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Knowledge management initiatives: learning from failure John Storey and Elizabeth Barnett Introduction The scene is played out on a daily basis. Conference centres and hotels throughout the world entertain management gatherings with the usual paraphernalia of designer mineral water and glacier mints in imitation cut-glass containers. Our case-study begins in just such a setting one day in May 1998. The senior team of ``International Resources'', a large, European-headquartered company, are gath
  Knowledgemanagementinitiatives: learningfrom failure  John Storey and Elizabeth Barnett  Introduction The scene is played out on a daily basis.Conference centres and hotels throughout theworld entertain management gatherings withthe usual paraphernalia of designer mineralwater and glacier mints in imitation cut-glasscontainers. Our case-study begins in just sucha setting one day in May 1998. The seniorteam of ``International Resources'', a large,European-headquartered company, aregathered to participate in a strategy debatewhich includes the commencement of thefirm's knowledge management initiative.There is a high-level executive sponsor,syndicate groups are mobilised to analyse themeaning of the concept, its implications forthe company and the type of action plansrequired. The project gets off to a promisingstart and a project team is set-up to drive theinitiative forward. But, 12 months later,despite a great deal of effort and commitment,it becomes clear that the initiative has failed.In this article we seek to examine in somedetail this example of a failed knowledgemanagement initiative, to analyse what wentwrong and to identify the key learning points.Large numbers of organizations are takinggreat interest in the idea of knowledgemanagement and many are launchingknowledge management initiatives andprogrammes. A significant proportion of suchinitiatives will fail. Charles Lucier, the firstchief knowledge officer of Booz-Allen &Hamilton suggests that 84 per cent of all KMprogrammes will fail to have any real impact.Moreover, he notes that ``a disturbingly highproportion of programs initiated with greatfanfare are cut back within two or three years''(Lucier and Torsiliera, 1997, p. 15). But sofar, insufficient attention has been paid towhy these initiatives fail and the learningpoints have not been adequately explored.This article is organized in three sections:the first reviews the key elements of knowledge management initiatives andsummarises the literature which, to date, hasspeculated on the sources of failure forinitiatives of this kind; the second sectiondescribes and analyses the failed attempt at aKM initiative in a significant European-based The authorsJohn Storey is Professor of Human ResourceManagement at The Open University Business School,Milton Keynes, UK. Elizabeth Barnett is a Research Fellow at The OpenUniversity Business School, Milton Keynes, UK. Keywords Knowledge management, Learning, Business failures Abstract Large numbers of organizations are taking great interestin the idea of knowledge management and many arelaunching knowledge management initiatives andprogrammes. A large proportion of such initiatives willfail. Yet, despite the injunctions to ``learn from failure'',little detailed attention has been paid to why and howthese apparently popular initiatives run into difficulties.The purpose of this article is to examine, in some unusualdetail, a significant example of a failed knowledgemanagement initiative in order to analyse what wentwrong and to identify the key learning points. Electronic access The current issue and full text archive of this journal isavailable at The research reported in this article derives froman ESRC-funded project: Award NumberL125251053. This project was part of the ESRC'sProgramme on the management of innovation. 145 Journal of Knowledge ManagementVolume 4.Number 2.2000.pp. 145±156 # MCB University Press.ISSN 1367-3270  company; the third section revisits the mainthemes in the literature in the light of theanalysis of the case study. Knowledge management andknowledge management initiatives Mainstream writing on knowledgemanagement is overwhelmingly optimistic.The claims made on its behalf make theunderlying proposition about the value of knowledge management almost irresistiblyattractive. For example, ``KM is becoming acore competence that companies mustdevelop in order to succeed in tomorrow'sdynamic global economy'' (Skyrme andAmidon, 1998). Another proponent observes``Here's an uncontroversial thought