The Future of Knowledge Management

By Ron Young

In 1999 I published an article entitled 'Future of Knowledge Management' in the European American Business Journal. Today, 9 years later in August 2008, I decided to rewrite this article.

Where is Knowledge Management (KM) going in the next ten years? What did I get right in 1999? What did I get wrong and what have I learned from this? What are the challenges for knowledge driven organizations if they are to thrive in the global knowledge economy in the next 10 years?

As always, I would highly value your comments, feedback and any reviews, so that I may continually improve this article.

The Future of Knowledge Management

This article describes the case for the future of what I term 'extraordinary knowledge management', by first describing what we sometimes refer to as 'ordinary knowledge management' and then introducing the radical and fundamentally new knowledge management capabilities that I believe successful knowledge driven organizations need to understand, absorb and implement.

Throughout, I will also comment on how I see the future of knowledge management over the next ten years, as well as the critical issues, challenges and opportunities facing us.

Where is Knowledge Management Now? (August 2008)

I stated in 1999 that knowledge management was at its most critical phase for further acceptance and development. Generally, the major shift in thinking that was essential to truly understanding the fundamentally new knowledge management capabilities, together with the understanding and implementation of radically and fundamentally new knowledge-based business processes, tools and technologies, had only taken place for a relative minority of people and organizations in the world. What we saw, instead, was an increasing number of organizations embarking on what I would refer to as 'ordinary knowledge management initiatives' that were doomed to failure, at worst, or mediocre improved organizational performance and improvement at best.

Those initiatives were fueled by consultants and technologists who had not even made the shift in thinking themselves, so they did not even see the more 'extraordinary' new possibilities either. Neverthelesss, many of them were sincere and quite well intentioned and simply saw an opportunity to find a new explanation, or a new spin, for selling their solutions and services.

What about now?

Well, in August 2008, I maintain that the major shift in thinking still has not happened as much as I would have hoped.

Of course, there are an increasing number of organizations around the world who have developed and implemented very successful initiatives, but successful KM is nowhere near mainstream yet. KM practitioners regularly state that as many as 75% of KM initiatives have produced mediocre results or failed. That really is bad news, but I tend to agree with this today.

The critical question I put in 1999 was: 'Will the good and extraordinary work that was going on in knowledge management around the world, show results quickly enough to make the compelling case and convince the critical mass of organizations that they really should urgently pursue KM, or would the massive and mediocre bandwagon ultimately demonstrate to organizations that knowledge management was nothing too special, and relegate it to 'yet another initiative?'.

I also asked the question, at the time, 'Are we likely to throw the baby out with the bath water?

In 2008, I think that many have thrown the baby out with the bathwater. But I guess I shouldn't have been that surprised. After all, history shows that we are continually throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Some tremendous work was done in the 1980's with time management and productivity improvement. Despite some sound and timeless principles, the general view is that its past its sell by date. The argument is that we have moved on.

Well we may have moved on, but at our cost. The same can be said for a multitude of good initiatives. Such good work has been done in innovative process improvement, but BPR may have helped to kill that. Quality is an evergreen. But many managers feel that we need the next thing beyond Quality. Now we talk about beyond Knowledge Management.

The bathwater certainly needs to be thrown away, but please let's try to retain and absorb the tremendous and revolutionary good work that has been done.

I started Knowledge Associates International Ltd with the firm conviction, in the early 1990's that information, process, learning and knowledge, creativity and innovation, quality, relations, productivity etc are management evergreens and should always be on the top agendas of organizations to increase sales and/or growth, reduce costs, make more profits and/or create higher value, through improved organizational performance.

I still maintain today, at least, that organizational performance can be so greatly improved through the implementation of new innovative processes that enable faster and higher quality new knowledge creation, retention, transfer, distribution and application. Throughout the entire history of business, knowledge has always been a fundamental success factor for all organizations.

Today, in a rapidly emerging global knowledge economy, knowledge has become 'the critical success factor', the most primary and fundamental asset to be managed.

Although we use the label knowledge management, and that is understandable, I am personally much happier with the term and the work done in 'knowledge asset management'. I have co-authored the book 'Knowledge Asset Management' in 2003 and I feel that this aspect of KM is about to gain much greater prominence, especially in the measuring, reporting and auditing of knowledge assets. But that's another article to follow shortly.

