New Critique of Knowledge Management Given in Keynote at Global Convention

Transforming Knowledge Management

Speech to Dubai Global Convention on Business Excellence
Burj Al Arab, Dubai, May 1st 2013

Prof. Colin Coulson-Thomas* – Keynote 2

How can we transform knowledge management to increase its impact on business performance?

Knowledge is increasing at an exponential rate. Some of it is trivial and mundane. Some of it is innovative and profound. Some of it is useful. Some of it is potentially harmful.

Much of the knowledge that is available can be accessed in seconds via a search engine. Should we be delighted or concerned?

How much of what is found is relevant to current challenges and opportunities? Does it increase our understanding?

People with issues used to discuss them and select what was felt to be the best course of action for resolving them. Now people stare into screens and go-online.

This may or may not be helpful depending upon what is found and its relevance and value. Are people just browsing and interacting rather than thinking and acting?

How could knowledge management contribute more to the delivery of key corporate objectives? What needs to change? Is a different approach required?

I explored these questions for a new report – Transforming Knowledge Management. It follows a five-year search for quicker, more affordable and less disruptive ways of creating high performance organisations.

I will briefly summarise some key findings of this and related reports.

Knowledge management needs to be transformed. The achievements of traditional approaches have fallen short of expectations. Many organisations have failed to derive anticipated benefits from knowledge management initiatives. Their focus, justification and returns on investment need to be addressed.

Is knowledge management just another fad put about by consultants to drum up new business? Its use has often been more limited than their rhetoric suggests.

Widespread references to knowledge management have given it a profile and standing that may not be justified in terms of the extent and value of its adoption.

Yet the sharing of useful and relevant knowledge can increase understanding and be a source of competitive advantage.

When relevant know-how is made available as and when and wherever required, it can increase performance and contribute to the delivery of multiple objectives. So what is going wrong and what needs to be done?

Many organisations just load information and knowledge onto a corporate intranet or other central repository. Assembly of knowledge sometimes takes priority over its utility and deployment.

More information per se does not necessarily increase understanding.

What is captured and shared is often ‘commodity knowledge’ that is available to others. It does not differentiate or represent a source of competitive advantage.

It is hard to stand out, innovate and become a market leader by copying everyone else.

Last week I addressed a corporate learning summit in Chicago. Corporate learning has much to answer for.

Investigations for my Developing a Corporate Learning Strategy report revealed that people are offered general programmes rather than the specific and personalised support they need to be effective in their jobs.

Training and development inputs are not giving rise to intellectual capital outputs. Many people draw from the wells of corporate knowledge. Far fewer add to them.

I also led the investigation for the Managing Intellectual Capital to Grow Shareholder Value report. We looked at 20 areas of intellectual capital and found that even the best companies were only effectively managing a few of them.

Categories of know-how managed are not always the ones offering the biggest potential for additional income.

Some companies could be many times their size if they fully exploited their corporate know-how.

Imagine what these companies could achieve if they also properly exploited what their best people knew.

We need to step up from information and knowledge management to knowledge entrepreneurship.

Thirty seven possible revenue generating services using readily available information are listed in my book The Knowledge Entrepreneur.

Many potentially useful categories of know-how are not fully exploited because they are thought to be in formats that cannot be easily managed. No company need have this problem.

There are knowledge frameworks that can handle a variety of formats from visual images and animations to audio and film recordings. They enable people to work with know-how and they can support applications on a range of mobile devices.

When people tell me how much they know, my immediate reaction is often “so what?”

Can you get hold of it when you need help? What does it enable you to do differently? How relevant is it? Is it up-to-date? Is it job-related?

Relevance is critical. People, work groups and organisations need access to knowledge that is relevant to what they are seeking to accomplish and relevant to particular challenges, decisions and opportunities they face.

We are drowning in information. Yet obtaining help as and when it is required is often a problem.

Ideally, people should be able to access personalised knowledge and support that is relevant to a particular job, case, issue or situation wherever they might be, including when on the move.

A crucial distinction is that between ‘knowledge about things’ and ‘knowledge of how best to do things’. There are people who know a great deal about the theory of accounting who I would not ask to prepare a set of accounts.

Many knowledge management teams focus on meeting the information support needs of people in central departments. ‘Walking overheads’ in corporate head offices use this information to justify their roles.

Reporting a problem is different from dealing with it. Action – whether winning more business or building better customer relationships – is often in the hands of certain key work groups in ‘front-line’ roles.

These are the people that knowledge management should be supporting.

What do high performers do differently in these important and often difficult jobs? It’s not a state secret. I’ve led investigations for over 20 reports that set out critical success factors for key corporate activities.

There is considerable upside potential. Superstars may be only very effective at less than half of the identified critical success factors. The performance of every organisation examined could be greatly improved.

Knowledge management needs to re-focus upon helping key work groups to excel by adopting the superior approaches of high performers.

This is the world of performance-focused knowledge support. This is where knowledge management can make a significant contribution to business excellence.

Re-focused and personalised it can help us to create high performance organisations that remain current, competitive and vital.

