How to be a KM Guru #1

Over the years I’ve had the good fortune to observe and interact with a number of KM thought leaders and influencers, whether through online forums, workshops, conferences or collaboration. Fresh out of a round of conferences recently I found myself reflecting on the qualities of these strangely attractive figures. What raises them to godlike status, and how hard do they have to work at it? What are the different levels of godhood, and how can they be distinguished from ambitious con artists selling an empty dream?

Although I’m writing these tips with my tongue tucked halfway into my cheek, there’s also a serious side to this. In an immature domain of practice such as KM, with many relative novices embarking on initiatives with big ambitions and big implications for budgets and organisation effectiveness, the marketplace needs to learn how to distinguish authoritative voices selling genuine medicine from the rowdy purveyors of “MY Theory Is...” snake oil.

Gurus play an essential role in establishing and maintaining such authority structures. They validate new concepts partly through their own practice, and partly because they belong to a community of experts that sets individual ideas into wider contexts and frameworks. And because they are usually around for a long time, they build reputations on results, not just on self promotion.

We know the guru plays a critical role, because gurus are imitated. All of the attributes I’ll be covering in this series of posts are also simulated by charlatans who wish to appear like the ‘real’ thing, as well as by second and third rank wannabes trying to punch above their weight.

Over the next few weeks I plan to post at least ten tips, based on my observations, for those of you who aspire to such lofty heights. Not all of these attributes and activities are essential to achieve guru status, but you’ll need a strong combination of them to succeed.

Tip #1. Stake out your territory

If you want to be noticed, you have to stand out. Being a polymath and knowing everything about KM won’t get you to star status. To be a guru people need to be able to talk about you in the time it takes to ride an elevator. “You know Verna Allee? She’s the value networks expert” “Etienne Wenger? The communities of practice guy.” It’s therefore best to be associated with just one thing, which you must milk relentlessly. (In which case, you’d better bet on a focus that has plenty of mileage).

Unfortunately for the English language and jargon-free communication, this often also means inventing or appropriating your own unique vocabulary, because if the world at large adopts your language, they are more likely to see you as unique and special and buy your product. If you own the language, you own the territory, and if the territory attracts enough people, you not only acquire guruhood .you also out-compete the people who own neither language nor territory. You can change higher prices, for a start.

New language is not always bad. In the emergence of a new discipline like KM, it is often necessary to create a new working language so that practitioners can identify and describe new phenomena, or see existing phenomena in new ways, and work collaboratively around them. Etienne Wenger’s seminal book on Communities of Practice is a classic example of providing a new conceptual framework along with a vocabulary, with important practical implications. There is a strong conceptual novelty to underpin the language novelty.

This is distinguished from jargon where the novel language is pure spin and lacks any conceptual, practical or intellectual depth. The difficulty in KM arises when all guru wannabes see language imperialism as the road to success. Distinctive vocabulary loudly proclaimed from soap boxes is used to simulate guru status. And where audiences fail to check the authority of the noise, the scam may well achieve its goals.

The KM space becomes filled with a Babel of voices and terminologies, so that, to the novice practitioner, genuinely useful language is indistinguishable from meaningless babble. This is the fuel of cynicism and despair so far as sensible KM goes. Play the language game carefully therefore. The market is starting to mistrust empty clichés dressed up in fancy language and peppered with ™ and ® signs. There have been too many of them already, these empty vessels, full of loud promises but short on concrete results.

11 Comments so far


LOL i fully agree with u Patrick… there’re too many weird terminologies that are not only confusing but also have little operational meanings…

