Monday, 21 April 2008

Unmanagement, to be or not to be?

From time to time this issue raises its misinformed head – well, IMHO anyway. One of the recent examples was this post on the Fast Forward blog by Jon Husband titled, Retrospective on KM and the Impact of Web 2.0. He writes:

Knowledge management (KM) sometimes seems like the business buzzword that won’t go away. But that may be changing. As Web 2.0 penetrates and spreads through workplaces, will it render KM as it was once known obsolete … or not ?


While through the spread of social computing KM may be coming out of an initial identity crisis, the advent and rapid spread of what is termed Enterprise 2.0 has helped create for KM a new Identity Crisis 2.0. Today it seems clear that the new crop of collaboration tools, platforms and methods for enhanced collaboration are rapidly synthesizing and integrating fragmented or separate components of what was understood to be a KM-oriented system a few short years ago.

His post had quite a few responses, including comments from Stephen Collins, Doug Cornelius, Dan Keldsen and Paula Thornton.

Now, I have to say that this whole KM as social computing thing is getting rather boring really and I tried my best not to get sucked into it... but here we go...

I think Jon writes some interesting stuff (on his own blog) and the issues listed in his post are worthy of reflection, but a lot of the arguments here are underpinned by mistaking information management for knowledge management. Now this isn’t to say that Web 2.0 isn’t having a huge impact on the information workplace, because it is. Social computing has also been a breath of fresh air into KM, mainly because of the disappointments caused by failed KM initiatives that were really poorly implemented information management projects.

The other part of the argument that I’m not convinced about either is that 2.0 isn’t about the technology – now I guess this depends on how you apply the “2.0” label. In my book if you use it in reference to Web 2.0 how can it not be about the technology? And McAfee’s warning about the discomfort that Enterprise 2.0 might create is clearly about the impact that social computing technologies have on existing political structures inside organisations. If of course you are using the label 2.0 to reference some other major step change either in parallel or unrelated to Web 2.0, then it may well have nothing to do with the technology…

Now the practice of Knowledge Management mostly contains tools and techniques that have been borrowed from other disciplines, many of which either don’t require technology or the technology simply plays a role as either an indirect or direct enabler. For example, Social Network Analysis (SNA) pre-dates KM by many, many decades but SNA software has made it widely accessible and practical to apply in a (Knowledge) management context. Story telling is as old as mankind, but is recognised as a management tool – you don’t need technology to tell a story, but technology might be used to record and share a story. The unique nature of KM is to bring these tools and technique together with the objective of helping people in groups (organisations or otherwise) share what they know more effectively. Like any kind of management focus area it is a deliberate act to do KM and there is nothing magical. And just like you have a quality manager, a HR manager, a finance manager, naturally you might find a knowledge manager. Social computing on the other hand is bottom-up – it’s a kind of “unmanagement” if you like.

But the important point in this discussion is that you can take the technology out of KM and still do KM. However, KM has a lot of technology enabled tools and is often applied in technology enabled environments (e.g. large, distributed organisations) so it ends up having a socio-technical impact that is focused on the computing tools. Now Web 2.0 is also all about the technology and if you are talking about applying Web 2.0 or social computing inside an organisation, then it is going to have a socio-technical impact too. This means of course that Web 2.0 tools can be used in many different ways, and not strictly as pure social computing or Enterprise 2.0 tools.

So, I can understand why people might think Enterprise 2.0 will replace or supersede KM. The real fact of the matter is that many KM people simply recognised the benefits of these tools early on and have added them under the umbrella of KM, but they don't own them.

My reflection is that perhaps what Jon should have titled his post was, Retrospective on MANAGEMENT and the Impact of Web 2.0. Or maybe a blog post on the future of unmanagement, now that would be interesting.


  1. Anonymous11:24 pm

    I agree with what you have to say. Perhaps the title of what I wrote should have been changed ... or another way to look at it I suppose is that the issues you unpack were alluded to in there, waiting to be unpacked as you have done ?

    Jon Husband

  2. I agree that enterprise 2.0 is different to KM as it's a more bottom-up unmanageed process...and as you say you can still do KM techniques like SNA and storytelling without technology.

    I think in the future the KM managers role will become more of a facilitator, coach, guide...

    Will you need SNA if you have people connected in a social network...won't this show you the patterns.
    I guess for this to work people need to use the technology.

    Besides being a facilitator, moderator, maintenance work and perhaps story workshops...once an organisation is thriving in a web 2.0 ecosystem (utopian?)...what does the KM Manager do?

    It seems their role will be less about managing knowledge, and more guiding and facilitating...I say this because if we have knowledge flow and conversations, we are constantly creating and finding information we desire...just like we experience the open web.

    KM Managers will need to be more intune with interpersonal skills, change, culture...this is why I like the idea of KM being driven by the learning team, as they have more human qualities than other teams.

  3. Anonymous5:50 am

    On "unmanagement" or "Management and Web 2.0"

    I believe I've been writing about this (on and off) for the last 7 or 8 years on my wirearchy" blog.

    Here are a couple of samples (first one by someone else). (early '02)

    I got tired of writing about it (or more accurately, have gotten tired of writing about it several times over the past five years). It wasn't until some "names" or heavyweights began noticing, coined terms like E2.0, etc. that more people have begun wondering about the wholesale changes to knowledge work and how it is to be managed that are (in all likelihood) yet in front of us.

    Hamel's book is not too bad. I'm sure many more books will be written about the issue(s).

    Jon Husband


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