There used to be three big KM conferences every year. KM World over in Santa Clara and then KM Asia and KM Europe both of which were run by the Ark Group.

APQC of course have run a major event every year which continues. Delphi had a great event in San Deigo (the first time I spoke on the same platform as Peter Drucker) but messed it up by converting it to a portal event. Another organiser (I forget the name) organised the first UK event but also lost the plot and ARK took over, and have extended the franchise to KM Australia (which to my mind is one of the best). I’ve keynoted at several of these for successive years with the odd miss (a record I think) so I’ve seen things come and go over the years.

The one thing I do know is that when you let the main speaker slots be occupied by vendors who simply pitch their products you are on a slippery slope to perdition. Larry Prusak and I used to keep explaining this to IBM who wanted us to simply present IBM products when we spoke. We used to point out (i) that we had been invited to speak not IBM and (ii) the best way to sell is for your keynote speakers to say interesting things, not deliver the corporate slide set. I remember telling one executive that the next time I used slides I would comply, but failed to tell him that in those days I never used slides.

I had an inkling of this when the invitation to speak came through. It started off as a would you speak email and I said yes if its a keynote. I have learnt to check these things. The answer was interesting, I was told that the keynote slots were all reserved for vendors. As it happened not all the slots were sold so I got invited, but unusually was given the subject and summary that had been researched and was not allowed to change it. Now this doesn’t worry me, I’ll keep within the broad area of the topic but I will modify it on the day. Now I don;t blame the organisers for this (although KM Asia and KM Australia seem less prone). The vendors in effect pay for the event, and I know they are always told to bring case studies rather than promotional pitches, but in practice we get the sales pitches. The trouble is if you allow this, fewer people turn up (and the conferences with the exception of KM World and APQC have suffered a significant decline in numbers).

There are some things you can do which improve these things. KM Australia has a sort of speaker pen (its the sheep sheering culture) where you sit and make yourself available to delegates. That works well. These days any conference should have power points and free wifi and encourage conference blogging. I had to find one of four plugs at the back of the hall and balance Myfanwy on my lap, not to mention paying €20 (its a french hotel) for access. KM World this year will be the centre of a narrative learning process (watch for my announcement on this as I’m leading it) which will start two months before the event itself. Using unconference techniques in part, or open space all work in various ways to improve things.

Either way to the conference itself. On day one the first keynote was from HSBC and knowing Larry Campbell from a fascinating lunch last year I am sure it was interesting. I missed the morning and arrived just before lunch and survived two vendor presentations that bracketed the event by writing my political blog of earlier today while keeping the odd note here! I only heard the tale end of Lexus but after lunch the presentation from Mondeca has semantic in every bullet point on slide one (I jest not) and thereafter it was all about the semantic web as the solution to the problem of life the user and everything. By the way, after the semantic web we get the ubiquitous web! Other than that it was the sort of talk about Taxonomies and ontology that you can hear for free if you invite the vendor in to sell to you, or let them come to your stand. Given their client list it would have been oh so impressive if a couple of executives from those clients had turned up to give the presentation.

After that it perked up a bit. Tony Quinlin of Narrate emphasised the human aspect at last, talking about the use of anecdote circles and future backwards, how to handle the ageing workforce and like issues. Well spoken, a nice attack on best practice as preventing improvement (which was heavily tweeted).

We then moved on to Richard McDermott who I’ve know for years, populariser of Communities of Practice (CoP) and it’s still his main theme. A Warwick University sponsored research programme underpins his presentation. He argues that every organisation has to balance operations, customer focus and learning. CoPs own learning and this contribute to the firm. He is really going back to basics (or rather the 90s) here. Suggesting that back then we thought that it was the informal nature of these which worked. Argues that things have now changed, or so his research shows. Originally information connectivity was novel, now people are subject to data glut and its difficult to know where you are or what you should pay attention to. His theme now is all about people being overwealmed so their participation in communities fell off because it was voluntary. Using the tragedy of the commons and a focus on individual learning now to make a point. I suspect he’s working towards a corporatist perspective. Moves on to suggest five questions that should be asked: (i) does the community matter, (ii) who is minding the store, (iii) staff have to be pressurised to participate, (iv) CoPs should be integrated to the organisation and (v) Communities should have a formal function, such as saving money etc.

One of the things that always worries be about KM research is that it is context free. Now the above are conclusions from current research, at the end of the KM life cycle. Organisations still running CoPs are likely to have formalised them into complements to process, and as those are the only ones to survive its nor surprising that the above conclusions are made – this is especially true if you interview the KM function. I’d be interested to see some field ethnography here. If you give people targets and appraisals that make them participate in communities, then they will. We had the same in IBM, but the real knowledge transfer took place in informal networks, the formal systems had (with some honourable exceptions) lots of compliance and the KM practice reported success to researchers and executives alike. The reality was very different.

With the odd exception the whole thing seems to be going back to the 1990s, its about information management (with KM as a subset), search engines, automation, very traditional and formal approaches to CoPs. None of this stuff worked back then, do people really think that doing it again and harder will achieve the result?

The day finishes with a panel. This is a lot of fun, good questions from the audience, lots of interaction and I wasn’t enjoying myself too much to take notes. The first question was good though, which one technique would you implement?. My response was remove corporate IT restrictions on the use of social computing tools. I’ll pick up on that in my opening keynote tomorrow.

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