Why tools fail: learning curve in knowledge management

Getting to know a tool for knowledge management – or for anything which sounds as if your organization should be doing it – is like receiving a present. It’s gift-wrapped and looks very promising on the outside. But there is an issue.

Big Tools for Knowledge Management?

Using Big Bait for Knowledge Management? – Flickr | HikingArtist.com

This tool is too new and shiny. Everyone wants it, just for haves. Knowledge management sounds like a great thing to be doing so the word itself will attract the most unlikely suspects.

Tools for knowledge management – or not

When I started using SharePoint as a tool for knowledge management I soon discovered two things.

  1. SharePoint doesn’t do knowledge management by itself. Obviously. It does a number of things which, in the right hands, can get close to taking care of some aspects of knowledge management.
  2. A lot of people who want the tool are not really interested in knowledge management.

What people want:

A Cool website

A shiny website because management wants one. If your specific tool doesn’t look flashy it’s going to need a lot of customization. If you build a website for management it won’t be used for knowledge management – it’ll be like 10 volumes of Vitruvius on architecture on your management’s bookshelf. If it’s actually used they’ll want alterations which take a lot of time because of the extra work you put in earlier.

Content management without needing to manage content

An online archive because every other place for documents is a big mess. Years before I ran into SharePoint a coworker told me that the folder structure his team used looked like a bookcase had been overturned. The picture is pretty much the same in every online location where everyone is allowed to create extra folders. So people come looking for a content management tool. Unfortunately many of them want a tool that will do content management for them without their involvement.

Workflow automation

A place that would support their workflows. Actually this may even work for SharePoint. In older versions you could already design InfoPath forms to perform actions and have them run in a SharePoint environment. But these workflows only work for people who like and need structure in their work. For everyone else: yes, you can break it.

A couple of my former coworkers once tweaked a constellation of InfoPath forms to meet a huge set of criteria – until it broke. I’m proud of them 😉

Twisting (knowledge management) tools

The strange part is that ‘unintended use’ happens to every tool if you allow it to happen. And it’s not just knowledge management tools.

  • Whatever the tool, if it’s new and shiny, people will go out of their way to find a use for it. Next thing you know, you’re apologizing for an obvious lack of features: “Yes, I know it doesn’t mow the grass very well. But it did start out as a blender…” If you’re the only one offering a certain tool, you’re bound to run into people who want to use it for their own purposes.
  • If you’re able to make alterations to the tool, the conversation might continue like this: “Well… we could construct a bag to hold the grass clippings – it would take about four months to design and build… or you could go to the shop and buy a lawnmower. Oh, you don’t have the budget. I see.”

However much you like the tool you offer, make sure you don’t make many changes to the tool itself, especially if it’s for internal use only.

Any tool basically does A, B, and C, which may add up to knowledge management – or to any other business purpose. It’s up to the team using the tool to collaborate across teams, to choose to share knowledge, and to use an online workspace to that purpose.

8 thoughts on “Why tools fail: learning curve in knowledge management

  1. Interesting. In your job, are you in management or are you a leader of some kind? You truly are so excellent at passing on these ideas, suggestions.

    I’m no business person, but I appreciate reading this because it has me realise things about my workplace, our management. Not entirely a happy workplace, ours, though they try to be. What fails then, you can’t help but wonder…

    • Actually no. I’ll keep it in mind though 😉
      Most organizations look great from the outside. Once you’re inside you realize that no matter where you are, the coffee machine will quit on you, the floor needs cleaning more often, and not every person in the organization likes you or has the decency to be polite. It’s just like real life… a bit messy at times.
      You risk running into a wall the moment you do anything which changes things even a little. Bringing in a (knowledge management) tool is one of many ways to annoy people with the best intentions. Which is why I’ll keep saying in my blog posts that you really need to listen and understand your (internal) customers.

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  4. You raise a valid point, Rambler. Unrealistic expectations related to the knowledge management tools invariably leads to disappointment and frustration. If there was ever a topic about which one will benefit from the experiences of others, it should be the implementation of knowledge management. It’s an interesting litmus test.
    FWIW, I’m blogging on the topic: PracticalKM.org. Love to get your feedback.

  5. This is good stuff. I am glad you found my blog, and it scratched your brain, thats the beauty of this tool, you can communicate with “interesting others” that just a few years ago you would never have found.
    Allen Roberts

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