Posted on January 18, 2007 at 02:18 PM | Comment permalink

Another thought provoking article Patrick, but one that brings up a number of issues I’d love to get your feedback on. I appreciate that you are not advocating against having a wide breadth of knowledge concerning km principles and issues (who could know everything?), but to rather to concentrate on a specific area, i.e. PhD=Piled high and Deep. Your argument is one Peter Drucker would whole-hearted agree with if his self-management paper is any indication. However, I had problems with that article because playing to your strengths is an obvious way to advance quickly - but at what cost (is it a lowering of the ceiling to your potential)? Des Renfords quote ‘Nothing great is easy’ comes to mind.
Drucker does say you need to be aware of your weaknesses, but only that. Don’t waste time strengthening them - outsource those skills. But Sue Halbwirth makes a good point about the pro’s and con’s of outsourcing to consultants - while they may bring in fresh ideas and learn a lot of stuff about your business, what good are these ideas and memories if you don’t have access to them after they leave. Even if these skills are assembled in-house by creating project teams, isn’t a lot of time and energy wasted creating Nonakas’ notion of information redundancy amongst the team and Senges’ dialogue versus discussion argument in achieving consensus, or getting people to see through another lense or reframe an idea in the theatre of our mind? KM practitioners need to be free thinkers.
Also, if km is about enabling better decision making and creating an innovate environment then systems thinking and complexity theory must push for looking at problems with many lenses to see all the variables in the equation.
To me, KM seems like the connective tissue in an organsation. Nobody pays any attention to the road, only the scenery around them. We generally talk of eye-hand co-ordination when playing sports, not the speed of the synapses or muscle fibres. I agree with the notion that km is working best when its invisible, or embedded in unthinking, unconscious actions and attitudes. And that is why I also had an issue with this post. This is all a bit me-me, which can be forgiven given the topic (was the line you can change higher prices a bit of a freudian slip!)
My point is that km should be about trawling, not diving. Should we be the surface skimmers bringing together all the flotsam and jetsom of everyday life for the experts to examine, or should we be investing our time and energy in finding scarce pearls ourselves.
As a new parent I catch myself saying one thing yet displaying the opposite with my attitude or actions. I guess we shouldn’t expect perfection, as this will only cause us grief, but we can aim to do things with integrity, and if that means remaining anonymous - then so be it, even if that means we won’t be inheriting the earth - its the sacrifice we agree to in taking on this job.

Posted on January 19, 2007 at 08:03 PM | Comment permalink


Hi Andrew, thanks so much for this, I was hoping it might provoke some thoughtful responses, and this is certainly that!

I think I probably need to amplify and couple of things about the post - I’m not really talking about KM in general here, but “how to be a guru” in particular, and there IS an element of tongue in cheek here (the bit about charging more is both true but intended to be cheeky, not a Freudian slip)...

as a consequence, I think it’s perfectly compatible to say on the one hand that there’s space for “narrow and deep” specialists who can push agendas in depth and inform the profession at large… and on the other hand that at the implementation workface, KM practitioners do need to be polymaths, or at very least have access to a wide range of backgrounds, competencies and skills perhaps via a supporting community of practice or an implementation team. There’s an ecosystem, and this post was just looking at one element in that ecosystem.

I was not suggesting that gurus represent KM at large - I do think they play an important role in validating and integrating KM knowledge and practice. Other people do as well, or course.

There is indeed a place for the meek, and perhaps when I’ve done with gurus, I should do something on those? Or perhaps someone meeker than me should do that job? wink

Thanks so much for this Andrew.

Posted on January 20, 2007 at 02:09 AM | Comment permalink

Hi Patrick, thank you - your generosity puts my post to shame.
I guess I was upset because I’d been dealing with demanding Marketing types all day. A profession that seems to draw personalities who seem generally (here we go again!) to be great takers but poor givers. I always thought the meek would never inherit the earth because some marketing silver tongue would exploit their compassionate vunerability and get them to hand it over. So yes, we very much need the balance of strength that the Guru provides in helping us remove our doubts and strengthen our convictions.
Added to my frustration that I felt (specifically at that point in time - tidal complexity coming in?), was the feeling that I had been disappointment by a person whose opinion I respect - the cruelest cut of all.
Most of my accusations I made I was guilty of committing myself - i.e. a me-me attitude by going off on completely my own tangents without bringing it back to the topic, and creating a counter-argument of a discussive nature rather than employing dialogue. Apologies.
I’ve been accused many times of throwing hand-grenades simply for the sake of provoking a reaction, but I like to think I do it because we ALL need our thinking challenging occasionally (and because I have a wide mischevious streak), but it does have risks and can be misinterpreted (especially without having ever met physically and in mere words that can be taken in completely the opposite meaning intended). I feel we tend to react so automatically to patterns that we recognise (as I did) that our underlying assumptions are kept safely wrapped up from harm. However, in such a changing environment we need more than ever to remain flexible and adaptable, something I think all Guru’s do very well.
Thank YOU Patrick, your posting displayed abilities that would make you an excellent author for expanding on the role of meekness in an ecosystem - Cheers.
P.S. The freudian slip reference was to the spelling mistake of using changing rather than charging in the sentence, which was the spark that ignited that red mist in my head.

