[5]

So when we think about KM, the common wisdom is wrong; it’s not about collecting information, it’s about finding the right person.

[1] See Noshir Contractor, “Co-Evolution of Knowledge Networks”, IT Conversations, May 2, 2005 (http://itc.conversationsnetwork.org/shows/detail235.html#), and the recording at http://cdn.conversationsnetwork.org/ITC.MF2005-NoshirContractor-2005.05.02.mp3.  Especially note the segment at about 37:00 minutes into this talk.
[2] Noshir Contractor, IBID.
[3] See Dr. Contractor’s Walt Fisher Annenberg Lecture, “From Disasters to WoW” and his discussion of knowledge networks: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y3hKhW6vzak&feature=youtube_gdata_player. See the slide deck at www.paniit2008.org/downloads/noshir_presentation.ppt (warning 8.8MB!), note slides 42-49.
[4] For background on digital name tags, see Richard Borovoy, Fred Martin, Sunil Vemuri, Mitchel Resnick, Brian Silverman, and Chris Hancock, “Meme Tags and Community Mirrors: Moving from Conferences to Collaboration,” MIT Media Laboratory, 1998.  http://web.media.mit.edu/~vemuri/research-pub/community-mirrors.pdf
[5] See Malcolm Gladwell’s discussion about connectors and the “Law of the Few” in Tipping Point, NY: 2002, pp. 30ff

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