Take or leave us

Only please believe us

 ISO 30401:2018 Knowledge management systems – Requirements was released on 1 November 2018. I want to begin by acknowledging the work that went into it by the committee members and the commentators. The effort to get these things done is considerable. The inherently conservative nature of standards development means that writing one is rather like pushing manure up hill – without the benefit of such new-fangle contraptions as electricity, fire, the wheel or multi-cellular life. Lets not go beyond the consensus safe space of prokaryotes into unknown territory.

Explanations are complications

We don’t need to know the where or why

 There has been widespread criticism of the standard from many directions. Some have criticized the specific content in terms of the frameworks proposed. Others have criticized the fundamental limits of standards as sources of guidance and supports for behaviour. Still others have criticized the difficulties of taking a short and general document and using it in a prescriptive manner.

Like us, Hate us

But you’ll never change us

 My take is slightly different. I am more interested in the discourse around the standard by knowledge managers and the gap between what I see people talking about and what I think will actually happen. Much of the commentary either states or implies that the standard finally validates knowledge management. KM is, at last, respectable.

Taking chances, bold advances

Don’t care if you think we’re out of line

 As the authors of The KM Cookbook state: “So, is KM ready to move from being a ‘movement’ to establishing itself as a recognised cuisine.. …In many ways, the arrival of an internationally agreed standard and vocabulary provides knowledge managers with a brand-new kitchen, and a moment during which they can pause for a moment and consider the service that they provide to their organisations.”

There is a belief that respectability is awarded through standards and that then the joys of managerial attention and also consulting and auditing fees will flow. After all, isn’t that what happened to Quality Management with ISO 9001?

Conversation is interrogation

Get out of here, we just don’t have the time

 The desire for respectability in the KM community strong because respectability and respect have been sorely lacking for a while now. It dropped off Bain’s Management Tools Survey – the closest thing to a pop chart for managerial trends – between 2011 and 2013. In Australia, the job title of “knowledge manager” is an endangered species found only in the protected wildlife parks that are law firms. This isn’t to say that the challenges that knowledge management developed to deal nor the techniques that it deployed are no longer relevant. Just that knowledge management is not a thing now – as the kids say these days (and by “kids” I mean people in their late 30s).

The standard is a distraction. It is not bad. It may even be helpful in certain circumstances. It is “Mostly Harmless”.  ISO 30401 is not ISO 9001. And the reason is something that knowledge managers like to bang on about endlessly: context. ISO 9001 did not become the standard juggernaut it is today all by itself. Its importance is based on its embedding into commercial relationships. The procurement departments of large buyers of products and services (often but not only governments) decided that ISO 9001 was a good marker of compliance. ISO 27001 – relating to information security – is following a similar path built of commercial necessity paved with the tarmac of least resistance. Part of my job is to review the cyber security capabilities of cloud providers to my employer – and an ISO 27001 certification or SOC 1 / 2 report mean that I have to do less work.

Fascination is our sensation

We like to put ourselves on the line

It is not clear to me that the commercial context will arise to grant ISO 30401 such a role. The current big push for organizations is to use technology to reduce costs and build new channels to their customers. Words such “machines learning”, “robotic process automation”, “omni-channel” and “digital transformation” magically unlock the chastity belt around the procurement chequebook (although it’s probably Apple Pay now). Knowledge management needs to be part of these conversations rather than waving around its standard like a MENSA membership card in a nightclub at 2am.

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1 Response to Respectable

  1. Ian Fry says:

    Well said Matt.
    Having had a lot of contact with those on the ISO Technical Committee and as a member of the Standards Australia committee on ISO30401 my view is that the standard is all about the Management System around Knowledge Management, Initially, it specifically relates to the governance issues. It specifically does not address the execution of Knowledge Management.

    The Commerciality is a difficult issue. Why would anyone apply to be certified? As Matt says, until forced to; there is no reward for the effort and expense. Perhaps it will come in the Nuclear Industry first.
    The second issue is to find a certification company who is qualified, able and sees a commercial return from their efforts.

    But it is a “not bad” guide to its stated purpose.

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