if everyou've heard one: a firm's competitiveadvantage depends more than anything on itsknowledge. Or to be slightly more specific, onwhat it knows, how it uses what it knows andhow fast it can know something new''(Prusack, 1997, p. ix). While Nonaka (1994,p. 14) contends ``The ever increasingimportance of knowledge in contemporarysociety calls for a shift in our thinking''. AndThomas Stewart argues ``Knowledge hasbecome the most important factor ineconomic life. It is the chief ingredient of what we buy and sell, the raw material withwhich we work. Intellectual capital ± notnatural resources, machinery or even financialcapital ± has become the one indispensableasset of corporations.'' And, at national level,government promotes the idea of the``knowledge economy'' (DTI, 1998).The argument underlying these claims isthat knowledge now represents the keycompetitive sustained resource (Quinn, 1992;Reich, 1992; Drucker, 1993) ``There is littledoubt that we have entered the knowledgeeconomy where what organizations know isbecoming more important than the traditionalsources of economic power'' (KPMG, 1998).Most of the literature to date has focused onthe nature of knowledge, types of knowledgeand the theoretical bases of knowledgemanagement. For example, one key strandassociates KM with organizational learning(Polanyi, 1962, 1966; Spender, 1996a,1996b; Cheng and Van de Ven, 1996). Asecond, associates it with the resource-basedview of strategic management (Penrose, 1959;Nelson and Winter, 1982). Within thisstrand, it is argued that the primarycontribution of firms, as institutions, is thecreation and integration of knowledge (Grant,1996; Tsoukas, 1996). The ``greatestchallenge for the manager of intellectualcapital is to create an organization that canshare the knowledge. When skills belong tothe company as a whole, they createcompetitive advantages that others cannotmatch'' (Stewart, 1997).There are wider explanations for theamount of attention being paid to knowledgemanagement. For example, growing interestin the resource-based view of the firm meansstrategy academics and others are payingmore attention to problems of internal, cross-boundary knowledge sharing. Issues of horizontal as well as vertical co-ordinationand organizational integration are thereforeincreasingly coming to the fore (Argyres,1996). It has been argued that high-technology industries in particular havecreated new technologies with newtechnological inter-dependencies betweenbusiness units (Doz et al. , 1987). From thenew strategy perspective, one can ``conceiveof the firm as a portfolio of core competenciesand disciplines'', this view then suggests that``interfirm competition as opposed to inter-product competition, is essentially concernedwith the acquisition of skills. In this view,global competitiveness is largely a function of the firm's pace, efficiency and extent of knowledge accumulation'' (Hamel, 1991,p. 83).Beyond the hype there is the seriousbusiness of finding useful ways in which to acton these insights. Knowledge may beimportant but in what sense can it really be``managed''? There are two key issues here,first, what kind of interventions are managersbeing invited to make in order to effect andimplement a knowledge perspective onbusiness strategy and second, what kind of difficulties might be anticipated in thisendeavour? Concerning the first, ``knowledgemanagement'' has come to be used to coverinitiatives ranging from ``organizationallearning'' attempts to ``database managementtools'' (Ruggles, 1998, p. 80). A great deal of the literature on knowledge management is infact concerned with its meaning and scope ± (see, for example, Edvinsson and Sullivan,1996; Stewart, 1997) and there is little needto rehearse these points here.But it is the second issue, that is, thequestion of the problems and the barriers thatwe wish to focus our attention on in this 146 Knowledge management initiatives: learning from failure John Storey and Elizabeth Barnett  Journal of Knowledge ManagementVolume 4.Number 2.2000.145±156  article. Despite the generally optimistic natureof most KM literature there are a fewexamples to be found of attempts to probethis second issue. For example, an Ernst &Young survey of 431 US and Europeanorganizations conducted in 1997 found thatthe biggest reported difficulties were``changing people's behaviour'', and theexistence of an inappropriate ``organizationalculture'' (Ruggles, 1998). Likewise, in hisclassic Fortune magazine article,``Brainpower'', Thomas Stewart (1991)argued that getting results from investing