Universities and KM Practice

Back in September I wrote a post called Of Conferences, Chatauquas and Boundary Objects, suggesting that the old commercial KM conference model shows signs of fracturing, and that universities were playing an increasing role in bringing together thought leaders, researchers and practitioners in KM.

Just recently, two events appear to confirm that. Yesterday a little bird told me that KM conference and event heavyweight Ark Group is shutting down its Asian operations. If that’s true then it bears out my suspicion that the “charge ‘em high, fly in gurus, preach to novices, and pander to vendors” business model is indeed starting to crack, at least in the smaller more fragmented markets.

And last week I attended KMAP 2006 in Hong Kong, organised by The Hong Kong Polytechnic University (disclosure: I teach for them) the City University of Hong Kong and the Hong Kong Knowledge Management Society. (Pictures courtesy of David Gurteen and others here). For what is normally an academic conference, it took an unusual format: the first day was a daisy chain of heavyweight KM gurus (among whom Sveiby, Edvinsson, Snowden), and then for the second and third days the conference split into academic and practitioner tracks (this organised by the HK KM Society).

It’s an unusual model, one that we in iKMS tried for the inaugural iCKM conference back in 2004. Despite its intrinsic difficulties, I still believe this is a model worth trying, because the gaps in understanding and focus are still far too wide between academics and practitioners – many academics play citation and publication games with little reference to real KM issues on the ground, and many practitioners have insufficient rigour behind their enthusiasms. If we are to build a discrete professional discipline, we need to bring the different worlds together into some kind of productive conversation. But the gaps are not easily bridged, and this inserted tensions into our iCKM experience as well as the KMAP conference last week, though both are what I’d describe as successes.

Even more interesting was the turnout at KMAP last week. At its peak, there were close to 700 delegates in the conference hall during the keynotes day – this is a number unmatched in Asia for a straight KM conference as far as I know – and though it’s got a steady and growing range of KM initiatives in both public and private sectors, Hong Kong is not generally noted for its KM enthusiasm. Previous KM conferences in Hong Kong have drifted around the 100 participants mark.

Of this number perhaps a quarter were from public sector organisations in Hong Kong, demonstrating a growing interest there. But there were also delegates from private sector companies and delegates from mainland China, Malaysia, New Zealand, Iran, UK, USA, Finland, Sweden, Germany, and Australia. Some of this diversity is what you’d expect from an academic conference, it’s what universities can contribute to the conference scene.

But the particular strategy and role of the HKPolyU also played a significant role, I believe. HKPolyU (more precisely the Dept of Industrial and Systems Engineering) is unusual among universities with KM on their agendas. They do research, and they have a Master’s in KM course, to be sure, as do other universities. More than that, however, their KM group has been aggressively building a strong KM consulting practice in both private and public sectors – not as sidelines for their professors and teachers, but as a kind of action research learning experience for both the clients and the KM group itself.

This is interesting. Most KM consulting work is done, to be frank, in secret. Organisations are frequently uncertain about their KM pathways, and often reluctant to share until they have some results. Similarly, private sector consultants tend not to want to share until their assignments are complete and they are confident of keeping competitors at bay. This means that in novice KM markets, KM activity is opaque, and it’s hard for beginners to see many visible examples of KM in action. This multiplies the initial uncertainties and hesitancies. In an action research kind of context with a university, the picture – at least in Hong Kong – seems to have shifted. KM work becomes more visible, so onlookers are encouraged to explore and experiment. This is a major factor, I believe, behind the strong turnout at KMAP – there are now sufficient visible projects associated with HKPU to become, in themselves attractors for attention and networking.

Now this is not necessarily all good. The positive catalytic role that the HKPolyU KM group seems to be playing for KM practice in Hong Kong, is frequently balanced by complaints from other KM consulting outfits that they are being consistently underbid in consulting proposals, and that there will be insufficient diversity in KM consulting provision as established players move on for lack of sustenance. Time will tell whether the market will adjust and produce more diversity, but for now, from the outside, I’m encouraged by the growth in KM energy I sensed at that conference last week.

Can universities in the long term replace commercial conference providers in spreading the awareness of KM and catalysing KM practice in a market? I’m not sure, but the HKPolyU certainly seems to be trying.

[** Update 30 March 2007 – the “little bird” was wrong abut Ark group shutting down its operations, it seems to have been a story that got the wrong end of the stick about some minor reorganisation]

6 Comments so far

Suliman Hawamdeh

Patrick, this is a very intersing posting. Universities and professional societis are the right place to develop disciplines and professionalism and KM is no exception. In the second ICKM conference which was hosted by the American Society for Information Science in Charlotte North Carolina, we adopted a dual format that allowed practitioners who do not have to write reserach papers to submit abstracts and do a Powerpoint presentations. We recognized the fact that reviewed and refereed research papers are important to academics to justify their involvment in the conference and get the financial support from their organization. We also acknowledge that good quality research is important in the development of any discipline. However, this should not stop practitioners from participating in the conference and getting the chance to work closely with academician. The success of ICKM2005 in Charlotte was repeated in ICKM2006 in Greenwich, London. This tradition will continue in ICKM2007 in Vienna and all subsequent ICKM conferences. ICKM has truly become an international event. Last year in greenwich we had people from 34 countries and half of them were practitioners and half from academia. The emphasis on social networks by the organizer created a strong ponding among those who attended the conference. 

