Friday, January 22, 2016

Knowledge Management in the Jerkplace

Is Knowledge Capital Our Most Prized Asset and …

Do Knowledge Guys Finish Last?

An article last summer in The Atlantic brings refinement, nuance, and dynamics of this most familiar dichotomy:
  • It’s a constant in any workplace, registering on performance reviews in all shades of documentation.
  • It bubbles 24/7 just below the water cooler surface. It’s the leading age-old management question, the equivalent of what makes for a good marriage.

I’m talking of course from the safety of my hard hat inside the office park construction zone. The sign on the fence reads: Caution: Jerks at Work.

My interest in this sore, fascinating subject is both personal and professional. I don’t just mean in terms of who I work with and the residual impact on career. I mean what I chose as my career path. Knowledge Management or “KM” and its success or failure to my employers depends on its practitioners: (1) not being pulled into the jerk zone, and (2) enabling our colleagues to achieve the same.

The idea is that KM is supposed to organize experience in a shareable way so that it pays to be a generous colleague and that jerk behavior becomes more of a career limiting move for the majority of jerk practitioners.

After all, managing knowledge is an abstraction made employable by long-accepted information age assumptions. That means brains-over-brawn in the knowledge-is-power world of …

1.       Reciprocating social networks,
2.       No one knowing as much as everyone, and
3.       Two-way dialog that produces informed bottom-up decisions.

Knowledge is also the single most reducible currency of what the consulting industry converts into credit-claiming revenue. Whether that interaction is a launch cycle, a maintenance plan, or a fire sale, it takes a knowledge exchange to swing the forces of change in the client's favor.

For all my blind spots, skill deficits, and impatience with jerks, I have learned with time to trade on knowledge currency. That means shopping the benefits of collaborations enriched by expedient on-boarding, accelerated proposal-making, and the simple math of repurposing documents from pitch decks to code snippets. In management ranks reusable assets have come to mean the frameworks derived from a firm’s core IP – the secret sauce promoted in the books, symposia, and articles in places that consider the trade-offs of corporate jerks. Regardless of the channel, these artifacts are brandable as knowledge products stamped by the elder statesmen and their high-flying heir apparents.

With each new position and employer however a recurring wrinkle began running outside this formula. A pattern emerged that marginalized the traditional arguments for hiring knowledge-dedicated staff. This new twist even challenged whether the benefits for adopting KM were better delivered by full-time employees or through project-based contractors. Buoyed by the intrinsic ease of Google, limitless storage, and the self-organizing allure of social media, many organizations began to question the need even for contractors. Why not pass those benefits directly onto those knowledge-consuming elites? Hey, anyone with a browser is in constant pursuit of faster, better, cheaper content. 

Why hire intermediaries who don’t …
  1. Produce it,
  2. Administer the hardware, or
  3. Bill their time back to clients?

In this new calculation either a knowledge system is rolling out or a bright, unbillable knowledge manager is shipping out ahead of it. That “IT horse” before the “knowledge cart” aptly describes the three organizations I’ve joined and left in a recent three year cycle of knowledge roulette. In each case those ingrained virtues of collaboration and community bonds of knowledge sharing took a backseat to the rollout of the knowledge system. 

Teasing out leverage-worthy project cases, how they’re socialized, and building buy-in for the ways to organize them was reduced to background noise. In the foreground lie the three dominant IT project markers known as: (a) DEV, (b) QA, and (c) PROD – as in production where the knowledge cart goes on full display. 

Knowledge Systems: Art or Artifice?

The fact that the experiential nature of knowledge-sharing has been sandbagged by deployment priorities suggests that the system is no longer a means to an ends. It is the destination for the funding organization and the termination point for the deployment team. Either it’s launched and can care and feed itself or never gets off the ground in the first place. If four knowledge jobs in four years is any indication, the knowledge currency I traded on in the past is buying a lot fewer believers. Facilitating the transfer of knowledge between learning-inclined colleagues has gone from the foundational goal of KM to an afterthought of system implementation.

Now I’m not saying the lights have dimmed on the long view that calls for the intentional transfer of knowledge as a practicing discipline and competitive advantage. What I am saying is that knowledge is an enabler of a process. It is not “the promised land” – even for the most community-minded or altruistic of those knowledge-seeking intentions. No greater proof of this exists with the notion that dogged me through those four years in the KM weeds: that I was hired to carve a well-tended knowledge garden out of a sprawling and unruly thicket of information. In each of these cases knowledge represented “a system” and the knowledge system was a destination – a container of the great organizational learnings that could be tapped regardless of …

·         The lesson being drawn
·         The question being asked,
·         The lesson being modeled, or
·         The conclusions being drawn.

I was a party to these flawed understandings. It is too easy to blame them on the coercions of jerks. What makes the takeaways from these fallacies most instructive is that I too was culpable. I contributed to the confusion that formed when the system failed to hold the expectations of those counting on it.

Knowledge Stock and Trade

Metadata, search, and taxonomy form the holy trinity of knowledge system deployments. These are the tools of the knowledge trade. Most KM professionals I know have a penchant organizing virtual assets. But it’s more than classifying documents. Often it’s reshuffling a jumble of pages, images, links, site roots, and file folders that offer little more than a time stamp and a cryptic file name to determine its value, connection to the past, or merit for preserving it. In most cases the knowledge has outlived its creators or the explanatory power of sense-making artifacts. The KM manager becomes a forensics analyst – an archivist who doesn’t just collect the pieces but threads them into a narrative which justifies all the learnings and rationales that were reduced to rubble and nonsense:

·         In the aftermath of a hasty merger,
·         A rash and wholesale restructuring of a former division, or
·         The marginalizing of assets that were never properly curated in the first place.

Now try finding these pattern-matching challenges in the outcomes of the rollout. The truth is that there’s nothing cultural, organic, or people-based about it. The further off schedule or offline the production system slides, the more on-the-line the KM manager becomes for the collateral damage of bringing that much touted knowledge system into creation. 

* * *

For the remainder of the Jerkplace series I will put this higher level summation into a series of nine installments: 
  1. Each post will cover my last four positions. 
  2. Each a failed attempt to build and facilitate three distinct cultures of knowledge. 
  3. Each its own climate of uncertainty, suspicion, and a nominal reserve of cooperation, compromised by the actions of knowledge jerks. 

In each installment I will demonstrate the conditions that jeopardized the adoption of the knowledge programs I managed and the hard reckoning that comes from…

·         Working with difficult colleagues, and
·         Using knowledge as a counterweight to difficulties they imposed.


The blog series KM in the Jerkplace is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

1 comment:

artschlussel said...

That was a nice read, and I can related to much of what you describe. So much so that I've moved out of the core KM space to do PM related work in the ECM space where I could infuse KM practices when possible. Unless you are a KM leader in a rare and unique organization that understands IT is simply an enabler of KM and not the core driver or goal of KM it can be a tough business to work in. I look forward to reading more.

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