inknowledge requires ``a corporate culture thatallows it to flow freely, which means breakingdown hierarchies and getting rid of rules thatstifle new ideas''.Another common complaint is that thepractice of knowledge management tends tobe too IT/IS focused and too often IT/IS-led(Scarbrough and Swan, 1999; Scarbrough et al. , 1999; Swan, 1999). It has even beensuggested that KM in this regard could beseen as less developed than the literature onthe learning organization. As attention on theformer has increased, the attention to thelatter has decreased. ``Far from being adevelopment of the learning organization withits emphasis on people management, KM is adivergence with its own unique discourse andfocus, specifically emphasising IT and toolsdriven approaches'' (Swan, 1999, p. 4). Suchconcerns are amplified when it is recalled thatthe contention has been made that there is infact no direct link between investment in ITand subsequent business performance(Mulhotra, 1998).The main allegation however is simply that,``while the implications [of KM] forinformation systems development andpractice have received close attention, theimplications for personnel managementdevelopment and practice have not''(Scarbrough et al. , 1999, p. 25). The neglectof people management issues has also beennoted by Ruggles. It has also been pointed outthat ``By far the majority of articles haveappeared in the IS/IT literatures with, forexample, nearly 70 per cent of articles in 1998appearing in these literatures'' (Ruggles,1998, p. 21). So far, knowledge managementhas been mainly sponsored by IS/ITspecialists. It has been argued that few cases``actually describe, in anything other than thebroadest terms, the people management andorganizational processes involved in KMinitiatives'' (Swan, 1999, p. 5). Our ownreading of the literature concords with thisassessment.The different meanings of, approaches to,and possibilities for KM lead, therefore, topotential micro-political battles over theownership of KM initiatives. There is plentyof scope for turf wars given the problems of getting to grips with such an elusivephenomenon as ``knowledge''. As FrankBlackler has observed, it is messy and hard tomanage. How different specialists attempt tomanage it to a large extent reflects how peopleunderstand and define it. ``Knowledge ismultifaceted and complex, being bothsituated and abstract, implicit and explicit,distributed and individual, physical andmental, developing and static, verbal andencoded'' (Blackler, 1995). Thesecharacteristics make not only the actualmanagement of knowledge difficult but evenachieving consensus around the meaning of the intent is inherently problematical. This iscertainly an issue which we will surface in thecase which follows. Moreover, intranets canthemselves actually `` exacerbate turf wars''(Cohen, 1998) and IT/IS ``solutions'' can infact strengthen the barriers which alreadyexist as well as creating firewalls by reducinginformal contact.So, broadly, two main points can be seen toarise in the literature to date: one, that KMinitiatives so far have been IS/IT dominatedand that they therefore neglect thecomplexities of organizational processes ± and, further, that this is sub-optimal for theorganization; second, that the detailedprocesses which relate to people are alsolargely undescribed. The problem associatedwith the IT-driven approaches are several.Critically, they tend to be supply driven ± i.e.focused on making existing knowledge morewidely available. This assumes that peoplewill be willing to share their knowledge andalso assumes that people will use theinformation which is made available onintranets and the like. The emphasis so far hastended to be on knowledge as a commodity;making experts' knowledge more explicit andaccessible via computer applications. Hereinis seen the seeds of a further problem ± suchknowledge tends to be ``explicit knowledge''whereas the often more valuable ``tacitknowledge'' (Grant, 1996) is neglected. Tacitknowledge is much more personal and islikely to be context-specific. This latter formof knowledge is hard to make availablethrough computer systems. Further learning 147 Knowledge management initiatives: learning from failure John Storey and Elizabeth Barnett  Journal of Knowledge ManagementVolume 4.Number 2.2000.145±156  occurs while applying and acting uponknowledge ± as argued by Schon (1983) withregard to the idea of the ``reflectivepractitioner''. The realisation of the tacitknowledge potential ``requires the closeinvolvement and co-operation of the knowingsubject'' (Lam, 