January 09, 2006
The Knowledge Technology Trap
Again and again during the two dozen interviews I’ve conducted to figure out what we’ve learned from a decade of knowledge management experiences, practitioners said, “Knowledge management projects focused mainly on technology will fail,” or words to that effect. No surprise there. From the early days of KM, thoughtful commentators talked about the human and organizational elements of knowledge work and the need to balance technology, process, and culture. Everyone heard stories of failed technology-driven projects—“knowledge bases” ignored by intended users, unreliable and abandoned expertise locators.
But some of the same practitioners who expressed this supposedly obvious truth said that the point had to be made again and again to prevent their organizations from falling back into the mistake of depending on technology to make knowledge sharing happen. Companies still invest in mainly technological fixes to knowledge problems and, when those fail, they do it again, pinning their hopes on some improvement or other in the software.
Part of the answer is that the human element is complicated and subtle. When you buy hardware and software, you at least know what you’re getting for your money. Investments in relationships and behaviors are harder to see and measure. Also, and despite all the talk about the old factory-model of the organization dying away and the importance of “our people” in the knowledge age, I think many leaders still want to think of their organizations as efficient machines and people as part of the equipment who “should” adjust themselves to the rest of the mechanism without pampering or a lot of talk about “culture.”
In the U.S. at least, a sheer love of technology may be an even more important factor. We have a long history of believing that the next technological marvel will eliminate drudgery or hunger, cure disease, make us happy. The social, political, and environmental problems of the last half century may have weakened our faith in redemption by technology, but the longing for simple, mechanical solutions remains strong. It’s reflected not just in the love of technology, but in the belief underlying the whole self-help industry—the idea that a pill, a mantra, or a machine can make us slim, beautiful, rich, and happy.
This persistent search for the silver bullet (or the silver bullet point) is a kind of tribute to American optimism, the belief that we can make ourselves, our companies, and the world better if we find the magic formula. Too bad it’s not true.
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I would add to that by saying that there hasn't been a great framework for dealing with the issue until now either. KM seemed to be all about a single monlithic methodolgy to capture and republish an organization's knowlege.
Most of the KM solutions have been top down in nature. The executives decide that knowledge needs to be managed better and they bring in so and so to make it happen. Until now.
Informal learning strategies and user directed technologies have the potential to combine to make true knowledge management a reality by harnessing the power of individual motivation. Here I would replace the factory model with the agriculutural model. You can't make a plant grow but you can encourage the right conditions for growth. Given the right conditions and the availability of technology, people will create and publish knowledge. Organizations just have to harvest what is produced. The key is cultivating the right strategy given the cultural environment of the organization.
To take your answer to the question "Why?" just a step further, my impression is that in many organizations the "factory-model" is still alive and well. They've simply changed the parameters a bit: instead of physical raw materials, information is the input; instead of robots or assembly line workers, "knowledge workers" do the work.
The problem is that these "knowledge workers" are expected to perform essentially as an knowledge assembly line, taking the raw "information" and transforming it into a knowledge product. From that point of view, using technology as the basis of improving the knowledge process makes perfect sense.
I just believe that is a flawed point of view.
A software project starts with a requirement study. Are such requirement studies of what technology should deliver to support KM initiatives available publicly? Have we reach consensus on the requirements of a KM system? Or are we leaving the vendors to define the requirements of the KM systems?
I think we should look at all these before we talk of the knowledge technology trap. We should not condemn technology if we are looking at snake oil.
What is new in KM without technology?