Monday, February 14, 2011

Big Society - Big Headache

You know I have a bit of sympathy with David Cameron and the Big Society challenge he faces. Now my sympathy has nothing to do with my view of either the Big Society initiative or, for that matter, David Cameron. My sympathy is with regard to the challenge of communicating a philosophy to a diverse audience with diverse agendas and an audience more used to sound bite communications and an appetite for the more binary or concrete.

Why should I sympathise? Well anyone that has been involved with Knowledge Management should be able to empathise with him because a constant refrain to the ears of those seeking to bring KM to an organisation has been “I don’t know what KM means”. Now the reasons for “not understanding” were in some cases intentional, manufactured and considered as well as in others ones of genuine confusion. The reasons for this variety range from those who sought to discredit the initiative because it wasn’t in their interests so a feigned misunderstanding; through to the advocates of KM not really understanding the philosophy themselves or being un able to articulate it.

To expand on that a little I mean this. I always knew what the philosophy of KM meant and I also knew that, when applied properly, it challenged many of the Taylorist management traditions that persist to the detriment of business and to the benefit of a few vested interests. So it was in the interests of some to discredit any KM initiative and a simple but effective method for this was to pretend to not understand. An alternative approach was to directly misrepresent the philosophy of KM into a service based model so that it compartmentalised any initiative and emasculated the practitioners.

By the same token it was misrepresented by those who sought to ride on its coat tails – I am thinking particularly of software vendors who rebadged their database products as KM product – which of course they were/are not. It was in their interests to make it something that suited their ends regardless of whether that was an accurate representation or not. They could “de mystify” KM and sell a product at the same time. Management could either use the procurement as a representation of their “doing KM” or as a constrained and manageable project – whilst business as usual was maintained.

You may call me cynical but believe me its true.

And so to the less Machiavellian but no less challenging causes of misunderstanding. For some KM is and was a difficult thing to grasp as it went beyond their management experience and the advocates were unable to encourage the opening up process. Notably for some it was a challenging concept to grasp because it was a philosophical stance to managing an organisation that did not offer a simple recipe based or system based approach with best practice or rules to be followed – or even coloured belts to wear! For some, who genuinely understood its flexibility of application, this in itself was problematic as that liberty can be scary.

And finally there were those who advocated it but either didn’t understand it or could not articulate it with sufficient clarity and so the audience was genuinely confused.

There is no simple solution to the “communications” and “understanding” challenges but it remains an un resolved problem for KM and has, in my view, caused it to under achieve as a management style.

David Cameron will face the same challenges because he will face those with an agenda to oppose or subvert, and those that truly find it difficult to embrace a somewhat nebulous concept, and the limits of the communications generally in an anti thinking sound bite based world.

Wonder how it will go?

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