It is still the case today that 'knowledge core competencies' - that is to say, how to create, manage, develop and apply knowledge - are critical to every knowledge intensive organization and to every knowledge professional.

I stated in 1999 that new emerging communications and collaboration technologies, at the time, undreamed of, will continue to radically disrupt and change our perspectives and our ways of working for the better, both as tools in themselves, and as enabling technologies for new methods, practices and processes.

Well, I think I got that prediction right. I certainly could not have envisaged the astounding success of the blog and blogsphere, the wiki and successful global developments like Wikipedia and the Encyclopedia of Life. I could not have forseen more Web 2.0 services, applications and technologies like Myspace, Youtube, Facebook, etc etc. The most extraordinary thing of all is that all these tools are free on the Web today.

If you properly combine the evolving Web with mobile and wireless technologies, like Apple iPhone, you have exciting and completely new ways of working. I said in 1999, "In a book that I co-authored in 1995, called Upside Down Management, I felt compelled to write at that time that, in the evolutionary perspective, "the learning organization was simply a warm up act for the main act - knowledge management".

So what is Ordinary Knowledge Management?

Even in 2008, we still keep hearing many management consultants, practitioners and presenters at conferences remark that "There is nothing new about knowledge management."

They are quite right. But they are also quite wrong!

In the mainstream mindset they are correct. We have been developing knowledge since the dawn of humankind. Our universities may be called the 'knowledge factories'.

But in the new global knowledge paradigm, however, they are quite wrong. They have not themselves understood what this new phenomena, which I have referred to earlier as 'extraordinary knowledge management', is really about yet.

So I would first define ordinary knowledge management, in this context, as something that has always been possible. Nothing radically or fundamentally new. At an organizational level it could even be described as the sum of individual knowledge, together with some traditional methods to bring about better team collaboration.

However, before I go on to define extraordinary knowledge management, I have to remind us that today there are still only a few organizations that can boast that they are practicing good ordinary knowledge management!

One example of this is good story telling. With the greatest respect to my fellow KM practitioners, I am still hearing in 2008, at conferences, about the importance of story telling for effective knowledge transfer. That is absolutely and completely right. But this has always been the case! The few people and organizations that have known this have practiced this for many years with great benefit. Prophets have known this. Sages have known this. Effective educators and teachers have known this. Much is known about the art and techniques of effective communications through effective storytelling.

It has been said, over the years, that 'people are naturally wired for pictures and stories'. Effective storytelling dramatically improves knowledge transfer - but it is hardly a new concept!

Let's take another example or good ordinary knowledge management. If we consider the principles and techniques of strategy , goal management, time, task, information, people, resource management and so on. Collectively they address the what, why, who, where, when and how of a given situation.

I remember explaining this to a colleague, many years ago, and he immediately reminded me of the wisdom of Rudyard Kipling, from his poem 'The Elephant's Child:

"I have six honest serving menThey taught me all I knewTheir names were what and where and whenAnd why and how and who"

Although I may well be greatly oversimplifying this to make a point, I would say that

* time management focuses primarily on the 'when'

* task management focuses primarily on the 'what'

* information management on at least the 'how' and 'where'

* people management on the 'who'

* goal management on the 'why'

You could say that you have complete knowledge when you know the what, where, when, why, how and who.

Again, this is very important and extremely good ordinary knowledge management, but it is not, in any way, new.

However, I repeat again that very few organizations today can boast that they are practicing good ordinary knowledge management. On the contrary, in the workshops that I conduct all around the world, people and organizations, as a whole, tell me that they are suffering from very chronic information overload, very high stress, and a lack of ability to filter the relevant from the irrelevant, the important from the unimportant.

Why is this? It is due to the lack of a clear strategic direction, purpose, a shared vision and goals, and ineffective time, task, information and knowledge management, at a personal and team level.

In normal circumstances, in the 20th century, I would have been stating that before organizations go any further, they need to transform information overload into effective information management. Fortunately, in the 21st century, the new strategies, processes, tools and technologies for 'extraordinary knowledge management' have embraced this, so it is now possible to 'leap frog' conventional ways of the past.

But who will leapfrog the fastest in the next ten years? Asia, USA, Europe? That's another article soon.

