A study of KM failure from HK/China
If we want to succeed in Knowledge management, we need to learn from both successes and from failures.
Murray Jennex’s 2005 book Case Studies in Knowledge Management contains an instructive failure study by Chan and Chau, from a Hong Kong-based enterprise with a production plant in mainland China.
The company decided to devise and launch a KM program with an aim to improve knowledge creation and sharing among employees to deliver quality products. They adopted a middle-up-down approach, using supervisors as the KM Champions to promote KM throughout the organization, and started a pilot based around a new product series,
15 months later, nothing had changed. The KM initiative did not impact on organizational performance, revenue continued to decrease, and staff turnover rate stayed high.
The study points to the following failure factors.
- Top management support was purely lip-service. They left KM entirely to the departments, without giving them the support, backing, prioritisation or resources that they needed. In consequence, staff did not see KM as a significant organisational program.
- Management saw KM as “copy what other organisations are doing” rather than learning to improve from within. This “chasing the best” strategy failed, as “what others are doing” was not always relevant, suitable or congruent to the organisation.
- There was no structure; no framework, no process. Reading between the lines, this seems to have been an exercise in IT Push. As the study says
“No specific and/or appropriate guidelines for such (Knowledge) sharing had been devised. As a result, instead of having discussions that were directly related to tasks, or least contributed to idea generation, frequent chats (e.g., gossiping) among employees and wandering around were found. Many employees were confused with what the sharing was all about. Some employees even perceived KM negatively as interfering with activities important to their daily tasks, creating resistance to participation in what was perceived to be a temporary fad.
- Data retrieval was difficult as knowledge was not synthesised
The silo organizational structure of with disentangled databases for knowledge capture caused more harm than good. Some employees asserted that they did not have the incentive to access or utilize the departmental knowledge handbook and procedural guidance (available from databases) as it is a time-consuming endeavour to dig from the pile of information. Some employees found knowledge incomprehensible as it was presented and stored in various formats, with jargons and symbols that were neither standardized nor systematized across departments.
- The use of monetary bonuses to incentivise sharing was counter-productive, as individuals competed against each other to get the money
- An IT solution was applied to an oral culture. “It was found that IT adoption and acceptance remained low due to employee preference for face-to-face conversation and knowledge transfer instead of technology-based communication, and the general low computer literacy that intensified the fear of technology”
- Once KM initiatives had been started, there was no ongoing support
- The initiatives were all for “quick fixes” rather than a longer-term review of processes and procedures.
I would also add a 9th issue – 15 months is a short time for a KM program, even though this was a relatively small organisation.
With so many challenges, the KM effort was doomed. Any one of these issues could derail a KM program – all 8 together were fatal.
This study reinforces the critical role that senior managers play, the way that KM needs to be addressed and supported as a change management program and introduced as a framework, and the need to tailor this framework to the organisational culture, working habits, knowledge needs, structures, and long and short term goals.