The Double Edge Of Emerging Tech for KM
One of my favorite business analogies comes from the natural world, specifically the horse and the Tarpan. If you’ve never heard of a Tarpan, it was a species of wild horse (i.e. the “Eurasian wild horse”) that lived in Southern Europe since prehistoric times. While there are other wild horses still extant today, the Tarpan was arguably closer to its domesticated cousins than any other of the truly wild subspecies. The last specimen died in 1909, signaling the species’ extinction.
What’s interesting about the Tarpan isn’t just the extinction or its relation to the domesticated horse, but instead why it’s extinct—because of human activity. Because of over-hunting and loss of habitat to human settlements, the Tarpan struggled, dwindled, and ultimately died off. The horse, by contrast, is one of the more evolutionarily successful species on the planet—also because of human involvement (the influence of domestication).
The lesson here is that sometimes the same forces that can lead to catastrophic results for one group, can lead to tremendous success in others. Meaning, sometimes an inflection point comes where some, depending on the actions they take, adapt and thrive—while others will struggle. As Andrew Grove famously said, an inflection point is the “…opportunity to rise to new heights. But it may just as likely signal the beginning of the end.”
This is a very relevant analogy for knowledge management in today’s technology climate. Specifically, KM as we know it is, at just such an inflection point.
The cause of that inflection point?
The pace at which new technologies are being introduced to most organizations. A KM Inflection Point.
Ask any knowledge management practitioner and they’ll tell you that one of the most challenging situations in the discipline comes about during periods of rapid business transformation. The essence of KM is capturing, harnessing, and disseminating institutional knowledge so that it can have maximum value to the business and its goals; but when business processes change rapidly—or when the underlying substrate upon which those processes are built are in a period of flux—institutional knowledge changes rapidly. Information about processes can become stale, practical information about business methods changes, tools shift, and new knowledge skyrockets.
Technologies like cloud, big data, mobile, and other emerging trends are revolutionizing the way we interact with customers, changing “back office”, and changing the way we produce/ deliver goods and services. Moreover, many new technologies engender “shadow” adoption—it’s possible (in fact, common) for individuals employees, departments, or business units to adopt in “under the radar” fashion… i.e. without oversight by IT or without coordination with other areas. According to ISACA’s 2015 IT Risk/Reward Barometer, nearly half of global IT and cybersecurity professionals surveyed believe their IT department is not aware of all of their organization’s connected devices. This further increases the complexity for KM pros. The lack of central “ownership” raises the bar for identifying, capturing, and ultimately harnessing knowledge about usage.
The point is, these technologies without doubt have a positive impact on the business landscape: they add efficiencies, enhance business processes, reduce risk (in some cases), potentially reduce costs, and can make the business more fluid and agile. But while those benefits are happening, pressure is increased on KM pros. Fight Fire with Fire?
For the practically-minded, there are two important conclusions to draw from these facts. First, KM strategies that worked in the past may need to be rethought to be relevant going forward. Meaning, as new technologies emerge and the pace of advances increase, the tools and processes we have in place to capture and harness knowledge may need to be rethought.
"Just as emerging technology areas can have a beneficial impact on other business processes, so too can they be an important tool in the KM toolbox"
The specific actions you take in response to this will of course vary from organization to organization based on size, business landscape, culture, needs of the organization and numerous other factors. So unfortunately, there’s no “one size fits all” advice here. That said, systematically, carefully, and candidly evaluating existing KM structures is time well spent. Think through carefully and discuss openly what you need to do to ensure knowledge is captured, archived, and disseminated most effectively in light of changes in technology and business process. Think through how you “decommission” stale or inaccurate knowledge as the turnover of knowledge increases. Think through whether individuals have the best access to knowledge or whether new developments can help make it more accessible.
The second key point to note here is that “what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.” Meaning, just as emerging technology areas can have a beneficial impact on other business processes, so too can they be an important tool in the KM toolbox. Consider cloud and mobile for example. On the one hand, these technologies can disrupt and rapidly evolve business processes (which, as we know, is a headache when it comes to keeping knowledge artifacts fresh and relevant), but so too can they enable individuals to get access to institutional knowledge at any time, on any device, and from anywhere on the planet.
Technologies like big data analytics and social media revolutionize interactions that we have with customers and the analysis/conclusions that we draw as a result (again potentially leading to complexities with—and spoliation of— existing knowledge artifacts), but also can it be utilized to help drive knowledge management—for example in enabling analytics about what content is accessed most frequently, how users interact with it, and so forth. In other words, the same technology advances that are making KM more complex in some ways can also be used to help drive KM forward. The important part is how you respond—your posture to these new technologies as they arise. Are you best using advances to help capture knowledge and make sure it is available to folks as they do their jobs? Or are you locking end users into toolsets they don’t want to use and causing them to seek out other, untracked, and unmanaged channels to share information in ad hoc and piecemeal fashion?
The point is, it’s important to recognize that these technologies represent an area of challenge—but they recognize an area of opportunity as well. For those that embrace these technologies and can adapt their processes and tools to leverage these new opportunities, they—like the horse—can find that those forces drive their efforts forward. For those that can’t adapt, they might just find that they (like the Tarpan) have a much less successful outcome.