David Weinberger
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KM & the human element

11 May 1998

Recently I had the honor to keynote a PC Docs/KMWorld seminar on knowledge management. About 120 people attended the presentation, all with the common goal to learn more about that elusive thing called knowledge management.

I started off my presentation by asking:

Who in the room knew anything about KM before today? A few hands went up. I went on to ask:

How many folks have a KM initiative underway right now? A few more hands went up. Then I asked:

Who feels like they have been put in a dryer and placed on spin? The room lighted up, hands flew up and laughter abounded. People are struggling to wrap their paws around KM. They seem to be wrestling with what is driving the need for knowledge management and if it is a singular issue. To better explain that, I produced a slide that addressed my opinion regarding the various driving issues of KM. It looked something like this:

The move from information scarcity to information gluttony. We can't find anything even though we know it is there. If you've done an Excite or Yahoo search lately, you understand that. It works great as long as you clearly know what you're looking for and how it may be cataloged. Unless you don't mind wading through 9,000 hits to find that elusive nugget of knowledge.

The mandatory explicit vs. tacit knowledge argument. Information is leaking out of our organizations due to downsizing, turnover, etc. In one case study, sources are quoted as saying that 40% of the staff at Big 5 firms are either in their first year with the firm--in need of knowledge--or in last year with the firm--about to leave with knowledge.

Context definition. Revenge of the records manager. You people should have listened to Bruce Silver; he said this would happen. There is a real demand for filtering, analysis and delivery technologies coupled with records management logic to get at the needle in the haystack.

Structured control. Taxonomy, common vernacular. You say tomato, I say gumbo, but we both want to eat.

Unstructured data. We know where 80% of our information is, now we want to collect and leverage it.

Knowledge mapping. Mapping our processes to the knowledge that drives them or derives from them.

Best practices. Knowing what we do well, learning from that to do it better the next time and continually looking for improvement.

People in the room began to shake their heads in agreement. They had realized that KM is not a single channel, but rather multiple threads.

I mentioned that KM isn't about technology--that technology is merely an enabler of developing a KM culture. With the evolution of technology, we will be more than capable of technically identifying, capturing, gleaning and delivering knowledge across the enterprise. A possible obstacle to success and the challenge at hand is the human component of the equation. The various components that make up a successful initiative are people, process and technology. Technologies typically function day in and day out with minimal failure. Once processes are designed and modeled to function separately or with technology, they will do so repetitively until either the technology fails or the process cannot be completed.

The real "gum in the machine" is when we insert the human element. The human element is critical to the success of any initiative because it controls ad hoc logic and discipline. Thus, without the human element, technology would have no purpose because it is designed to facilitate us and make our work/play time better. Somewhere along the line we seem to have forgotten that.

After I finished, a large group from the audience approached and congratulated me for "getting it." I learned that those individuals were from companies who were addressing KM as an initiative, and, after some initial swipes, they realized that technology wasn't what it was all about. In their various situations, the pain they were experiencing stemmed from their reluctance to embrace KM. Hurrah, someone else gets it!

If you think I'm being techno-paranoid, try a little drill. Log-on to Excite, Yahoo or whatever your favorite search engine. Do a search on a handful of technology-based periodicals, including this publication.

Look for the keywords human, user, change management, knowledge worker, person. When you do your searches, keep a tally of the number of times you get a hit on those words. Then pick any number of technology terms--processor, RAID, mouse, Internet--and run that. If your results are like mine, there will be a disproportionate number of technology terms vs. words related to people. Granted, a lot of that has to do with the fact that they are technology publications. But it illustrates that the human is often the last thing considered as organizations change their technology. It is a key reason why many technology initiatives result in failure. We forget the human element.

Two years ago, while working on an engagement involving a large insurance corporation, we were conducting a post audit of an initial deployment and debriefing the users about problems they experienced with the system. Granted, I know that programmers are more artist than scientist in some cases and take a lot of pride in their work. But after the users left the room and as the programming staff reconvened to figure out how to crash and burn to make some of the requested changes, I heard a comment that sent a shiver down my spine. A senior programmer, frustrated by the way the meeting had gone and the number of user requested changes, said, "You know, guys, this is one of the most powerful, feature-rich systems that we've ever designed, and it has some of the most robust, cutting-edge technology tools that are available. Unfortunately, it would run pretty damn well if it weren't for the users."

That comment, of course, elicited a chuckle and relieved a little steam. But it drove home the point to me that technology is changing the way we live our lives. We, as the stewards of that technology, must make certain we don't forget that technology is designed to make our lives easier. We, the humans, must be able to work with and gain benefit from the tools and not be a slave to or forgotten because of those tools.

Technology cannot offer the understanding, ingenuity or luminance of another human. The human element is the single most important element that will differentiate KM initiatives that succeed from those that fail. And, most importantly, without it KM has no reason to exist.