KM on a dollar a day

Musing on knowledge management, aid and development with limited resources

Good and bad reasons to work on knowledge management

with 4 comments

I recently heard about a conversation that took place during a planning meeting of one of our programme teams where a staff member suggested that they should start doing knowledge management work, to which the section chief reportedly responded “do we have to?”

My initial response was incredulity – and disappointment in how we were obviously not being effective at selling the importance of our work. But once I thought of it further I realized it’s not such a bad question to ask after all.

Much as I like to spread the word about the importance of using evidence and knowledge in development work, and the benefits of effective knowledge management – I think we all need to ask ourselves whether what we are doing is needed and whether it adds value (given competing demands on time and resources). In our efforts to get knowledge management more “institutionalized” as part of the way we do business we’ve tried to include it in our regular systems including getting it into our organization’s strategic plan, into our performance assessment system for country offices, into our guidance etc. While this is a good way to get KM on everyone’s radar and to get it systematized, it also has a downside – that people might not realize why we should be doing KM in the first place.

Here are some poor reasons why people work on knowledge management

  • It’s trendy right now
  • My competitors are doing it
  • My peers are doing it
  • Senior management talk about it a lot so it must be important
  • We have to report on it
  • My boss asked me to do it
  • We can get some money to work on it  (although I haven’t seen this case that often!)
Why are these not good reasons? Because while these might make you start to work on KM, it’s unlikely that they will motivate you to do it well, since by following these “incentives” you are not focussing on why to do KM at all, or on which type of KM activities are going to be most useful to the work you are doing. You are more likely to be going through the motions just soyou can say you have done something.
Here are some better reasons to do knowledge management work:
  • It saves money
  • It saves time
  • We don’t keep reinventing the wheel
  • We reduce known mistakes and risks
  • We invent and spread innovations and new approaches
  • We improve the organization’s reputation
  • We improve our own reputation
  • We improve our own performance
  • We improve the organization’s performance

Knowledge Management is not an end in itself – its aim is to make use better at doing whatever it is we are doing as our core business. If it isn’t then while it might be intellectually satisfying  – it’s not a good investment of our time and money.

(This blog post was inspired by this post by Nick Milton from Knoco Stories “Business focussed KM revisited”)


Written by Ian Thorpe

June 8, 2011 at 5:28 pm

4 Responses

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  1. Hi Ian

    I’m kind of a fan of KM, because (a) I love knowledge, (b) I love learning, (c) I hate it when people make silly mistakes, because they missed out on knowledge that is readily available. I think the greatest knowledge management tool I’ve ever seen is google. If you know how to use it, you can usually find at least pointers to reputable knowledge. Of course, you also have to know what you are doing.

    When I say I’m “kind of” a fan of KM, it’s because I have the following three concerns: (a) it’s been caught up in a creeping managerialism, which believes that systems are the solution to everything; (b) once managerialised, knowledge and learning become joyless and you actually go backwards in terms of building a knowledge culture; and (c) much of KM seems to still operate on the metaphor of “knowledge is stuff”, which can be accumulated, transferred, stored in databases, audited, and so forth. I think this is metaphor is easy, even lazy, and the way that knowledge is by default understood by managers and workers, even if KM specialists know better.

    What I’d like to see on your blog is more of this: What is knowledge? And therefore, what is KM? I think the problems you cite on this blog are due to people have a rather bored of view of “knowledge”, and even the “good” reasons you cite are (too be honest) sound like corporate marching orders, than good reasons why a warm-blooded human being would want to become a KM enthusiast.

    David Week

    June 8, 2011 at 7:32 pm

    • @david in the post was intending to talk about organizational rather than personal reasons for working on KM. I work in this area because it interests me personally and I care about it, probably for similar reasons to you. But I also recognize that not everyone will share this passion – including many managers and decision makers who will decide whether or not this is something the organization or their business unit will pursue. So these reasons are why I think they should be interested in it, and why the organization they work for should care about it. From an organizational standpoint for KM to be worthwhile then it needs to add value to the work of the organization- otherwise it’s just a hobby or a fad.

      Ian Thorpe

      June 9, 2011 at 5:41 pm

  2. Hi, Ian,

    would like to add some reasons:

    we have this expensive tool, now we need to use it

    competence build-up, learning by sharing
    reputation & credibility
    relation management (customer, supplier, audience, analysts)


    Gerald Meinert

    June 15, 2011 at 3:55 pm

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