IBM was not the first large organization to decide that “knowledge sharing” is an easier sell than “KM.” The World Bank preceded IBM in this move by more than a decade, long before the advent of Web 2.0 or Enterprise 2.0. The Bank decided to use”knowledge sharing” as the orienting idea in their knowledge-related program because the people trying to get the program adopted thought that “knowledge sharing” was easier to understand than “Knowledge Management,” because it has fewer contradictory conceptual elements. In the event, the decision to turn away from “KM” and toward ‘knowledge sharing” was successful in ‘”selling” what became a very large program at the Bank.
From FY97 – FY02 this high profile “knowledge sharing” program, spent $280 million. It encouraged development of some 125 thematic groups (Communities of Practice), 24 advisory services, widespread web site use, and training in and use of storytelling. In the field of KM itself, this program was widely viewed as a successful, even a flagship, model, even though it had abandoned the label “KM” for the friendlier “knowledge sharing,”and many other organizations emulated its emphasis on CoPs and storytelling.
However, a World Bank Review of the program in 2003, while providing a perfunctory nod to its success in fostering a new knowledge sharing culture and a wide variety of new activities for aggregating and sharing knowledge, also concluded that “the Bank’s new activities have not been well-integrated into core lending and non-lending processes.” And the report mentions management shortfalls as accounting for this state of affairs. Specifically, management did not define roles and responsibilities for making knowledge sharing a way of doing business; nor did it provide incentives for incorporating knowledge sharing into operational processes. Further, there was “no systematic monitoring and evaluation of knowledge sharing programs and activities.” In other words, no structure of metrics was developed for the project, and no connection between the accomplishments of the program and the bank’s operational activities and day-to-day business could be established.
How could this evaluation occur? How could a program that was so well-funded, so well-staffed, and with access to the world’s top KM and knowledge sharing consultants be repudiated in such plain terms by evaluators? Well, first, it’s easy to believe that there was Bank internal politics involved. There was a change in the top leadership of the Bank, and the new management was not friendly to the outlook of knowledge sharing. I suspect the Bank evaluation team may have been selected to ensure a tough evaluation of the program.
Even assuming this, however, the fact remains that the overall tenor of the evaluation is hard to deny. There was no coupling of the new activities to operational lending and other day-to-day concerns. There was no structure of metrics to ensure accountability. There was no systematic monitoring and evaluation of program activities, and there were Management shortfalls, indeed it is not too much to say that there were Knowledge Management shortfalls that explain these problems. The question I want to raise is whether the failure to solve KM conceptual problems at the inception of the project, and the ensuing shift to a “knowledge sharing” rather than a more comprehensive KM orientation, may not have been a primary factor in the later problems of the project? Unfortunately, I can’t answer this question, because I wasn’t close enough to the program and the Bank’s evaluation report was definitely not written from a KM point of view. However, I do think that shifting from “KM” to “knowledge sharing” as an orienting concept can bring with it a variety of problems. In future posts, I’ll talk about those.