Knowledge Management - Back to Basic Principles

Knowledge Management - Back to Basic Principles

By Ron Young

In this article, I would like to present some of my most recent thoughts, ideas and developments concerning Knowledge Management. It is based on a keynote conference presentation that I gave in New Delhi in February 2008 hosted by the Asian Productivity Organization and the National Productivity Council of India.

I wish to discuss Knowledge Management in the 21st Century by first going back to some basic principles, and then briefly outline some simple strategies for identifying, creating, storing, sharing and using knowledge. I then give some views on the future of knowledge management.

I would very much welcome reviews, comments and feedback and I will undertake to continually update and improve this article as a result.

I will start this article by quoting the late Professor Peter Drucker and I will end it by quoting Nova Spivack, the grandson of Peter Drucker. It seems to me that Peter Drucker provided much original insight, inspiration and common sense in the founding age of Management science, and also to the start of Knowledge Management, and Nova Spivak is now taking some of this forward with his work on the Meaningful Web 3.0.

Peter Drucker said, “The most important, and indeed truly unique contribution of management in the 20th century was the fifty-fold increase in the productivity of the manual worker in manufacturing”. This is indeed a great achievement and a great accolade for the development of Management science.

Drucker went on to say that “The most important contribution management needs to make in the 21st century is similarly to increase the productivity of knowledge work and the knowledge worker”. Herein lies our first challenge. How can we dramatically increase the productivity of knowledge work?I propose that the answer is to implement effective knowledge management at all levels, for individuals, teams, organizations and communities, locally, nationally, regionally, and across the globe.

So let me first start with my definition of knowledge management, and then present the case for going back to some basics of business. There are, of course, many good definitions of knowledge management that I would point you to, that consider many different perspectives of knowledge management, but as a starting point:

A Knowledge Management Definition

“Knowledge Management is the discipline of enabling individuals, teams and entire organizations to collectively and systematically capture, store, create, share and apply knowledge, to better achieve their objectives.”

Although there is nothing new in managing knowledge as such, there is something totally new about doing this ‘collectively’ and ‘systematically’ using some new strategies, new innovative knowledge processes, knowledge communities/networks, with some new supporting and enabling tools and technologies. This has never been possible before, and for those organizations that implement effective knowledge management, the benefits can be substantial. The benefits to the organization can be highly strategic and transformational, as well as operational.So what are these new strategies, processes, knowledge networks, tools and technologies that have enabled a new and much better way of knowledge working?

Well, first of all, the new technologies have provided us with totally new ways of working across the globe and offer tremendous potential.

Web based tools and technologies, especially the new Web 2.0 Social Computing technologies, the read/write participatory web, now enable us to communicate, collaborate, learn and share knowledge in very 'disruptive' yet highly beneficial ways. These tools and technologies are significantly challenging traditional management science and strategies for organizational development and renewal. Across the world, we now know much better what the world is searching for. We are rapidly evolving from the age of global and multi-national organizations to now include the global individual. We can self-publish our own thoughts, ideas and opinions, through blogs and websites, and share knowledge with the world. We can enable mass collaboration through wiki’s, as inspired by pioneers like Wikipedia and, recently, the Encyclopedia of Life. Through the blogsphere, we can capture our new learnings, insights, ideas and opinions and much better know, and better influence, what the world is thinking and feeling. And now, of course, we also have the Knol from Google.

In many ways this is simply stupendous!

If we then add mobile wireless working technologies, like, for example, the Apple iphone, we have the ‘potential’ to dramatically increase knowledge working, and more rapidly move towards Peter Drucker’s productivity challenge.

But are we doing that well now? Is knowledge management, as some are now saying, simply about seizing and using these new exciting communication, collaboration and knowledge sharing tools and technologies as fast as we can? Of course not.

The tools will, undoubtedly, provide very great improvements indeed in the way we work, but there is an even greater potential for those who step back for a moment, and go back to business basics.

Back to Basics

I respectfully suggest to you that if we consider our progress in the last thirty years, we will conclude that many, if not most, knowledge workers are today even more confused, even more stressed, and far less proactive in achieving objectives. In workshops that I conduct around the world, I am told by many people that they are totally reactive to the incessant daily demands and performance pressures and have very little time to think and act pro-actively. People are suffering even more so from high stress and lack of creativity as a result of email overload, information overload, attention overload, new application and new initiative overload!

