The benefits and limitations of KM change and maturity models

This is a reprise and rewrite of a post from 5 years ago about KM change models vs KM maturity models. AKA “why KM change is more like spread of a forest fire than the growth of a tree”.

Photo from the US National Parks Service

The use of a maturity model allows an organization to have its methods and processes assessed according to management best practice, against a clear set of external benchmarks. Maturity is indicated by the award of a particular “Maturity Level”. The majority of KM maturity models (and ours is no exception) have a series of descriptors of various levels of KM maturity, and the implication is than an organisation can progress from one level to the next in a smooth maturation process.

The analogy, if you like, is that of a tree. As a tree matures, it passes from a seedling to a sapling to a mature tree, but this is a continuous progression. You can describe, using metrics such as the number of branches, size of trunk, number of fruit, where the tree is on its maturation journey. If you won an orchard, you can describe the average maturation level of the trees as (for example) 2.5 on the maturation scale.

Knowledge Management is more like a forest fire than a tree.

A forest fire does not mature slowly. It catches in one small place, then sweeps across the landscape.  In a forest fire, change is not top-down nor bottom-up, but side to side (see my blog post for more detyails. A forest fire is not a maturation process, it is a phase-change, from unlit to lit. There are various measures of readiness for forest fires – they can be enabled by hot weather, strong winds and a build-up of combustible material, or disables by fire-breaks and rain – but it still is not a process of maturation.

I am aware as I write this that a forest fire is also a highly dangerous life- and property-threatening phenomenon and a lethal consequence of global warming. If you find this metaphor too negative, please use another, such as kindling a bonfire, or adoption of a virally-marketed product.

Knowledge Management is a forest fire rather than a tree, because implementing KM is a culture change process. It involves changing hearts and minds, and hearts and minds are changed one at a time. We have all seen the moment when a heart/mind changes and someone “gets lit”. It’s that lightbulb moment, like “catching fire”. There is no maturation for a process, only the question “has it caught fire”. Once it has, the question becomes “how much is burning”.

I describe here a change model for hearts and minds which you can apply to your key stakeholders, that takes them up to a commitment threshold, beyond which KM can be adopted. Below this threshold they are unlit kindling. Above this threshold they are alight.

KM then works only if all the conditions are sufficiently right to change the hearts and minds. Once the conditions are right, you light the KM fire in a small part of the organisation (a KM pilot), and once this is burning, adjacent areas will also catch fire, until finally the whole area has caught the KM habit.

That’s the change model – what’s the problem with maturity models?

Maturity models are popular, and give the organisation a chance to compare themselves against a standard, and to identify room for improvement. This can be a useful check, but maturity models have a number of drawbacks (for a deeper discussion, see chapter 27 in the new edition of the Knowledge Manager’s Handbook).

  • The first is that the model may have gaps or be based on inaccurate assumptions. There are many maturity models, for example, which ignore the issue of governance, and others that include content as a key component (thereby assuming that Knowledge Management is basically Content Management). Choose your model wisely, or (better) use more than one.
  • Most maturity models make assumptions about the sequence in which things have to happen, and these assumptions do not hold true universally. 
  • I large and complex organizations, where the organizational landscape is heterogeneous, a maturity model tends to gloss over or average out significant differences in portions of the landscape, removing them from visibility and opportunity for action. The maturity model may say “the forest is cool” when in fact the fire is already blazing somewhere local.
  • Finally, as discussed above, KM implementation is not one of gradual maturation across the organization at large, but of spreading the adoption of a new paradigm, and thus the idea that the organisation matures in a stepwise process is inappropriate.

Take Leadership, for example.

Senior management support is the biggest enabler (and lack of senior management support is the biggest barrier) to KM. Leadership is vital. Imagine a leadership scale from 0 to 4. Imagine you have moved leadership from level 1 to level 2. Is this progress?  If level 4 is “whole–hearted support from senior management”, what is level 2? Half-hearted support? That’s as bad as no support at all. Until you get to level 4, you don’t have what you need for sustained KM.

Rather then trying to move the whole organisation to level 2, why not find the one leader who you can help reach level 4? Leave  the rest at level 1 for the moment, and find the early adopter. Gain their whole-hearted support to pilot Knowledge Management in their part of the business, deliver success, and use this to change the next Heart and the next Mind.

The indicator of progress is therefore not the average level of KM leadership maturity, but the presence or absence of the “first sponsor” in the organisation.

What is the conclusion regarding maturity models?

For all these reasons, maturity models are much better used:

(a) not for assessment and objective benchmarking, but as part of an internally driven diagnostic and planning mechanism along with a lot of independently gathered data, where the question is not “how mature are we against external assumptions?” but “what can this external model suggest to us about our strengths and weaknesses, and which of these areas should we prioritise based on known needs?”; or  

(b) in homogeneous, well defined contexts such as communities of practice, knowledge-base development, or expertise transfer, where there are specific, well-known good practices and reliable precursors that hold true in most cases.

In Knoco, we actually do offer a maturity model, which we offer as a free online survey (choose Maturity Survey in the box at the top of the page). It is of some use, but treat it with caution for all the reasons mentioned above.

In addition we suggest you measure a number of other things;

The real message behind all of this is that KM is a change program, and needs to be measured using change models.

KM does not mature like a tree; it catches hold like a flame, and that is how it should be measured.

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