One of the things our company Straits Knowledge does, is help clients build a knowledge management strategy, help them figure out what should go into an implementation roadmap and often even help them define supporting programmes and build action plans.

Some of these clients have had experience in doing small scale experimental KM through a variety of projects and initiatives, and now they want to broaden and integrate their efforts – this often comes from the need to start reaping larger scale value from previous knowledge management efforts. 

Enterprise knowledge management brings its own challenges, and many of them come from the need to understand and address an organisation’s infrastructure. I have written about this challenge at some length in an article called “Why KM is Hard To Do”.

However, when we characterize the problem as a function of infrastructure it is still very tempting to see this as a technical problem – ie that there is an approach or a method or a series of steps we can go through to solve it. I have been reminded very recently that techniques are not enough – that human moral attributes also play a critical role.


The reminder comes from a problem I have alluded to in previous posts. Every now and then, a client’s KM team will struggle with the strategy and roadmap we bring back to them. The response will be “this is too complicated, please make it simpler”.

This is despite the fact that the content of the strategy and the roadmap has been developed by the managers of the organization themselves, built from agendas and priorities that they have collectively defined. Our role has simply been to guide them through the building process in a structured series of steps.

So we are always a bit puzzled when this reaction comes back. We used to think that this was purely a “lost in translation” problem – that the client’s KM teams were simply not equipped because of a lack of KM background knowledge and experience to handle the full range of steps involved – tracking business goals through to a knowledge based view of strategy, focusing on prioritized needs, visualising what supporting programmes would look like, and what infrastructural support is required, planning the necessary steps to get there.


And indeed, the teams that are most likely to come back with the “it’s too complicated” response do usually suffer from lack of experience or a lack of continuity (eg with staff turnover during the KM strategy building process).

I have also wondered whether the strategies and roadmaps we produce do get more complicated and unwieldy the less involvement we get from senior management acting as a cohesive team. Where we get deeper senior management involvement, we tend to get clearer guidance on prioritization, and this obviously helps to maintain a focus on critical objectives and filter out distractor issues.

As you move down the hierarchy in terms of involvement, or where senior management does not act as a cohesive team, the more likely you are to have to balance competing priorities. This adds complexity.


But all along, I have been assuming that the “it’s too complicated” problem has been a communication problem resting with us. The way we frame and present the strategy is too complicated and unwieldy to understand and communicate onwards. It’s our fault. The ball is in our court. Somehow, I reasoned, we have to make the presentation of the strategy, roadmap, etc, clearer, cleaner and simpler to understand.

Our clients have often framed their hesitation in this way, and so it has seemed to be a perfectly justified assumption. “Tell us how we should implement this step by step” they might say. And we’ve done a lot of things to support this need – I think the way we present and communicate the frameworks and blueprints has improved a lot as a result, but the “it’s complicated” response hasn’t been addressed in the slightest.


But last week I had a revelation. A client who had raised the “it’s too complicated problem” sent me their “simplified” version back. And suddenly I understood what was gong on. They had stripped out almost everything that involved having to influence or coordinate the activities of other departments. The only stuff left was stuff that was within their current “safe” span of control. It was a classic case of the Mullah Nasrudin’s falcon.

“Nasrudin found a weary falcon sitting one day on his window-sill. He had never seen a bird like this before. ‘You poor thing’, he said, ‘how ever were you to allowed to get into this state?’ He clipped the falcon’s talons and cut its beak straight, and trimmed its feathers. ‘Now you look more like a bird,’ said Nasrudin.” (via Dave Snowden)

Now this is a serious problem for this organization, and it was one that they had, ironically, already acknowledged. One of their biggest problems, fully acknowledged and explicitly addressed in the knowledge management strategy they developed, is their inability to work effectively across divisional boundaries.

Whenever they need to work across organizational boundaries they go into super-slow mode: decisions have to go high up the hierarchy because, there are no routines or habits or informal relationships in place at operational levels to carry both planned and provisional coordination activities. So managers micro-manage and become decision bottlenecks. At the same time, this organisation’s environment is demanding more integrated, larger-scale, coordinated, and faster responses.

So KM is supposed to address the cross-boundary coordination problem but the KM team has written out any cross-boundary coordination responsibility. The very problem the KM strategy was meant to address is the cause of the “this is too complicated” response on the part of the KM team, and has been explicitly written out of the KM team’s version of the strategy – which now offers the same mix of vague knowledge sharing propaganda ( “building a KM culture” ) and centralised technology interventions that they had in place – and which were not working – before they engaged us to do a “more comprehensive” KM strategy. Their falcon has been turned back into a sparrow.

Now if this were not so sad, it would be funny. I don’t think these people are bad people. This is not a blatant case of “we just want to look like we are doing KM so help us pretend and we’ll pay you your money”. I think they are timid, and specifically, intimidated by the difficulties of what the strategy calls for them to do. I think they think it’s undoable, especially if their mandate is to show results in a short space of time. There are just too many dependencies on other people’s collaboration with no current assurance of senior management back-up (this was one case where the strategy process was conducted with the second line of management not the top line).

Which brings me to the moral qualities necessary to do KM on an enterprise scale. It is, let’s face it, fiendishly difficult, even if you have a lot going for you in terms of skills and experience, manpower resources, management support, and a clear mandate.


KM on an enterprise scale is essentially about being able to orchestrate a wide variety of activities at many different levels (operating at both strategic and operational levels), fielding distractions and being able to stay focused on what’s critical, and improvising around emerging opportunities and risks – often these opportunities and risks are political ones.

Technical ability and experience is obviously incredibly important for success. So is the ability to engage senior management, getting their active involvement, keeping them in the loop and periodically calling them to account for their commitment.

But it’s often not enough. To do all of this you also need gumption. You need a special moral quality comprised of determination, persistence, patience, and an ability to shrug off setbacks and start again.

Some people characterize this as passion – which I have some hesitations about. Passion doesn’t embody the intelligence and pragmatism you need to bring to bear on an effort such as this. Atul Gawande talks about diligence, “doing right” and ingenuity and points to the incredible performance gains that diligence, singlemindedness and determination bring to the treatment of cystic fibrosis. I’m going to stick with gumption.

Let me repeat that technical knowledge and experience in the KM team are also critical. Gumption in the absence of this is quite likely to end up with foolhardy, stubborn and misplaced effort (which is where I see passion’s risk as well). But without gumption, even technical knowledge often hits the wall of “it’s too complicated”. Gumption and knowledge are co-dependent.

In my client’s case, I have a difficult message to convey. The process they took their managers through came up with a falcon, so I can’t endorse or promote to their senior management the “refined” sparrow strategy as they desire.

If they can come up with neither the internal gumption to plug away at what they need to do, nor get a champion and support at a sufficiently senior level of management, then my advice has to be that they are just not ready for enterprise level knowledge management, and should stick to their smaller scale projects with scaled down expectations for outcomes.

Given the effort and resources they have already expended that is not a message that they will enjoy hearing. Wish me luck.

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