Posted on January 21, 2007 at 05:36 PM | Comment permalink

It’s me again Patrick - I hope I’m not bothering you with my whining but your article and my current situation and attitude has really got me quite fired up as I prevaricate between the for and against arguments.
I quite got into the notion of Knowledge literacy last year - self awareness, the ability to collaborate, knowing how you learn, i.e. I think I learn best by talking, and this forum is a great venue for putting down the chatter between the good and bad attitudes in my head.
So anyway - back to the topic and the KM notions of relationships between the hierarchy of data - information - knowledge - (wisdom). Kim Sbarcea pushed some complexity readings towards a reflective assignment I was writing, and they were a revelation for me. System thinking also helped me realise the limitations of my own “theatre of mind” and that I protected my assumptions through argument rather than dialogue (here I go again, again!).
The term Guru (for me) tends to imply they are worth blindly following - almost the Confucian learning model of blindly adopting and adapting rather than understanding through dispute. Dialogue allows two diverse thoughts to be brought together and thus enable creativity and for business, innovation. This incongruity of ideas helps us look at problems as opportunities ("An optimist sees opportunities in every danger; the pessimist sees danger in every opportunity” Churchill).
I would also want my Guru’s to display the humility of wisdom, as confidence so easily slips into arrogance. Here are some pertinent quotes from Kitchener and Brenner on Wisdom and Reflective Judgement: knowing in the face of uncertainty - which mirror some of Dave Snowdens KM heuristics.
1. “A comprehensive grasp of knowledge characterised by both breadth and depth”
2. “A recognition that knowledge is uncertain and that it is not possible for truth to be absolutely knowable.
Sorry for the venting again, I feel much better now and will take a Becs and have a little lie down.

Posted on January 23, 2007 at 10:23 AM | Comment permalink


Oops… I hadn’t spotted the “charge-change” thing… and given those two letters are not proximate on the keyboard, there may well have been Freudian forces at work!!

But what could it mean? What would Freud say?

Posted on January 23, 2007 at 10:36 AM | Comment permalink


I think it’s hard actually to blindly follow gurus… KM gurus that is. One of the main reasons is that to become widely relevant you need to speak from an elevation of about 35,000 feet, which means what you say is too generalised to be followed “blindly” in specific circumstances. There’s always going to be an interpretation gap.

I like what you say about dialogue, and feel that too little of it goes on - you mention Dave Snowden, and to my mind he’s a great positive example of the kind of guru you describe - he mixes it up with “real” KM practitioners on a number of forums, he’s not afraid to discuss specifics. He can be a little intimidating for some people to engage with, which may inhibit the dialogue, but he’s open, and he spends the time and energy to engage. He’s also a very generous sharer.

As for arrogance, it is a danger in guru-hood. The way we elevate “experts” reinforces that tendency, and many gurus do become distant from their audiences, not only in abstraction, but also in manner. At the KMAP conference in Hong Kong recently I really liked the way the keynotes all participated in the full event, chatted with participants, mixed around at the conference dinners. There should be more of that. Not merely for good manners, and for keeping themselves human, but also because gurus can’t continue to support practitioners if they become increasingly removed from the nuts and bolts of practitioner contexts.

My blog says you posted this comment at 10.36am ... isn’t it too early for a Becs and a lie-down?

Posted on January 23, 2007 at 10:51 AM | Comment permalink

G’day Patrick,
I’ve always found its never too early to lay down - I prostate myself before your Guruhood,
P.S. I get accused of throwing hand grenades at my work, but I’ve always believed that pearls come from a piece of irritating grit. Great teams need to be challenged and accept diversity of thinking - your post about KM guru’s listening to the unwashed gives me back my hope that KM practitioners can make a difference (with the support of Gurus)
P.S.S. I’ve just been listening to Neil Youngs Greendale, and what a great story about Change Management through a journey of growth. Don’t know what this has got to do with the topic other than Neil being a bit of a guru for me and that I got a lot out of his story behind the music and how it relates to MY current situation
P.S.S.S. Our time stamps are way out of synch and it really is time for me to give it a rest. “A man with a watch always knows what time is it, the man who works in a clock shop never can be certain.”

Posted on January 23, 2007 at 06:08 PM | Comment permalink

A dialogue for balance

Is life like playing a game, or is it like tending a garden – or is it really both?

