There is a wonderful video, “Intellectual Capital: The New Wealth of Nations,” produced by the Open University in the UK (available at Didasko but a bit pricey). It was done in 1998 in the earlier days of KM but still has relevance, as well as historical significance. It opens with some glorious color scenes describing the history of ideas from people like Plato and Rousseau.
Then, the screen turns to black and white and a sinister voice talks about a dark shadow spreading across the power of knowledge in the form of a movement that began in 18th century Britain, the industrial revolution. Speaking of it as an intellectual bubonic plague, the narrative says that people were now treated as interchangeable cogs and wealth was now based primarily on physical assets. It then attributes the world’s wars and other evils to this movement.
While this might be a bit over the top in its historical perspective, it makes a great point. In the midst of these bleak scenes, the economist Charles Handy observes that in a post-industrial economy, it is people that have knowledge who own the new means of production, turning Marx’s prediction on its head. He points out that this change from an industrial to a know-based economy requires a new approach to management. Managers now must understand and operate under the principal that the unique knowledge that employees bring to work is the key competitive differentiator.
But in many instances, management has not caught up to the new economy. I was reminded again of the importance of leadership when I reviewed many of my past KM experiences in preparation for a presentation with Adriaan Jooste, Deloitte, at last week’s KM Cluster. There is a common theme that Adriaan and I found in most knowledge management failures. People are still treated as interchangeable cogs. When management takes this view several mistakes occur:
• People who serve as “connectors,” essential for knowledge sharing in the enterprise, are eliminated as unnecessary middle management. Also, key knowledge is allowed to walk out the door through early retirement or downsizing.
• “Idea practitioners” are not recognized or supported and innovation is choked off through tight management and financial controls.
• Physical assets, in this case technology, remain the focus.
I have found the key differentiator in KM success to be the quality of leadership and not the quality of KM solution design or technology. I have seen implementations with acceptable designs flourish under the right leadership and brilliant “next generation” KM designs flounder under poor leadership.
A common, and related mistake, is for individual managers to put their own personal agendas in front of the good of the group or enterprise. For example, HR dukes it out with IT for control or one business unit sees the KM effort as a turf grab by another and blocks implementation. When there is strong leadership that brings everyone together for the common good, KM is much more likely to be successful since it is often a cross-functional effort. These messages are frequently mentioned in the KM arena but they continue to only receive “head nodding” in some implementations.
The award winning knowledge management work at Ryder remains a best practice example when leadership is considered. In this case an outstanding idea practitioner, Dave Baildon, received the ongoing support of a senior executive, Gene Tyndall, who understood the new knowledge economy. Dave is now at Symbol Technologies, a firm that provides enterprise mobilty solutions and Gene is the Associate Director for the Center for Advanced Supply Chain Management at the University of Miami