But now let me try to define what I mean by extraordinary knowledge management.

What is Extraordinary Knowledge Management?

When I am asked this question at conferences and workshops, I start by defining extraordinary KM as radical and fundamentally new ways to create, retain, transfer, apply and leverage knowledge. Quite often, these new ways prove to be highly disruptive, and highly threatening, to the mainstream.They have never been possible before and, therefore, enable us to design innovative new work practices and processes.

One recent example, this past few years, has been the impact of the read/write web 2.0, highly participatory web services, self publishing through blogs, video's like youtube, massive global collaboration through wiki's, more meaningful content through semantics and, what is being called the Semantic Web 3.0, and the list is never ending.

The web, and such new working capabilities, are turning many businesses upside down, and many are being destroyed. Yet, alongside this, many new jobs and businesses are being created through this. Even in my family, everybody earns their living today, and are developing their professional careers on, and through, the World Wide Web.

But lets look a little closer at extraordinary knowledge management. Through the new fusion of people, process, content, technology, at every level in the organization, it enables fundamentally new virtual collaborative processes, as a start. These vcp's, as I shall call them, produce far more leverage of existing knowledge, and far more creation of new knowledge and innovation than ever before! This is now possible at the personal, team, organizational and inter-organizational levels.

Extraordinary knowledge management connects people to people in totally new ways, people to information in totally new ways, and information to people in totally new ways, across the teams, across the organization and, indeed, across the globe.

But, however much I try to describe the new working possibilities, many people still find it difficult to make the shift in thinking. What have I learned from this?

Well, of course, I need to become an even more effective communicator. That's a given and I am trying hard to improve all the time.

But, also, I think that simply intellectualizing new thoughts and concepts is not very effective either. In my experience, I now believe that by far the best way to understand the new possibilities, and make the leap in thinking, even to the point of changing the paradigm, is to 'personally experience the new processes and tools available for the effective knowledge worker'. I stress the word 'personally'.

We need to become extraordinary personal knowledge managers for ourselves!

If you have flown in an aircraft, or spaceship even, try getting that experience across to somebody who has never been near an aircraft or spaceship by explaining it. It will never happen.

In my case, I have spent several years, from 1996 to today, chairing and presenting at major KM conferences around the world. It's a great intellectual exercise, but, for the reasons given earlier, I am not convinced that it is that effective. Maybe it was, and I am being unfair, but it doesn't feel like it today.

So what do I now do?

Today, I find it far more effective to simply show people who are interested, how I work and the benefits I get from working this way. I show 'a day in the life of a typical knowledge professional' who works in a global knowledge intensive industry, using personal, team, organization and community methods and tools.

I then wait for the reaction from the audience.

Normally, people do not care what I call it. It may be knowledge management or knowledge networking or knowledge sharing or accelerated learning or whatever they choose. If they find that what I am showing is of interest to them, to help them with their knowledge working, I will gladly point them to the right sources. And the good news is that most of these methods and tools are free on the web.

However, underneath the simple tools and methods is a set of timeless principles, and a solid new set of strategies, processes, methods and technologies that take the knowledge worker through several virtual collaborative processes (vcp's) that are common to most organizations, for example:

* VC client/customer knowledge

* VC market intelligence

* VC project and process team working

* VC learning and competence development

* VC creativity and innovation

Quite simply, the emerging innovative knowledge processes and tools are as new and as different as the invention of writing and the printed word was for information and knowledge transfer for the individual!

Extraordinary knowledge management is also concerned with putting the power and timeless principles of storytelling, for example, into new virtual collaborative processes. This then combines the richness of figurative language with multimedia to create even better corporate newsrooms, corporate tv channels, web centric participatory publishing and so on.

I firmly believe that the business community will gradually embrace and implement the new extraordinary knowledge management methods, tools and techniques over the next ten years.

Where I have been wrong is in thinking it would have happened faster.

Clearly, the early adopters will gain a significant advantage - that is, until the extraordinary become the ordinary.

Where is Knowledge Management Going?

I stated in 1999 that, "in the short term, knowledge management methods, processes, tools and techniques will become better and more automated. The knowledge manager will still need to facilitate the processes, especially the vcp's, but less so, and the focus will shift even more towards coaching and developing the knowledge team.

