During a Knowledge Management (KM) working group meeting at the Federal Government of Canada, I could not help but notice the length to which KM initiatives must go to justify their existence. KM initiatives will typically seek to make an improvement in how knowledge is acquired, shared and evolved within the organization. It is true that all organizational investments, or one would hope, have to follow some manner of formal process to declare their objectives and how they will know they have arrived at success. These processes usually travel, in larger institutions, under the name of an ‘accountability framework’. In smaller organizations where the tolerance for missteps is necessarily smaller, we would call it the ‘fitting your head into the noose’ framework.
So we will take it as a given that there is a cultural and, at times, an operational need to position initiatives within the accepted ‘accountability framework’ of the organization expected to make the investments. That just seems fair. But in some circumstances, this essential step may in fact eliminate the conditions for success. In these cases, it becomes a form of Catch-22. Upon hearing about a KM initiative studying the relative merits of, and selecting from amongst, various accountability frameworks, it occurred to me that KM may be such an instance.
The premise here is that if steps are taken to formalize a KM initiative specifically to sustain an accountability obligation, its formalization and the resulting investments of energy to implementing that formality, will in fact work against its potential for success.
For those who must live in this type of organizational world, or those that, in general, embrace the ‘formalization’ of business monitoring (results-based management), this premise will seem at best odd, and at worst ill-considered.
But if, as I have argued in my paper on the anatomy of knowledge, there is no deterministic causal link between knowledge and the domain of judgment and action (and therefore results), then any results-based accountability model will be, essentially, missing the point (or to be more precise, creating a fictitious one). If there are no causal links, again in a directly deterministic way, then managing initiatives by causal outcomes will be impossible. If such a management regime is forcefully adopted, then, all energies directed to its implementation will be energies away from the focus, presumably, of KM – being the creation and advancement of shared knowledge. The attempts to align with an accountability framework would, in this light, become tangible impediments to success.
So to summarize, if a KM initiative is squarely focused upon cultivating improved knowledge within a community, then it will not be possible, directly, to measure outcomes in terms of business performance changes. It would be with reference to such changes that a business justification, in the form of a Return-on-Investment (ROI) calculation, would be made. If a KM initiative is soundly structured and can be monitored with reference to these types of measurable outcomes, then it is – by definition – not directed towards knowledge but rather towards some other operational goal. It would thus cease to be a KM initiative or at least insofar as it accommodates this redirection. So in echoing the argument demonstrated by Heisenberg for sub-atomic particles, we have the “KM Uncertainty Principle”.
Mercifully, and again by recourse to scientific models, we can highlight the complexity of the relationship between knowledge and the emergent operational phenomena and we can refocus our measurement activities in the domain of judgment and action in ways which help to illuminate impacts that occur across a more broad spectrum. If changes in knowledge ultimately do represent a change in potentiality then the consequences of KM interventions will indeed become observable and will impact measurements that are tuned to the right frequency. But there are many other factors that will also influence those observable outcomes so categorically tracing any one measurable consequence, whether good or ill, back to a specific KM investment is still not possible, strictly speaking.
Ideally, this should simply remind us that the prudent method for advancing a KM initiative is to position it as a longer term, strategic investment that, like hiring and developing good people or upholding sustainability as a key business consideration, will bear fruit over time. It can also remind us that it can be a prudent tactic to combine KM initiatives with other, perhaps more grounded, investments. This way we can make progress on many levels.