Steve Denning told me once that managers have a very binary attitude towards knowledge management; either they get it, or they don't. And Steve added that I should not waste my time with those who don't. In "Transforming the systems movement" from Russell L. Ackoff, I found the key to understand why some "get it" and some don't. It's about the way they think:
Tranformations not only require recognition of the difference between what is practiced and what is preached - a transformation called for years ago by Donald Schon (1971) - it also requires a transformation in the way we think (...) I believe the pattern of thought that is required is systemic (...) Systemic thinking is holistic versus reductionist thinking, synthetic versus analytic. Reductionist and analytic thinking derive properties of wholes from the sum of their parts. Holistic and synthetic thinking derive properties of parts from properties of the whole that contains them (...) In general, those who make public policy and engage in public decision-making do not understand that improvement in the performance of parts of a system taken separately may not, and usually does not, improve the performance of the system as a whole. In fact, it may make systeme performance worse, or even destroy it.This is key. Indeed, from my personal experience, I can testify that the obstacles to introducing knowledge sharing and collaboration in my company have little to do with the lack of management support, lack of time, or lack of ROI metrics that knowledge managers tend to complain about. They also have little to do with so-called "mental models" of hierarchies vs. social networks and the like. In the end, what makes my life difficult is exactly what Ackoff discusses in his paper: the inability of some key managers to move away from analytical thinking.
I have had several dead-end discussions with senior execs of global firms about building a KM program. My approach is systemic. I describe the characteristics of an effective learning system, based on many benchmarks with other companies. Then I design a target organizational model to solve the identified and crucial business problem that was raised in the first place. From there I derive a multi-faceted plan, and finally short term actions. But most top managers don't listen any more. Why? Just because they think differently. For them, knowledge sharing is a "normal" attitude that all employees should have, and barriers to collaboration are considered as mere obstacles that need to be removed. So what they are asking for is a simple technical plan of actions to the remove the top one, two or three obstacles. If the plan calls for an "expert locator" on the company intranet, it is technical enough to be considered acceptable. If it calls for coordination of actions of various departments, it is considered fluffy and rejected, unless it is broken down into little chunks from which they can select one or two.
Now I know where to stand from the first question manager ask me. If they come to me with an open question - "How could we be better at...?- regarding a business problem that they believe might be solved at least partly through knowledge sharing across departments, I know the collaboration is going to work because it starts with a conversation. If they come to me with an order for services - "I want an actions plan to... ", I know it will be a complete waste of everyone's time because it starts with top-down talk.
Some companies or departments are lousy places for meaningful conversations. They are also those where systemic thinking is banned, and where words convey less and less meaning.