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Reflecting on Knowledge Strategy

Posted by  Mark Schenk —December 31, 2006
Filed in Strategy

Anecdote has worked with some fantastic organisations over the past year and one of the main areas has been in developing knowledge strategies. I thought it timely to look back and reflect on some of the key learnings from these projects and some of these initial thoughts are captured in the bullet points below.

  • Strategy is a journey much more than it is a deliverable. Delivering a ‘strategy’ to a leadership team without engaging them in its development is a recipe for disaster at worst or inaction at best. This was driven home to me years ago when in a senior management role: the ‘strategy manager’ stood up at an offsite meeting and delivered the new strategy and concluded ‘well if there are no comments then we will considered the strategy adopted’. He was the only one in the room who understood it well enough to make any comment. The rest of us just thought…’whatever!’, and proceeded to ignore it.

  • The flip side to this is the difficulty encountered when trying to write the strategy ‘artefact’ through the normal ‘staffing’ process within organisations. Everyone has a different view of what it should contain, how it should be presented, how long it should be, what font should be used  etc etc. Nightmare. Avoid if possible. Patrick Lambe suggests a better way is for the project to culminate in a strategy workshop engaging the leadership team and the artefact becomes a summary of the workshop output.
  • The knowledge strategy projects with the biggest impact have used highly participative approaches including anecdote circles and group sensemaking. The impact is mainly through the organisation changing as the project progressed and by people seeing and feeling these changes. I remember an anecdote circle from a heavily stovepiped organisation (see below) that exposed fundamental assumptions embedded in the organisations behaviour, that were patently ridiculous once aired. It is nothing short of amazing to see behaviours change once fundamental assumptions and values are surfaced.

We have developed cheat sheets on each country we deal with.  These contain contact information for the major agencies within that country.  We keep them on our local drives as they are specific to our area and are of no use to anyone else.”  Another participant, from a different area in the same division, then interjected: “We deal with other countries and I didn’t know about the initiatives going on in other areas.  We have been working on our own cheat sheets. It could have saved us a lot of work to use yours.”

  • Don’t overcomplicate things. Work hard to establish a simple, shared understanding of what the knowledge stategy is about. Avoid complex definitions. If you must have a definition of KM then use one like Carla O’Dell’s simple description “Knowledge management is the systematic process of connecting people to people and people to knowledge and information they need to act effectively and create new knowledge.” [1]
  • To harp on a theme of ours, little things can make a big difference. Some initiatives are hard to get up because they are so obvious, simple and seemingly innocuous. But, as Drucker said “the greatest compliment you can pay an innovation is to say ‘that’s obvious’”. Resist the temptation to put little things aside in favour of major initiatives.
  • Develop a set of principles or behavious that resonate within the organisation. I will blog an example set in a few days time.
  • Many of the challenges are similar across organisations. But the path to tackle them needs to be crafted to match the specific context of the organisation. Common themes are lots of silos creating barriers to the flow of knowledge; everyone being too busy to reflect, learn and strategise; low approachability and accessability of senior staff; staff that do not feel empowered to decide and act; and IT philosophies based on delivering systems to users and then trying to overcome their passive-aggressive resistance rather than focussing on user requirements and useability from the outset.

We have found that the key roles of the consultant are to bring proven approaches to the strategy development process, to provide a sense of what is possible (including communicating this in ways that resonate within the organisation) and to achieve acceptance of initiatives that occasionally stretch the comfort zone of the organisation. The more we help organisations in this area the more we realise the impact that having a robust knowledge strategy can have on organisational performance and the achievement of business outcomes.

[1] C. O’Dell, The Executive’s Role in Knowledge Management. Houston: APQC Publications, 2004

Mark Schenk About  Mark Schenk

Mark works globally with senior leadership teams to improve their ability to communicate clearly and memorably. He has been a Director of Anecdote since 2004 and helped the company grow into one of the world’s leading business storytelling consultancies. Connect with Mark on:

6 Responses to “Reflecting on Knowledge Strategy”

  1. Denham Says:

    As you craft a knowledge strategy, there are certain key questions you need to ask and position where you need to take a stand:
    http://denham.typepad.com/km/2003/11/km_strategy_is_.html
    I wonder how these figure in your approach?

  2. Robert Hruzek Says:

    Good summary, Sean! I remember taking a Strategic Management course while going for my Master’s, and avidly learned the “steps” to creating a strategy. There were the TOWS (or SWOT) matrix and all the ancillary stuff leading up to and proceeding from it. Then the real world came along… I remember an early proposal once where I got a very similar response as the strategy manager mentioned in your first point above. Rather shocking to say the least!
    In my current role as a project manager, though, I no longer deal in strategic issues. But I have still always wondered, do they still teach that in schools, and why? Does anyone still use it – or – how has it (strategic management) evolved with our new knowledge of the way things REALLY work in organizations.

  3. Mark Says:

    Hi Denham,
    I find myself re-reading that post of yours at some stage of most knowledge strategy projects (normally early). These questions (among other things) help address the ‘purpose’ of the strategy (which can sometimes start as ‘we think we should have a knowledge strategy’). We also find that the strategy ‘process’ is key to getting good answers to such questions – creating the conditions where people can have strategic conversations around these issues.

  4. Mark Says:

    Hi Robert,
    I would be very interested in hearing from recent MBA etc graduates about the extent to which the ‘transactional’ approach to strategy development is taught. I have certainly seen lots of evidence that it is still widely practiced. On the flip side, where we have ‘won’ strategy projects through a competitive process, the collaborative approach we propose has been a significant factor in being selected.

  5. Ron Shevlin Says:

    Amen.
    I was working for a strategy consulting firm a number of years ago. When some of us on a project team suggested that we needed to engage some of the mid- and lower-level managers in our strategy formulation effort, the managing partner told us “senior execs develop strategy, lower level managers execute it.”
    The biggest issue firms have with “strategy” is alignment — aligning the functions, LOBs, etc. How can you do that without broad involvement and buy-in? (A: you can’t).
    Thanks for your post. Good stuff here.

  6. Karen Mathenge Says:

    I have been reading through your posts and interesting at a time when I just finished some intensive 7 days of a planned approach to strategic management. The same tools are taught, the TOWS, ansoff matrix etc all building up to the final delivery of strategic options and a new strategy. Of interest to me though, is your comment that not much of that is used in the workplace. Since am still undertaking my MBA, would you kindly shed light on that?

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