Laborious and costly manual knowledge categorization and indexing will be replaced by intelligent agentware, neural networking and personal knowledge profiling technologies that will summarize and deliver concepts of relevance and, also, relevant 'knowers' to the knowledge seeker."

I think I may have got that partially right and wrong.

Without doubt, Web 2.0 connects people and information in totally new ways, and we are all more used to categorizing/tagging our blogs and creating 'folksonomies' etc, to a degree. But the automation has not happened as fast as I thought it would.

For the future, I would suggest that the rapidly emerging 'Semantic Web 3.0' will contribute enormously to automated and more meaningful web content management.

Today, in August 2008, I am in an invite-beta to Twineand I am testing the effect of semantic technology for my personal, team and organizational knowledge management. But that's even another article soon.

I also predicted in 1999 that there will be several fragmented schools of knowledge management, each with their own approach, philosophy, methods and tools. The 'human' focused schools are still, today, fighting it out for supremacy over the 'process and technology' focused schools.

The traditional philosophers and academics are still debating what knowledge is.

I stated at the time "Egoless reason suggests that they should all fuse and integrate their different and equally important perspectives into one mutually agreed, inclusive and holistic framework.

Ego suggests that different schools will wish to become dominant".

Today I think we are just starting to see the deterioration of the dominant schools and the wise integration of the best. I hope I am right. In any event, the Web 2.0, blogs, wikis and knols, at least, are to me the tools that are 'smashing down the Berlin Wall of Knowledge Management'. It can only be a matter of time.

A Brief Cosmic Moment

I certainly do resonate very strongly with the shared vision of one more meaningful world with much better ways of working, and working together better as one entity.

So, if I may go off into space for just a moment, I would like to suggest that we may ultimately realize that we are, indeed, one global entity. The technology to support global communications, collaboration, learning and sharing, is well in place and improving by the day.

In 1998 I attended a presentation in Singapore where Bill Gates presented his ideas on the rapidly emerging web-based lifestyle. He predicted that within 20 years (2018), the personal computer, as we know it, would be a million times more powerful. I will leave it for you to decide where we are in this exponential growth ten years on from his prediction.

Perhaps the billions of eyes and ears and brains around the world will, ultimately, be connected to work together in one extraordinary global network, and maybe we will then realize a totally new perspective about ourselves and others? Quantum Theory, Neuroscience, Nanotechnology and Molecular Computing, at least, are certainly showing us extraordinary new perspectives and possibilities in an infinitely inter-connected world.

Maybe we have now evolved even further from:

* our first emotional animal brain designed to 'fight or flight' to

* our second intellectual neo-cortex to think, develop knowledge, choose and decide, to

* the discovery of our third brain as one global entity of which we are all a part

Perhaps the new global synapses and connections are now being crudely prototyped on todays global Web?

In my opinion, one more thing is certain for the future.

We do know that when you change beliefs dramatically, you can immediately change the performance dramatically, and create some extraordinary results. For example, when people became more knowledgeable about Planet Earth - that it was not the centre of the universe - we changed our perspectives, culture, behaviour, and performance immediately! We realized that the Earth was not flat but round.

Likewise, when organizations become 'more knowledgeable about knowledge' we will immediately change our organizational perspective, culture, behaviour and performance.

One final prediction and one final piece of advice.

We know that the knowledge driven organization, to succeed in the global knowledge economy, will be based on principles of high trust, open two-way communications, rapid and continual learning, natural knowledge sharing and effective knowledge application. This brings the next stage of our organizational evolution and development into the spotlight.

I predict that 'Business Ethics' will be the greater focus of a new wave of conferences, seminars and workshops that explore the fusion of high ethics and high technology even further.

And the final piece of advice?

I say the same today as I said in the article in 1999, with the same degree of conviction.

If you are considering improving the knowledge management in your organization, whatever stage you are at, and if you wish to use consultants to advise and assist you, I strongly recommend that you ask them to demonstrate how they are, themselves, personally practicing knowledge management on a daily basis.

Is it ordinary knowledge management?

Is it extraordinary knowledge management?

If it is neither, then run away as fast as you can!

The future of knowledge management. over the next few years, may be shaped accordingly.

Ron YoungAugust 2008