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By the Book

By the Book

Sometimes a little knowledge management is a dangerous thing.

I am in the process of renovating the house. I know, I know it's a dumb idea. A quick coat of paint would have done me fine but thanks to the rise of "lifestyle" shows I'm up to my neck trying to meet the design criteria of my daughter and several of her "bestest" friends.

So here I am last weekend stripping away 60 odd years of paint from the only two original door frames left in my house, and it occurs to me that if I used the same technique and stripped back all of the crap doing the rounds about knowledge management I might find a simple functional concept that I could successfully develop within my organization. Here are a few session descriptions for an upcoming KM conference that illustrate just what we're up against:

"Thought leadership and corporate longitude"

"How to build knowledge and thought space arenas"

"Intellectual capital as an ecosystem"

This kind of prose - no, I'm not going to hold back here, replace prose with "absolute tripe" - feeds a nasty little self-perpetuating cycle. Vendors grab any old piece of software, gift-wrap it in "space arena" paper, pop a plastic sextant in the box (so you can work out the longitude) and then can't understand the "Oh that's great Nana, more socks, hankies and aftershave" look of disappointment when you open it up. Luckily for us, vendors don't give up that easily; they simply take the paper and bow back and go find another product (and another sextant) to wrap up.

Still we CIOs must shoulder some of the blame because we have no idea what we want (apart from getting the CEO off our back) when it comes to KM. And therein lies the problem: nobody knows precisely what KM is. Sure everybody has one of those textbook definitions that can be trotted out on command - just ask one of your buddies between courses at the next CIO roundtable event. (You know the ones where vendors put on a lunch at one of your city's finest restaurants for no other reason than to facilitate an opportunity for you and your peers to share ideas. Yeah right!)

But back to my door frame . . . So, I get all the paint off this door frame and what's left? A bare door frame that still works, but all the crap is gone! Then it hits me: KM has been there all along, for hundreds of years in the form of libraries. They do KM brilliantly. They have well-established systems for cataloguing and retrieving information. They make widespread use of technology and the Internet for reviewing and sharing knowledge. They are staffed by well-educated specialists, who have first-class research skills.

Now I know some of you are thinking: "Libraries don't address the cultural issues of knowledge sharing, you dork." No they don't, and if you have any sense at all do not - I repeat do not - accept that responsibility. Everybody else the CEO has tried to fob this on has sidestepped it and you're on a hiding to nothing if you take it on. If you think you can change human nature, by all means then have a go, but I'll hate having to say I told you so (no I won't).

My advice here is that you have the slightest urge to create a "Know How" department you'll think twice and establish a reference library instead.

Meanwhile, I'll shout anyone who has enough guts to front up to the CEO and request funding for a "thought space arena" pilot the next time I decide to write off a Friday afternoon down at Icebergs. (You'll need to bring a photo of the CEO's boot mark on your backside to verify your attempt.)

I'll be the one with pink paint in his hair.

Anonymous has been a CIO at household-name companies for more years than he cares to name.

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