Extract of a post I wrote yesterday on the Association of Knowledge Work discussion group taking place now around Alex Bennet. I was under mild ;-) attack from one participant who didn't like my revolutionary "us against them" rethoric:
'Maybe my rethoric is "fluffy bunny" - after all, English is not my native language - but I think I deserve a little more credit for my achievements. I am neither an undergraduate nor a hippie, and as a result of all the work my team and I did to develop my company's knowledge networks, we made it to the prestigious MAKE Award this year. So, being a 10 billion Euro company of 85 000 employees in 130 countries, we must be doing something right after all. I also organized the Sales Managers' Forum of my company last week (250 people, 57 countries, 3 days of networking / good practice sharing) and 97% of participants declared that the seminar met their expectations. So we have some tangible results here as well. But had only been "informed and intelligent" and not "opinionated" about KM, for sure this would not have happened. I could have been fired several times in the last four years for swimming against the stream. Everything I did was the result of hard work, intense cross-company benchmarking, and talking to my CEO through press articles, because he didn't want to speak to me. I learned on this occasion that dramatic change doesn't comes from the top-down or from the bottom-up, but rather from the outside-in.
When I talk about a political movement, I ponder the meaning of words. When I say "political", I mean of course in the greek sense. Politics: the art and science of government. When I say "movement", I mean "a series of organized activities working toward an objective"(Webster). What's the objective of KM? Is it really only the desire to be "disciplined, visionary paradigm-shifters" that makes knowledge managers like me work late at night? Most KM professionals I know are also genuine activists driven by the desire to make their organization more effective and the world a better place. And when I talk about a political movement, it's also for lack of a better term. KM has no easy definition. KM gurus keep on telling us what it is not ("It's not a domain of social sciences", "it's not about technology" etc.), but have a hard time explaining it what it is in plain English (or French). Perhaps the phrase "Knowledge-Conscious Management", coined by Prof. Klaus North in Wiesbaden, is more to the point, because it basically equates KM to a shift in mental models of management, which I think it is fundamentally. For me and for my company, it's actually more simple: the KM program aims at building the company's learning system. Period.
Management in the information/knowledge age will look quite different from what it used to be in the industrial age. There is enough litterature on this since 20 years now, and the point is taken. From my experience however, people who believe that our large vertical organization will change smoothly and painlessly to more flat and networked structures without the establishment fighting back are being naive. To quote Prof. Castells on "Network-Centric Warfare", which to me is Knowledge-Conscious Management applied to the armed forces:
This is simple to understand, but difficult to actually implement, because people who are currently in power in bureaucracies, in political organizations, in large corporations, in universities, are there because they have gone through the hierarchy, they have their clientele, they have their systems of support. All this has been pushed out by the out-competing logic of networks. And therefore, they will resist to the end. But by resisting, they bring the organizations down with themselves.This is strong rethoric indeed, which goes far beyond mine. So does the rethoric of some other respected authors, by the way. Think about Tom Peters, Robert Reich, Larry Prusak, Art Kleiner, Pierre Levy, etc. (and even Alex Bennett and Debra Amidon!)
Last point about org charts. I do not question their usefulness. They are obviously necessary. However, org. charts were made to define how the resources of the organization would be managed, and who would have the right to decide on what projects those resources would be allocated. They were made to describe the decision-making organization with respect to human and capital ressources. No more, no less. To your point, they also reflect, at least in organizations with internal promotion systems that work (mmmh), "experience and achievement" (expertise) with respect to this specific practice of attracting and allocating resources that we call management.
My claim is that org charts are becoming a tyranny ("a government in which absolute power is vested in a single ruler"), since good management is no longer the essential driver of performance of an organization. If project teams, whose role is to produce deliverables in a given time and budget, were introduced as a new form of organization in the 80s, it's because functional departments were no longer effective enough. Same for Communities of Practice now, whose only role is to increase the knowledge and capabilities of the organization. New forms of organization will always have a hard time finding their place in a feudal organization organized by territories and budgets. Project Teams may have finally made it in twenty years, so it will take time before communities do. In the meantime, it is still much more profitable from a career standpoint to be perceived as an expert in management than in anything else. From a compensation standpoint, you are better off running a department than a project team. And you are better off -by far- running a project team than a community of practice. So what I really question is the classification system of HR departments. Why is it that in my company, whose core business is electrical distribution and industrial controls, a plain manager that runs a department of financial controllers for example is always paid more than an Ethernet guru who happens to be "only" an expert, but who incidentally knows how to solve complex customer problems?
I truly hate some of my company's internal systems and processes, but it doesn't mean that I don't like my company, its managers and its employees. As a matter of fact I do. So I believe my role as the Director of the KM program is to fight against this ageing industrial age paradigm, which views employees as gears of a big machine, depletes social capital and eventually damages the competitive position of the company. I do it because I believe this is what needs to be done, both for my company and for mankind, in all modesty. And I know I will often have to navigate against the winds, and take risks. Isn't that politics?
I still don't know what KM is, and I hope this two letter acronym will become history soon because it is indeed "fluffy bunny". But one thing is for sure: Whatever it is, KM is no place for whimps.'