Knowledge Management Failure

In 2013 and 2014, I tried to synthesize the knowledge management (KM) failure factors that have been discussed in cases and studies for the last 10 years or so. This resulted in an article that I am currently offering for free from this site. You can download it by clicking this link. This section and the articles within it are based on that paper (though without the same level of detail).

It is fair to say that the history of KM has been a very bumpy one. Over the years, KM initiatives have been associated with countless failures, making many companies and executives very apprehensive at considering implementing such a program.

The Issue of Definition

In order to understand how these knowledge management failures came about and how they could be prevented, it is important first to understand the ambiguity that surrounds our entire discipline. There are several factors that come into play here:

  • What is KM exactly? Sadly, there is no correct answer to this question, and there is virtually no consensus on what KM actually is. Part of the problem is that there is little consensus on what knowledge is, and this makes KM a very ambiguous concept. For instance, some views, which regard knowledge as virtually synonymous with information, would consider a "KM" initiative to be something much shallower and technology driven.
  • What is failure exactly? Failure and success are inextricably linked to expectations. You can only fail when you fall short of where you wanted to go. KM went through a buzz-word phase at the turn of the century and during that time expectations were sky high. So whenever one assesses failure, it is always important to ask if the expectations where realistic to begin with.

The reason I mentioned the above is because whenever someone talks of KM failing or succeeding, it is very important to understand what exactly they mean by KM and what exactly they expected from it. For this reason, the first article in this section deals with the problem of a lack of universal definition of KM.

KM Failure Factors

Based on the works of numerous researchers and authors, I arrived at two categories of factors, namely "causal" and "resultant".

Causal factors refer to fundamental problems within the organization, which lead to conditions that are not suitable for KM. They are not always easily visible and they lead to a number of symptoms, which I have termed “resultant” factors.

Below I have included an overview of these factors. For each of these points, there is substantial empirical evidence as well as theoretical deliberations linking them to KM failure (and conversely, to KM success). Please note that these factors are not listed in order of importance, nor does any one causal factor correspond to a specific resultant factor.

Causal Failure Factors:

  • Lack of performance indicators and measurable benefits
  • Inadequate management support
  • Improper planning, design, coordination, and evaluation
  • Inadequate skill of knowledge managers and workers
  • Problems with organizational culture
  • Improper organisational structure

Resultant Failure Factors:

  • Lack of widespread contribution
  • Lack of relevance, quality, and usability
  • Overemphasis on formal learning, systematisation, and determinant needs
  • Improper implementation of technology
  • Improper budgeting and excessive costs
  • Lack of responsibility and ownership
  • Loss of knowledge from staff defection and retirement

Written by Emil Hajric Emil Hajric

Published August 4th, 2023

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