A related report Talent Management 2 also shows that multiple benefits for individuals, organisations and the environment can be quickly obtained by working with one’s existing people and without requiring a change of corporate culture or structure.

Even if culture change could be achieved, it might not be desirable. Why should an organisation with employees and customers from a variety of nationalities, religions and cultures want a common corporate culture? The creative culture of the advertising team may not be right for those preparing annual accounts.

The Transforming Public Services report shows advantages such as low barriers to entry and cost-effectiveness also apply to the public sector.

Performance support can enable people to cope with new requirements and changes of policy and priorities that occur at different stages of a transformation journey.

Talking of journeys – Many corporate initiatives promise jam tomorrow rather than a measurable contribution to key corporate objectives today.

Speed of impact can be vital. Competition is relentless. If today’s problems are not addressed, and new windows of opportunity are not quickly seized, a company may not have a tomorrow.

Business excellence – and other management approaches – sometimes lead to restructuring and the loss of knowledge.

They do not result in the provision of better support which can lead to a wide range of benefits, including greater flexibility, faster responses and lower operating costs.

A period of slack can be a good time to take stock and re-focus.

When the world economy is booming – and competitors are fully booked- almost any fool can make money.

During recessions and economic down-turns smart companies take steps to differentiate and secure competitive advantage.

Appropriate support can have a quick and direct impact on performance by focusing on knowledge of how to do things and – in particular – how to excel at difficult jobs.

It requires a shift of emphasis from ‘knowing’ to ‘doing’ and the provision of relevant help.

It can enable average operators to access and adopt relevant critical success factors and the superior approaches of high achievers as and when and wherever required.

The benefits of performance support also include higher productivity, bespoke responses, reduced stress and evidenced compliance.

It can also eliminate certain traditional trade offs. For example, it may be possible to simultaneously improve quality, cut costs and save time.

Adopters have also achieved returns on investment of over 20, 30 or 70 times within months rather than years.

Some users of business excellence models initiate too many projects. People end up confused and are pulled in different directions.

Performance-focused knowledge support works best when applied to key work groups – such as people who win bids or buy.

Boards need to break free from the embrace of C-suite executives and ensure that those in important front-line jobs are a priority and properly supported.

Boards should challenge initiatives rather than assume their desirability.

Knowledge management, talent management, change management and corporate learning can all be transformed.

Performance support can complement business excellence – in some cases rescuing it and in others increasing its impact.

For its benefits to be fully realised, director and board leadership may have to change.

‘New leadership’ shifts the emphasis from motivating and managing people to helping them.

It is less focused upon ‘command and control’, planning and top-down approaches and more concerned with implementation and ‘bottom-up’ support.

Rather than hope that something will turn up, ‘new leaders’ ensure key workgroups that deliver priority corporate objectives are better supported.

There is uncertainty and insecurity in many boardrooms. Personalised performance support can help people to cope. It can prepare vital workgroups for an unknown future.

Performance support can make things happen by helping people to do what is needed to succeed.

Smart boards ensure that people are equipped and enabled to do what is required in a winning way.

To compete and win one rarely needs to be excellent at everything. Many areas are neither visible to customers, nor sources of competitive advantage.

One should prioritise and focus. Success usually depends on certain critical success factors in particular areas and not the widespread adoption of general competences.

‘New leadership’ is characterised by focus. Assembling corporate knowledge can create a potential. Whether or not this is effectively used will depend upon the quality and relevance of the knowledge collected and how it is used and deployed.

In themselves management approaches, methodologies and tools also represent potential. They offer possibilities.

The extent to which they help us or harm us depends upon how we use them – what we apply them to and for what purpose.

Knowledge-based support could be applied to a fundamental problem or to a trivial issue.

It should be focused upon core activities and key jobs that deliver priority corporate objectives.

It can also be conducive of social networking across communities and within work groups. People should be encouraged to share insights, hints and tips – particularly about better ways of doing things.

Endeavouring to avoid all risks can lead to stagnation and missed opportunities. Building checks into performance support can allow business leaders to both liberate people and prevent unwanted actions. It can enable policy implementation and responsible innovation.

People can be set free to develop bespoke responses to individual customer requirements.

Support has to address the realities of busy people working in dynamic contexts. Automatic updating ensures they have the latest version and comply with changing policies, regulations and laws.

‘Top-down’ leadership may not deliver the advantages which a change of emphasis and focus could bring.

We need to transform knowledge management. We need ‘new leadership’. We need an alternative ‘bottom-up’ approach to creating high performance organisations.

With these in place we could simultaneously achieve progress on several fronts. Business excellence could become a reality.

*Prof Colin Coulson-Thomas, an experienced Process Vision Holder of successful transformation programmes, chairman of award winning companies and a Change Agent and Transformation Leader award winner is author of ‘Transforming Knowledge Management’, ‘The Knowledge Entrepreneur’ and over 40 other books and reports. He has helped over 100 boards to improve director, board and corporate performance and spoken at over 200 national and international events in over 40 countries. He was the world’s first professor of corporate transformation and now has a part-time role at the University of Greenwich. His latest reports including Transforming Knowledge Management are available from and he can be contacted via


10 Jul 2013
Colin Coulson-Thomas