1998).Attempts to codify tacit knowledge mayonly produce knowledge which is: useless (toodifficult to explain); trivial; redundant (if subject to change); irrelevant to a wideraudience; politically naõÈve; or inaccurate(Swan, 1999, p. 7). Some commentators havetherefore stressed the inherent limits of intranets which merely capture the trivial andthe codifiable.To these complaints and reservations aboutthe supply-driven IT/IS approach can beadded the point that, in any case, mostmanagers already suffer from informationoverload. In such circumstances, KM systemswhich concentrate on the capture,codification and archiving of knowledge needto take greater note of the issue concerningthe demand for knowledge and the associatedquestion of knowledge use.This neglect of the users' perspective maynot be accidental. Part of the rationale of KMis to reduce organizational vulnerability bytransferring knowledge from individuals. Theintent is to ensure that the intellectualproperty becomes owned by the organization.But this in turn may be what leads to asimplistic view of ``knowledge capture''. Anentirely alternative approach would be to dealwith the problem of potential knowledge lossby seeking to retain staff and by taking stepsto win their commitment. In any case, thesupply-driven and demand-driven approachesare perhaps not so far apart: ``getting peopleto share their knowledge requires not onlynew processes but also a new covenantbetween employer and employees'' (Hibbardand Carillo, 1998).Yet knowledge sharing acrossheterogeneous groups may be more difficult,yet ultimately more rewarding (Gibbons et al. ,1994). Dialogue can lead to conflict anddisagreement rather than necessarily toagreement. Issues of power and exclusionmay therefore come to the fore. Moreover, theintroduction of information technology canbe used on the one hand to reinforce expertpower or on the other hand to challenge it.Neither is pre-given by the technology itself.In addition, the literature warns that``technology alone won't make a person withexpertise share it with others. Technologyalone won't get an employee who isuninterested in seeking knowledge to hoponto a keyboard and start searching orbrowsing. The mere presence of technologywon't create a learning organization, ameritocracy or a knowledge-creatingcompany''(Davenport and Prusack, 1998).Even if these technological problems aresurmounted, there will remain othermanagerial issues ± not least of which is thequestion of the management of ``knowledgeworkers''. Henry Mintzberg has suggestedthat they respond to inspiration notsupervision. He draws lessons from the way asymphony orchestra operates. ``Leadership atthe individual level'' he notes, is ``highlycircumscribed. Empowerment is a silly notionhere. Musicians hardly need to be empoweredby conductors. Inspired maybe ± infused withfeeling and energy ± but not empowered''(Mintzberg, 1998, p.145). One of the ways inwhich such enthusing might be encouraged isthrough the encouragement of ``learningcommunities'' and ``communities of commitment'' (Koffman and Senge, 1993)but there are many aspects of organizationallife which militate sharply against such ideals.These points too need to be borne in mind if the knowledge management roll-out is not tolead to failure.Moreover, it has been noted that ``gettingemployees to share what they know is nolonger a technology challenge ± it's acorporate culture challenge'' (Hibbard andCarillo, 1998, p. 49). ``Knowledgemanagement is a business practice more thana technology'' reports the research director of Delphi Consulting Group in Boston. ``In ourresearch, users clearly identify cultural issuesas the largest obstacles to implementingknowledge management'' (1998, p. 49).In this review of the literature we haveidentified a host of potential problems. Thedanger of IT/IS dominance clearly loomslarge in previous analyses. So too the need tohave a clear business rationale for pursuing aKM initiative. And third, the needs of the``users'' have to be taken seriously intoaccount. All of these we accept as valid points.However, as our case which follows will show,these nostrums only begin to scratch thesurface of the managerial dilemmas whichemerge when, even in the relatively propitioussetting of a knowledge-rich business which isunderpinned by technology and operationalexperience, a new knowledge management 148 Knowledge management initiatives: learning from failure John Storey and Elizabeth Barnett  Journal of Knowledge ManagementVolume 4.Number 2.2000.145±156
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