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Why many KM initiatives don’t work the way we intended

I-P-K has recently been asked to assess a Knowledge Management Project. The initial e-mail exchange with our client (who sketched some of the fundamental difficulties they encountered in their project) prompted me to think about what’s wrong so often? Haven’t we figure things out quite nicely?

The reason is, that quite a few of our assumptions that we build on are simply wrong, in several ways:

  1. Knowledge is not a product that can be generated and then disseminated and applied. Knowledge is a process, and it must be dealt with as such. This must take into account the true nature and complexity, and either we understand and respect it appropriately or we will not move forward. Mechanistic models of Knowledge Sharing have not worked in a single case.
  2. Most of the KM initiatives are supply-driven – they generate knowledge and then try to “sell” it. Almost any initiative or project on paper declares the opposite, ie. wants to be demand-driven, but just writing this into a project document is obviously not good enough. Becoming demand-driven takes a real change in approach – and the willingness of donors and implementers to shift their thinking.
  3. If change and transformation in a complex situation (living system) is the purpose, then once the knowledge has been “generated”, it’s too late to carry it out and expect it to become absorbed and active. We must seriously and thoroughly acknowledge what change management, complexity science and whole system work teach us: that knowledge must not be generated by scientists and experts in isolation, but it must be co-generated by all members of a system; we can’t devise the generation process and the transformation/ action process, they must be one and the same, an integral flow.
  4. This implies that those who eventually are to take an active role must be part of the generation from the first minute. We must get to a new, higher level of participation and move away from the expert culture where some tell others what the right thing is.
  5. In these contexts there is no such thing as “good practices” – in our complex social/ living systems, that has been probably one of the most obstructive dead-end roads. Only situation-specific, generic solutions, created in this participatory way, can lead to change.
  6. It is a delusion to think that we can measure knowledge and knowledge processes – and with it is as a matter of principle to make clear cause-effect attributions in this area.
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