Why is this?

As remarkable as the new technologies are, they are not the total answer, but provide great potential. They need to be enabling new innovative knowledge processes across rich knowledge communities. These new knowledge processes and knowledge communities need to be strategically aligned to the objectives of the organization. And most importantly, they need to be aligned to the principles of organizational success. We need to go ‘back to basics’.

We need to remind ourselves, from time to time, and teach each new generation of management, what these ‘principles’ are. Technologies change over time. The principles are timeless. The effective application of timeless business principles are to my mind ‘Business Wisdom’.

So my formula for effective 21st century knowledge management is to restate the timeless and changeless business principles in the modern context, and then align and apply the best of the emerging and changing strategies, methods, processes, tools and technologies. This will result in extraordinary performance and value.

Historically, our problem seems to be that we immediately seize on the new technologies too fast. This is putting the ‘cart before the horse’.

So let me take a few moments to remind us of the timeless principles, in the context of knowledge management, and then briefly discuss the best aligned strategies for identifying, creating, storing, sharing and using knowledge.

1. Timeless Business Principles

A principle should be scaleable. It can be equally applicable to an individual, team, organization or community. In other words, it can apply to all sizes of organization, all types of organization, and can be applied anywhere. Principles are beyond time and space.

I remember, in the 1980’s I first learned from Claus Moller, an international management consultant and founder of Time Manager International, in Europe, that there are, at least, three ‘evergreen principles’ for organizations – they are Productivity, Relations and Quality.

He said “For how long do you think Senior Management will be interested and absorbed in finding better ways to increase productivity? The answer is for ever, of course. Productivity is an evergreen.

“For how long do you think Senior Management will be interested and absorbed in improving relations? That is, relations with customers, employees, suppliers, partners, in fact all the key stakeholders? The answer is for ever, of course. Relations is an evergreen”

“For how long do you think Senior Management will be interested and absorbed in developing quality? That is product quality, service quality, team quality and even personal quality? The answer is for ever, of course. Quality is an evergreen.

Productivity, relations and quality are timeless principles, or evergreens, and must be perennials on the board room agendas around the world.

But what underpins these evergreens? Fundamentally, I maintain it is knowledge.

It is strategic and operational knowledge, for increasing productivity, improving relations and developing quality that underpins what the organization does.

Knowledge Management strategies must be aligned to productivity, relations and quality. Why?

Because, all senior management are ultimately interested in increasing sales and or service; reducing costs; and optimizing the delivery of value and/or profit. That’s what effective productivity, improved relations, developing quality and knowledge management delivers.

There is no rocket science here! This is, surely, common sense! But I suggest to you that it is not as common a practice around the world as it could be. We need to go ‘back to basics’ from time to time, and certainly, from generation to generation of managers.

2. Identifying Knowledge

I remember working with a Container Port in Asia. They certainly had the best operational knowledge, the best logistics knowledge in Asia. They are world class.

They thought that codifying this logistics knowledge was all they needed to do to practice effective knowledge management.

But when we worked together they realized that effective knowledge management is also about transforming themselves to meet future customer needs. Although they were the best in moving containers on/off ships, and this had served them well in the past, this was not good enough for surviving for the future. They needed to know why customers would wish to use containers, and what they would put in them, for the future. They needed to transform from operational to customer focused knowledge management.

The key question to ask, when embarking on a knowledge management initiative is:

‘What key areas and types of knowledge, if they could be much better managed, would make a big difference to achieving and/or exceeding the objectives over the next few years’

Identifying key knowledge areas for the future is critical to successful knowledge management.

3. Creating Knowledge

People often say to me, ‘we would like to be a more creative and innovative organisation’.

When I look around most organizations, I see no shortage of new learnings, new ideas, and new insights. They are bubbling up all around, all the time.

The problem, I believe, is not so much a shortage of new learnings, ideas and insights, but a shortage of ‘collective and systematic’ methods, processes and tools to capture them and do anything meaningful with them. Most organizations practice what we call ‘episodic learning’ and ‘episodic innovation’. What is the point of trying to review a project six or twelve months down the line? By then most of the best ideas and learnings, that always tend to happen at the beginning of the project, are forgotten!

