KM Principle - Knowledge Management is situational

by Ron Young

Knowledge Management is situational

I received this key question from a reader in the USA to my article: 'Knowledge Management - Back to Basic Principles'
"Great article. Like with many new technologies or ideas, we often get caught up in the novelty and forget the basics. This is a good reminder.

Question: Your point 6 on Using Knowledge is key. How do we ensure that people actually use and apply knowledge to their jobs?

Do you know of any research or examples of how people and organizations actually put the knowledge to use? "

Here is my first quick response to his question. I would appreciate your comments too, and I will gladly pass them on.

Applying Knowledge

I agree. The essence is 'applying' knowledge. For example, for many years I have accumulated some great knowledge about the best foods to eat, and the right exercise, and techniques to relax and meditate. But after all this, I am still overweight and unhealthy and its a very slow improvement process.

I consider myself very knowledgeable in this area, but very 'unwise in applying knowledge'.

I have been a KM consultant since 1995 and I have worked across the world, in corporates, public sector and government, development institutions.

I see the same lack of knowledge application.

No one nation or culture stands out as being better at applying the best knowledge, although I am observing that those cultures that use strong ritual/habits in their daily lives may have a good advantage.

If you look at certain cases, they have to apply knowledge. I always talk in my KM seminars and workshops about the Air Accident Investigation Board. This is because I am a self confessed passionate ex-pilot and love to teach some principles through flying stories. Last year at London Heathrow airport, a British Airways flight crash landed due to both engines shut down on final approach. It was discovered that there was ice in the fuel lines, caused at very cold temperature flying over Russia. New knowledge, to solve this problem, resulted in reducing the power to zero, on engine failure for a few seconds. (The opposite of what a pilot would instinctively expect to do).

Within a very short period of time, this safety directive was with every same type airplane and engine in the world and every pilots checklist was updated for this emergency. This year in a flight in USA, exactly the same icing up happened. The pilots immediately applied the emergency checklist, the problem was immediately solved, and no passenger was even aware of the incident.

This is an example of applying new knowledge effectively because human life is at stake. So you would think that all areas that involve safety of human life would be the same. Not so.

I have been working with the National Health Service in the UK because, although they have very good creation of 'evidenced based knowledge' they are still repeating mistakes because they do not apply it effectively. Several hospitals in the UK are under constant attack for very bad application of knowledge that involved loss of human life.

I am working with the United Nations International Strategy Disaster Reduction (UNISDR), to find better ways to 'proactively apply' knowledge beforehand to, at least, reduce loss of life and economic loss with better building laws, planning, poverty alleviation, early warning and evacuation procedures etc. UNISDR are working very hard on this proactive application of knowledge, but, time and again, we hear from many agencies that lessons have not been learned properly and transferred into readily applicable knowledge from past disasters, tsunami's, earthquakes, typhoons etc.

The daily news is constantly littered with political parties, institutions and all types of organizations simply not applying knowledge effectively, even though it has been created well!

The legal profession are an exception. They are trained to abide by precedent. For each case, lawyers ask first 'what do we know about this' rather than much later. There are some good KM examples of effective knowledge application in Law.

But many organizations, teams, individuals are, to be polite, very bad at applying their knowledge, even though they may be much better now at creating knowledge.

(I just read a blog that said Toyota knew about the problems with the car accelerator a year earlier in Europe. Allegedly, this was codified in a database but people didn't know where to find it? If this is true, this is a prime case of failed knowledge application, and car manufacturers need to review their KM systems and processes to include robust knowledge application practices, like the Air Accident Investigation Board, for example.)

I have strongly suspected, for some time, that it's because most organizations do not have the proper application processes and techniques, ingrained in rituals/habits in their daily work. They do not have the knowledge leadership, processes and tools to help them to do this well. They are still, today, prone to too much, even unacceptable, human error.

They do not need/desire or have the equivalent of a pilots checklist for their work. Nor the strong need to comply to law.

And this is understandable to a degree. After all, in the daily office environment, these checklist procedures, for example, would seem very robotic indeed, and a deterent to natural creativity and human judgement. (We want pilots to fly us safely from A to B based on the best safety knowledge and skills, and we want, say, investigative journalists to seriously challenge apparent best practices).

So I agree with the question. It is 'the key issue', and it is 'the key challenge' to KM practitioners. We need to help individuals, teams, organizations and global networks and communities, more effectively APPLY knowledge.

But I also propose that there is no one solution for all. There may be common principles but effective KM implementation is situational, depending on your industry sector, and very key factors like, life saving and human safety, healthcare, climate change etc to take just a few examples.

I wish the Financial sector would learn to apply best knowledge too!

What do you think about 'applying' knowledge?



4th March 2010

Hi Ron,

I enjoyed your ‘KM is Situational’ article. I also like the virtuous KM circle you are fueling with your site. I found your site and used it to test the potency of my KM definition. I also ended up sharing it with you guys and you published it today. But that is background.

I’m writing in response to your article and more specifically the concept of ‘Applying Knowledge’. I think a timeless method for applying knowledge is to extract the core or the essence of the matter, validate its status as a ‘key message’ or ‘key piece of knowledge’ to disseminate and convert that message into a best-practice (or guideline). People respond positively to the concept of best-practices, for obvious reasons.

Certain situations may call for a different category of instrument to be used such as a standard or a directive, but either way, such instruments work as knowledge capsules in disguise. They allow us to scale and present the knowledge to people in the context of their situational needs. Moreover the instruments provide us with clear reference points for monitoring or devising approaches for measuring progress or the impact of said best-practices on the organization.

I think this is a principle that works, a rather simple and very tangible way to put good knowledge into practice.

All the best,

Rémi Gardiner, IM Advisor

Ottawa, Ontario