Have the large consulting firms trained us to do knowledge strategies the wrong way?

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —July 8, 2007
Filed in Strategy

I just returned from a week’s holiday at Mossy Point in NSW and as usual I had a pile of books I was going to read and somehow managed to read a completely different set. This usually happens because my host often has a more compelling choice of reading or there’s a good second hand book store nearby (in this case Mogo has a fine example). I started with the following:

And ended up reading,

Good to Great captured my imagination. While I’m always a little sceptical of the approach, “let’s compare some companies that have done well and learn their secrets and let’s learn how we can apply those secrets to your company and also do well”, there were many unknowns and questions posed by Collins and his team of researchers. One of the points in the book was the supremacy of planning over the plan. While not a new idea in itself it came on the heels of another simple and fairly well known idea: what you measure will affect behaviour so think carefully about what you should measure (Collins was referring to the need to understand your economic driver).

This got me thinking. Why do so many organisations develop their knowledge strategies with a burst of energy over a short period of time? This puzzles me because we know that planning is more important than the plan. Understanding emerges over time through conversations. You can’t have a couple of workshops and run some interviews to develop a good grasp of what needs to be done, where the focus should be. Organisations require a process that engages people at different levels in conversations that matter about how knowledge can be best used.

So while chatting to Mark this afternoon I suggested the short, sharp approach (which will definitely create a strategy but can’t be the best way to strategize) might be partly due to how large consulting firms need to work in order to stay profitable. The large firms work on a profit per consultant basis. Within the firm this is called utilisation. The best way for a consultant to maintain high utilisation is to be billable five days a week. A project that’s divided and spread over a couple of months with a couple of days here and there is unsustainable for large firm. So over the years after an organisation receives proposal after proposal from the large firms the organisation begin to tacitly learn that strategies should be created intensely over short periods of time.

And guess what happens when you get together highly paid, smart professionals to deliver a strategy to a tight deadline? Most of the time it results in a hefty document detailing many factors and features to consider but often merely succeeds in bamboozling. Last week I was talking to a senior manager in a government agency and she said they’d just received their knowledge strategy and they feel it’s too complex and they’re not quite sure what to do. Imagine, on the other hand, a group of people within the organisation working together on their knowledge strategy and all agreeing that the essence of their strategy is captured in a simple sentence. Because they all have been part of the process this sentence means so much that action can be taken to make it a reality. Sure, you need the implementation plan and more importantly a process so actions that move the organisation toward their objectives bubble up from everyone.

One fact that stood out for me in Good to Great was that on average it took a ‘great’ company four years to define their essential strategy (their hedgehog concept). And the strategy evolved through vigourous debate, discussion and listening. It’s this type of process I’m advocating, and now large organisations are turning to specialists in small companies, they can served without the constraints of the large firm’s economic model.

I think our Three Journey Approach to knowledge strategy is a new way to orchestrate these essential conversations.

  • The first journey is with the leadership team and the aim is to create a broad direction for everyone. Rather than having a single workshop and interviews we would facilitate four conversations (or more) around the nature of their business and the role knowledge plays. The result is a small set of objectives for the knowledge strategy.
  • The second journey is where the rest of the staff get involved. Their job is to help work out how the objectives might be achieved in reality. We know, however, that asking people what they know is a futile exercise because we all need context to remember what we know. So we use anecdote circles and collect stories as a way to find out what’s happening and what could be done.
  • The third journey is a simple improvement process whereby the knowledge strategy continues to adapt to the changing circumstances.

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About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:


  1. dave Snowden says:

    You should have read the Midgley (and her great book on Wikedness) …..

  2. avi says:

    “what you measure will affect behaviour so think carefully about what you should measure” is a sentence to live by :-))

  3. Andrew Woolfson says:

    I am Director of Knowledge Management for a large global professional services firm. I have spent the last 10 years energing and working through knowledge strategies.
    I have come up with my theory -:
    1. Ignition – creates the means, the debate, the conversations with actual KM approaches which people react and challenge and through this obtain approaches refelctive of their cultural journey.
    2. Awareness – its in the organisation, its nothing new, but you need to maintain, build, evangelise, dont let go. Keep on building
    3. Buzz – ran out of clever words; knowledge strategies being seen explicitly in winning and changing culture and making new things happen in the organisation. Simple to articulate and its great – good buzz.

  4. TCM says:

    In response to the question “Have the large consulting firms trained us to do knowledge strategies the wrong way?”, I’d ask which came first: the consultant with his (or her) need for utilization, or the corporation with its need for speed and subsequent lack of appetite for long-term propositions (especially ones that don’t clearly connect to the bottom line)?

    Besides, I’m not convinced that enterprise-wide KM is necessarily worthwhile or viable. I think the successful KM implementation is one that meets a specific need (e.g. Xerox copier repair technicians sharing their learnings http://www.parc.com/research/projects/commknowledge/eureka.html) and that has sufficient support (e.g. incentives or benefits for contributing; and, in the case of Xerox, a senior management that accepted that the published policies and procedures didn’t always answer real-world questions). In addition, the users need a compelling answer to the “what’s in it for me?” question before you have any hope of getting their support for any initiative; the implementation lives or dies with them. One approach could be to build the grassroots support and then use that as leverage to broaden the scope (kind of like how the researchers at 3M got the other employees hooked on Post-It notes in order to convince the executives to reverse their decision not to market Post-It).

    With regards to information sharing, however, keep the following additional factors in mind:

    * People don’t have the time to read, much less write. (Much less spend bandwidth on learning how to use a new tool.)

    * Some people won’t share because they feel their status derives from the information they have.

    * Sometimes information is modified by the presenter to suit the perceived needs of the user; does that count as knowledge sharing?

    * What is and isn’t appropriate to share? Who decides? Who monitors?

    * Not everyone wants to (or can) write. The online world has a “1% rule,” which states that for a site that relies on content from users, only 1% actually contribute while the other 99% passively consume it.

    * Information sharing won’t spontaneously arise (nor will it survive) in a culture that doesn’t support it; and by “support,” I don’t mean memos and presentations from the higher-ups.

    I’m not slamming anyone’s desire to implement KM, I’m just encouraging them to check their reality.

  5. Shawn says:

    Hi TCM,
    I’m also unconvinced that enterprise-wide KM is a good thing as it is normally practised. That is, getting a small group of people (usually the leadership group) to decide what will be done because that is the quickest and more convenient approach. It’s an inconvenient truth (to borrow Al’s phrase) that it’s impossible to be both effective and efficient when people are involved.
    What I’m advocating here is a combination of top down influence and direction with bottom up choice and action. And I agree with your sentiment that organisations need to tackle one issue at a time. My first essay on knowledge strategy made this point (https://www.anecdote.com.au/papers/CallahanCraftingKnowledgeStrategy.pdf). I was inspired by Christopher Alexander’s observation that you couldn’t change a city in one fell swoop. Rather, you needed to do one project at a time that had the characteristics you desired for the whole city and over time, bit by bit, those characteristics would be imbued throughout the city.

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