Although I am on the program committee for KMAP, I did not have the time to attend the conference. The success of KMAP is another example of the need to move away from the commercialization of KM and the hype of heavyweight KM gurus preaching to curous crowds. It is time to discover the real KM practitioners and researchers and bring them together to share their insight and their contribution to the KM discipline. KM can neither afford the philosophical IVORY tower, nor as you said “charge ‘em high, fly in gurus, preach to novices, and pander to vendors”

Posted on January 17, 2007 at 02:44 AM | Comment permalink


Thanks, Suliman, for the updates on the iCKM endeavours, I wasn’t sure whether the theory/practice divide was still being addressed through it. Will it be coming back to Asia?

Finally, I didn’t want to give the impression that gurus are not necessary or useful at conferences - I think they actually play an important role in the community (as my latest post argues), and they were presented particularly usefully at KMAP. What doesn’t work is a superficial sheep dip approach where a guru is just used to draw crowds, and zips in and out without interacting, and delivers dumbed down content that’s more sex appeal than substance. At KMAP, the gurus stayed for the duration, socialised, interacted, and generally pulled their weight.

Posted on January 18, 2007 at 02:30 AM | Comment permalink


Hi Patrick,

Thanks for this informative post. It’s especially beneficial for a novice like me who’s one foot on the academic turf and the other still pretty much unsettled.

As research students our hands are often tied. I tried to take the consulting approach in data collection but I have very little capacity to do it myself. As a result, although most organizations that I met with expressed their interest in my research, none is convinced that they will benefit from it, especially after I explained that we are only interested in collecting data and they will just obtain a diagnosis report, but not further engagement… I think many research in universities do benefit both KM practitioners and business firms. Unfortunately most academic research has its final destination set at “publication”... whereas action research often originated from the business firms rather than universities. I actually feel that the gap between university and practitioners is an intended one. It’s how the academic performances are measured that causes this gap.

Posted on January 18, 2007 at 02:13 PM | Comment permalink


Happy New Year, Awie! I found the HK PolyU example interesting because they seem to be developing a blended model… I wonder if other universities are?

And in terms of projects like your research, do you think there’s scope for a symbiotic relationship between universities and consulting firms, or are the agendas too set in their ways?

Posted on January 18, 2007 at 02:24 PM | Comment permalink


Patrick, I’ve also discussed HKPU with my supervisor in NUS. Our conclusion is that HKPU’s move is a bold one… very entrepreneurial! This is certainly a quality that the local unis need to learn.

Ideally, I certainly think that IF universities, consulting firms, and business organizations are willing to work together, everyone will benefit from the collaboration. Each of the three parties have something that others don’t have. In HKPU case they are trying to build the consulting competencies which is a good thing. But I think a more effective way is to leverage the expertise of the practicing consultants.

On the other hand, unfortunately, the performances of these people are measured according to different metrics. Publication means everything to academias; consulting firms value the social network and problem solving abilities; business firms have to focus on their bottom-line. I can’t generalize this to all places. What I say applies only to the local contexts where I’m involved in. It is a long way to the Ideal-state… what I’m more concerned is how should we navigate ourself through this delta, the land in-between.

In my research, what I do is essentially a diagnosis framework. It’s more rigorous than most practitioner’s framework (or so I claim hahaha!) but it needs to be followed up by an action plan, which is something a consultancy is good at. Most academic research is like mine, focussing on very specific scope, but if carried out rigorously and honestly, can be very helpful. This is our advantage over the frameworks that are used by most consulting firms. I see the consulting firms as the vehicle that carries various research outputs, mix them, and integrate them into customized solutions to various clients. And so there is indeed a mutually beneficial potential relationship between universities and consulting firms. KM research should be like the bio-science research, where researchers, bio-medical firms, doctors, and end-users(thru clinical trial) are closely all engaged. Well that’s the ideal situation… in general , the most difficult hurdle is still the same old phrase: what’s in it for me, dude?


p/s: i’ve not worked on my project for a few months last year due to some family issues… but now i’m a happy and anxious father-to-be although i’m certain that i would put my work aside again for at least another couple of months...smile

Posted on January 18, 2007 at 03:09 PM | Comment permalink


Congratulations on the forthcoming baby! Your ideas on the research/consulting relationship are interesting… when we’re both in the same geography we should sit and discuss them.

Posted on January 18, 2007 at 03:14 PM | Comment permalink

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