Why knowledge management is like herding cats

It struck me quite recently:

Knowledge management shows some uncanny similarities with herding cats

The moment you try to get a whole company to embrace knowledge sharing, storage and the like, you just know at least one cat will scoot off under the sofa and another will claw its way up the curtains. And that’s before you reveal you prepared a nice B-A-T-H for them 😉

Interior with cats

Interior With Cats – Amsterdam Museum Collection (Willet Holthuysen)

Previous IT (tool) projects thought to support knowledge management often delivered digital archives where knowledge either went to die or refused to show up at all.

People who still ‘do KM’ focus on separate activities that should amount to a more mature way of handling knowledge. They also typically try to instill the basics of a new attitude towards knowledge in one team after another – dealing with one cat at a time.

Why is it so hard to get people to take knowledge seriously enough to share, store, and acquire it in a structured way?

Let’s go back to where the trouble starts.

1. The nature of knowledge

The point about knowledge is that it has little in common with concepts like truth. Your knowledge is what you know about the world and bits of that world. Personal knowledge is by default incomplete, and in large part inaccurate, irrelevant, and possibly obsolete (and an information specialist’s nightmare).

2. You can’t manage what’s in people’s heads

Think about yourself for a moment. You can barely manage what’s in your own head. So-called ‘critical thinking’ doesn’t seem to start even until the age of 8. Your own most unshakeable ‘truths’ were probably instilled in you before that age. If a situation gets awkward, and you catch yourself talking nonsense, remind yourself it could well be your inner 5-year-old talking. Surely that’s a great reason to snap out of it already 😉

3. Knowledge management does (not) equal a lot of things

Crystallized applied knowledge that results from any key process in your organization is in essence your archive. Most organizations are required to store this kind of information for some years.

Then there’s basically know-how, know-what and know-who:

  • Knowing the best way to get things done (procedural knowledge).
  • Knowing the essential and other useful facts about your organization, its peers and competitors, et cetera. Who did what in a similar situation? (archive)
  • Your network as a part of the organizations ‘relation grid’. Who has had contact with whom, when, what topic? And so on. (customer database)

And there is content resulting from research or activities conducted by your organization. Which is not generally seen as archive, but (perhaps for that very reason) it can be notoriously hard to determine what content your organization has produced in its outlying regions 😉

There are more elements to knowledge, but they’re not often the major focus of KM: that’s trying to stop knowledge from walking out the door.

I think it’s time to pull the rabbit out of the hat…

Possible motivators to start managing knowledge

  1. Responsibility: Here’s all this knowledge sitting in my head, took years to collect, don’t get hit by a bus now…
  2. A love for teaching: What’s the point of gathering knowledge if you don’t intend to share it?
  3. More time for challenging tasks: Here I am instructing new employees again… I’ve explained the same thing 4 times this week. Got to write the basics down. Hopefully then they’ll only come to me for the complicated stuff.

These are my personal reasons for wanting to share knowledge. Starting with the last potential motivation: I did record most, and before I left a previous employer, all the knowledge I had about some vital procedures. And having them documented somewhere really helped me and the company. Documenting procedures was recognized as important in making processes less dependent on the good health and availability of employees. Part time employees tend to be more understanding in these matters 🙂

How to avoid beating potential knowledge sharers into submission

Would you encourage people to benefit from sharing their knowledge freely? Would you help them share their knowledge in a way that suits them? Getting buy-in from everyone means you need to sit down and figure out (together with them if possible) what is important to them and recognize what obstacles they see. At this stage it’s so easy to slip into the ‘expert’ mode and tell them how to solve their issues. Or rather: their company’s issues. Don’t!
This is where your knowledge-of-the-world meets theirs. Try to understand the picture they are painting for you. Recognize your own urge to take over – stay in listening mode. Identify the knowledge sharer’s needs. Perhaps they need to know it’s official that they can spend 10% of their time as a mentor. Perhaps they’re more comfortable being interviewed about their knowledge than to document it all in some system. Or they’d love to ‘teach’ new employees if only someone would ask!

Sometimes all there is to herding cats is to put down a bowl of milk.

More reading (found via LinkedIn: Gurteen Knowledge Management community):

I hope you enjoyed today’s post! Please add your thoughts about knowledge, management, and the art of cat herding in a comment!

13 thoughts on “Why knowledge management is like herding cats

  1. Pingback: Why knowledge management is like herding cats « Seamus Simpson and International Communication Association (ICA )

    • You’re so right – do you come across this kind of thing often? When I wrote about social media in business (that took me several posts and definitely needs following up!) I found myself thinking “social media professionals are definitely not the first to run into this type of situation”.

      • Yes. I’ve found a lot of push back from employees when it comes to sharing on social media.

        I think that is why the paragraph, How to avoid beating potential knowledge sharers into submission, resonated with me. I think the key was listening and addressing each “problem” individually. We also highlighted the employees who were using social media well and showed how it was benefiting them by adding to their client list. That brought even more of the naysayers around.

      • That sounds like you learned a lot from the experience – it sounds like you made some real progress as a result of listening. When did you decide to change your approach? Or was the main change that you made ‘listening’ a standard item on your to do list rather than a coincidence?

  2. Love the title of this blog. I can tell you that I have a lot of insights from my masterclass blogging on this issue. I was responsible for KM for years and the main thing that kept popping up was the difference between the commitment and the actual behavior. I learn now different techniques in the blog sphere that would have helped me tremendously to stimulate the sharing on all these tools, systems and databases : )

  3. I love your style of article writing, I really do. Just having ‘cat’ in the title (by the way) would have drawn me here.

    But the herding cats, your opening line – just great. Then you develop it. Great!

    Your articles, I lap them up…

  4. Pingback: Why knowledge management is like herding cats | KnowledgeManagement | Scoop.it

  5. Pingback: Why knowledge management is like herding cats | Knowledge ins-and-outs | Scoop.it

  6. This notion has been around for a while 🙂
    Tom Whiteside (1994): ”Nobody’s dumb at IBM. But it’s like herding cats; they all have their own agenda.” Tom Singer, also from IBM (2000): “Managing Knowledge is like Herding Cats”
    It’s not only about the nature of knowledge itself, but also about the nature of knowledge workers. Another useful insight, also from the last century: “Teaching Smart People How to Learn” by Chris Argyris, Harvard Business Review, May-June 1991

    • Your reply confirms my personal impression that some (if not all?) KM issues have been around for a long time – longer than I’ve been in the realm of KM anyway 🙂
      The issues are clear, but that doesn’t mean they’re being solved. Thank you for adding some useful literature.

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