As we develop the Knowledge Management (KM) conference agenda for 930gov and I continue to talk to our speakers, a clear theme emerged: There are several common pitfalls that knock KM initiatives off track.Most of these pitfalls stem from the lack of a common definition of KM that can be easily understood—especially by non-practitioners. Gartner defines KM as: “a discipline that promotes an integrated approach to identifying, capturing, evaluating, retrieving, and sharing all of an enterprise’s information assets. These assets may include databases, documents, policies, procedures, and previously un-captured expertise and experience in individual workers.”

Hmm. That sounds like something an organization really ought to do. It also sounds like a really big, really complicated, and really expensive undertaking. If the KM “brand” resonates with non-practitioners as some “buzzword flavor-of-the-month” or a “risky enterprise program,” then it’s no wonder KM practitioners constantly find themselves in an uphill battle to gain interest, buy-in, and funding.

Several of our sessions at  930gov  touch on the topic of redefining knowledge management. Any new definition should be designed to help KM programs and practitioners navigate around these five landmines:

  1. Labeling programs as “knowledge management initiatives.” If the term, “knowledge management” leans toward unhelpful connotations, Art Schlussel, ECM Program Manager, FDA/CDRH, a KM session speaker, seriously suggests avoiding it altogether—especially in program proposals to agency executives and business owners. He says, “take the term ‘KM’ out of everything and focus on functions,  features, benefits, and value.”
  2. Doing KM for KM’s sake. Sharing all of an organization’s information assets really isn’t a goal. It’s a means toward achieving an outcome. As Maureen Hammer, Ph.D., Knowledge Management, AAHR/BCO, a  KM session  speaker says, “KM leaders need to frame and communicate how KM processes and approaches can help achieve operational, performance, or strategic objectives.” The question KM practitioners must really answer is “What’s in it for me—or us?”
  3. Relying on top leadership to drive KM. There’s always a risk that the duration of your KM program will exceed the tenure of the leaders that helped you get it started. New leaders (especially those from outside the agency) will have their own priorities and may not see how KM might specifically benefit your organization. In such a situation, the best ally you can have is a groundswell of grassroots support from those who are or will be seeing direct benefits from your program. Recruiting your stakeholders as your champions will enable your program to survive leadership transitions—even a change of administrations.
  4. Failing to adapt. Maureen Hammer estimates that for most KM initiatives, about 70% of the effort will focus on people and processes with the remainder going to technology. With that mix, dynamic change is inevitable. Your success will substantially depend on the ability to adapt to new circumstances or mission requirements. Build on a foundation of flexibility and protect it at all costs. Programs that are rigidly locked into approaches, systems, or even acquisition strategies may find they cannot deliver what their agency now needs.
  5. Allowing misconceptions to breed: Someone was telling me that a study has proved that humans always default to negative perceptions. Well, no kidding. But think: that negative bias is especially dangerous for KM programs because of their somewhat abstract nature. According to Ms. Hammer, many non-practitioners think that the aim of KM is to Hoover up every last dustball of knowledge that exists in a organization. That’s implausible, messy, and pointless. But it does confirm the idea that KM might have an image problem. Make sure you relentlessly communicate the specifics of your program: The challenges it addresses, the information it will capture, how that information will be distributed, and the concrete, mission benefits that will result. Listen for and jump on any misconceptions that may divert engagement away from what you’re trying to accomplish.

KM offers substantial benefits for agencies—especially when so many federal employees are nearing retirement age.

KM offers substantial benefits for agencies—especially when so many federal employees are nearing retirement age. That means the first responsibility for both KM leaders and KM operators has to be recruiting their agency colleagues as KM champions. That leads to a second responsibility: to communicate far and wide the value and benefits of KM. If that means calling KM by another name, so be it. Whatever it takes to actually do it.