Do we need to work endlessly at weeding our garden plots so our plants can grow to their full potential, or perhaps too much work and seriousness makes Jack a dull boy – rigid in thought and incapable of change? Do we need to take the time out to smell those roses by being a little more relaxed and enjoying what we have through play, especially after a hard day in the field?

Is this the classical Cartesian split between mind and body put another way? Insight comes through action (bodily), Intuition comes through reflection (thinking), don’t we need both? One can’t exist without the other.

I’ve been steaming in off the long run-up lately and firing in the short ones, hoping for some blood or broken bones. Pretty nasty stuff really. I’ve been hurt and want to lash out: share than pain. Maybe a good short-term strategy, but without variety I’ll soon be getting knocked for six. Better to provide some slower stuff that draws the batter forward, allowing dolly-drop bat pad catches, or a stumping through their own arrogance. Help them see their own flaws in a gentle way, rather than get them offside by being defensive.

“A little bit of love and affection makes the world a better place, with or without you”
Neil Young, Greendale 2003

The new Vice-Chancellor of UNSW has a vision – one that doesn’t include students or teachers. He criticised the former VC for investing too much in buildings and teaching, neglecting the research figures that are one factor that is used to rank Universities.

Universities, in general, have been accused of not understanding their real reason for existence. It’s not about big dicking, but about developing social capital, so that even those that don’t attend university can enjoy their benefits. We focus on enrolments, not learning outcomes – and this is where the measures should be.

“Sun got busted for pot, but then the judges got drunk and things got confused.”
Neil Young, Greendale 2003.

Fred has been described as living in a Zen Den – a guru unto himself displaying top down, hierarchical management. No bottom-up feedback from the coalface being distributed by middle-management. They are handed the gun and told to pull the trigger, not a pleasant job, and smacks of the propaganda used by the SS on their own members. I don’t think he realises his shit does stink because he has surrounded himself with like thinkers. I’m seeing Enron, WorldCom, One.Tel all over again, as we fish tail our way down the road because our feedback loops are not immediate. We need more variety of thought to correct our direction.

I read your posting on profiles of community members, and I didn’t like who I resembled. If I can’t make my actions reflect my words then who is the hypocrite? We need to start walking the talk if anyone is to be considered with enough respect to be placed on a pedestal as a guru

To me, it seems that KM is about giving till it hurts. The greatest gift is giving, I do believe we get back what we give. So should KM be are the horse that runs itself to death (Should a KM manager still have a job after three to five years?). Is that why we have foundations in library science and education? And is that why we are sort of jacks of all trades, and really master of none: just assembling and connecting the communities of experts (risk management, compliance, strategy, etc, etc) so all views can be considered in making better decisions and creating innovative solutions?

Posted on January 27, 2007 at 01:27 AM | Comment permalink


You are clearly going through a hard time right now Andrew! I’d say above all that KM should not be injurious to your health.

I’ve never seen a case where KM has been an easy task - it is, after all, against nature to scale knowledge sharing, common disciplines and trust on an organisation-wide basis, and politics often gets in the way.

But when it comes down to it, certain basic things need looking after. Nobody will thank us for being martyrs to the cause.

And as you suggest early on in your comment, there are ways of bending with the flow and finding a gentler path. I find when I run into direct opposition it’s always a good strategy to use the opposite tactics from them - ie if they are aggressive, be nice, if they are deceitful, be direct, etc etc.

But in most cases, what feels like opposition is often just the inertia of the organisation’s culture and infrastructure - too many things need undoing and re-weaving to get KM going - and in this case, burning ourselvges out gets us nowhere. We’ve got to knuckle down to the detailed painstaking task of identifying the threads that are in our way, unpicking them, and aligning them with what we need to achieve.

And yes, librarians and educators are good at that sort of thing where the soapbox hero is not.

Posted on January 27, 2007 at 05:36 PM | Comment permalink

Cheers for your response Patrick, you’ve demonstrated that I’ve been confusing leaders with Guru’s: one commands the other listens… Nice to see someone walking the talk and providing the opportunity for me to see things through another lens. How much do you charge/change as a psychoanalyst? (Q. How many psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb - A. Only one, but the light bulbs really gotta wanna change...) Is a coincidence that todays calendar quote was Tolstoys’, “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.”. You’re so much better than a Bex.

Posted on January 29, 2007 at 08:02 PM | Comment permalink

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