Effective knowledge management can provide new innovative continuous daily and weekly processes that take the organization from episodic learning and innovation to continuous learning and innovation. Learning, or regular after action reviews can answer the questions ‘Why were there differences?’ and ‘What can we really learn from this and do better next time?’

4. Storing Knowledge

This is the easier part. The Web has radically and fundamentally changed the economics, processes and tools of information and knowledge. Storing is easy. In fact, too easy. What is more difficult is deciding, from all the choices, the best strategy for storing.

5. Sharing Knowledge

This is the most difficult part. We are told that 70% of the knowledge management effort is concerned with culture. That is not to say that the strategies, processes and technologies are less important at all. It is simply to say that they are relatively easy to implement.

There are several strategies for bringing about a naturally flourishing knowledge sharing culture. In this few minutes let me simply make a few points about a ‘virtuous process’ towards a natural knowledge sharing culture.

* Trust is the lifeblood of any organization. People naturally work together at their best when they trust one another

* When there is sufficient trust, people will naturally communicate and naturally collaborate

* This leads to an increased natural learning, at all levels.

* Learning increases confidence and competence and this leads to natural knowledge sharing

But beware. The other side of the coin is that there is no trust, or not sufficient trust.If unattended, this leads to a vicious downward spiral of doubt and fear.

6. Using Knowledge

So, if we apply all the best strategies, processes and tools to identify, create, store and share knowledge, are we practicing effective knowledge management?

Unfortunately, no.

What is the point of being even more knowledgeable, if we never use it? In other words, if we do not apply our knowledge effectively. I do know some very knowledgeable people, but unless new knowledge acquisition is your business, like academics, it will not help.

The most important step is to effectively ‘apply’ the best knowledge to achieve your objectives. This is where effective and highly productive knowledge working really pays off.

7. The Future of Knowledge Management

Although there are some who believe that knowledge management is a fad, or simply yet another management initiative that is past its sell-by date, I firmly know that senior management will always be interested and absorbed in better ways to create and apply knowledge. Maybe the term or label knowledge management may be misleading, or may go out of fashion in certain parts of the world, but knowledge always has, and always will be, the most critical resource, and can be the most strategic asset for any individual, organisation, region and, of course, for the entire Planet Earth. Knowledge working is also very eco-friendly and it provides the new opportunity for everyone on this planet to improve their quality of life.

I am one of those individuals who agree with the global knowledge evangelists and knowledge capitalists, and see knowledge as THE wealth creator for the 21st century. To survive and to succeed we need to become, as quickly as possible, effective knowledge workers in effective knowledge driven organizations, to be able to develop and grow in a sustainable global knowledge economy.

8. Semantic Technology and the Meaningful Web 3.0

I started this article by quoting the late Professor Peter Drucker and his challenge to substantially increase the productivity of knowledge working.

I now find myself coming towards the end of this article by quoting his grandson, Nova Spivack, CEO of Radar Networks in San Francisco. He says:

"Semantic Web 3.0 is about making all this technology and content (on the Web) smarter -- by adding semantics to the data and by adding more smarts to applications so that they can do a better job of helping humans”

This interests me greatly.

I do like the notion of the Web becoming increasingly more helpful, as an intelligent assistant, to humans, so that we can spend more time doing what only humans can do best – be more creative and innovative. It is continued creativity and innovation that promises true business sustainability. The source is infinite. Our challenge is to make knowledge management one of the key drivers and facilitators of creativity and innovation.

Even NASA, in their 25 year knowledge management road map, have recognized the importance of making knowledge management principles part of their culture now, and are looking for the development of knowledge systems to collaborate with experts by 2025!

9. The Next Ten Years – Key Challenges

May I respectfully build on the words of Peter Drucker, Claus Moller and Nova Spivak and suggest the following key challenges for the next ten years:

* substantially increase the productivity of knowledge working, at least, 50 fold

* exponentially develop global knowledge sharing networks & relations

* dramatically improve quality

* enable continuous radical knowledge creation and innovation

* provide leadership aligned to the timeless principles

* apply the best principle driven strategies, processes, methods, tools and technologies

If you are further interested in my work, you may wish to read my knowledge management consulting blog at:


Book: Knowledge Asset Management, Springer 2003

Ron Young

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