How to be a KM Guru #2

This is the second in a series of posts exploring what it is to be a KM Guru, and the role that they play in the KM professional space. It’s a little tongue in cheek, but also has its serious side. The first post and ensuing discussion is here.

Tip #2. Be Accessible

To be a successful guru in KM, people from a wide range of backgrounds need to be able to understand you. One of the main objectives of staking out your territory (see Tip #1) is making sure that you can easily be associated with a particular domain, and recalled with great ease during an elevator ride. This won’t happen if people don’t understand what you are constantly going on about. To be a guru you must simplify. This is assuming you are a genuine guru, and have a handle on genuinely complex things (as distinct from a fake guru who only knows how to complicate simple things - Dave Snowden, by the way, has recently suggested that fake gurus be tarred and feathered - is there a digital equivalent to this community-based punishment, or should we reserve special sessions at KM conferences?).

Simplification is encouraged by the economics of gurudom. Gurus, contrary to popular perception (at least as far as I can see) don’t make a lot of money out of KM – they might make a comfortable living, and they get to spend lots of time doing what fascinates them, which is a great luxury, but nobody is going to get rich out of KM anywhere outside a small percentage of software companies. (This, by the way, is why it’s attractive to be able to claim guru-hood and hence command higher fees – gurudom can lift you by a degree of comfort from the harsh battlefields of KM).

So gurus typically don’t have self-marketing budgets and they get their large scale exposure in two main ways – (a) by being flown around the world by commercial conference providers to give keynote presentations, and (b) by publishing articles in leading journals and books with leading publishers.

Now commercial conference providers (the ones who pay your airfares and hotel fees) really cater to novices who are trying to get to grips with KM for the first time. Who else would pay such ridiculous fees for those party-packs of (apart from genuine guru material) motherhood statements, incredulously delivered obvious truths, self-serving case studies and vendor sales pitches? So of course, if that’s the prime audience, any specialist worth her salt will tune her material to her audience. She dumbs down. (I’m being gender ambivalent here, male gurus dumb down too). If she doesn’t she doesn’t get invited back, and the other events on the circuit don’t invite her either.

The same goes for getting published. Anyone who’s tried to get published particularly in American management or business journals will know that they have very strict guidelines on understandibility. I have, somewhere in a long lost archive, an email from the editor of Sloan Management Review from several years ago, saying something like “this is a great article but you have to understand many of our subscribers are business leaders, and they just won’t have the patience to work their way through this.” I never got to the bottom of what this entailed, probably shorter in length, shorter sentences and shorter words. Or maybe I was just being un-American in the way I spelt “rigour”. And I have to say this was not an esoteric footnoted academic piece. Take a look at it and see what you think.

“Business leaders have the attention span of a butterfly” somebody else told me – and the assumption behind that comment was that this was just a fact of life, and when we write for them, we should pander to that.

Dave Snowden has complained in the past about the popularist policies of Harvard Business Review (HBR) – the same thing in relation to books goes for the Harvard Business School Press and its peers – and this is part of the same phenomenon. No specialist-practitioner divide here, you might think, perhaps it’s not a bad thing to be accessible.

Except that it creates two tiers of professional literature in KM – the popularist, Hollywood-like “there’s always a happy ending” themes of the popular KM-slash-management press – always focused on the fad of the week, discovering wonderful new things that nobody knew before, and wow, there’s billions of dollars to be made/saved here… and the deep, narrow academic “we’re not interested in the real world except to the extent they provide research opportunities” academic press.

I’m convinced, I’m unhappy to say, that there’s a formula to writing for the popular management press – even those of great renown – so that as with a certain genre of romance novel, one could, on thin evidence but with the right formula, get good and repeated exposure in that press. Maybe with HBR it’s harder now with Tom Stewart, a classic KM guru, at the helm – he’s a true blue journalist and will spot flim flam with a keener eye than an enthusiastic income-minded professor might.

If these outrageous suggestions are true, then it would mean that thin ideas based on a rah rah rah enthusiasm can get floated around in the same mixture as really good stuff that’s been watered down to look like the latest flim flam enthusiasm based on a passing fad. That’s a bit of a shame, because it makes guru-hood really, really easy to imitate.

Shouldn’t we rather be expecting more intellectual ability from the people who lead our billion-dollar businesses, and make decisions affecting the livelihoods and welfares of hundreds of thousands of people, not to mention the social, economic and environmental impact of their actions? Shouldn’t we be expecting our academic colleagues to work harder at talking to the agendas of organisations and businesses instead of maintaining their own eccentric orbits, taking the odd snapshot of curiously human behaviours from two miles up against a backwash of deadpan and mechanical literature reviews and forced through bizarre statistical filters? Shouldn’t we be asking everybody to think?

If you want a really good example of what I’m talking about, compare Etienne Wenger’s original book Communities of Practice (1998) with his more recent (coauthored) Cultivating Communities of Practice (2002). Okay, the original book is not a light read, but my goodness it’s rich. The “Cultivating” book, a classic product of the Harvard machine, is competent enough, but it’s not going to help anybody past a basic awareness level. It establishes some vocabulary and principles, it gives you some nice ways of structuring an approach to CoPs, and then it abandons you at the gate of doing anything practical. It’s chewing gum. Chewing gum for geeks, but chewing gum nevertheless. The 1998 book forces you to stop and think and make connections. You go back to it. You remember it when you bump into a problem or an issue. It flexes you.

So I don’t really like the fact that you don’t really make it in KM (as a guru) unless you can simplify. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for promoting the ability to communicate complex ideas to diverse audiences in accessible ways. But this persistent, pervasive dumbing down (a) makes really good stuff indistinguishable from articulate nonsense (b) encourages academics to stay in their elitist holier than thou ivory towers, and© DOESN’T make business leaders think, nay encourages them in their sloppy thinking and cranial laziness. Thereby lies another tale of why we shouldn’t complain about messes we allow ourselves to get into – as shareholders, as employees and as voters.

But hey, I don’t make the rules. If you really want to be a KM guru, you know what to do. I do not have the secret recipe for how to get into Harvard Business Review, by the way, don’t ask me.

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