Top 15 Takeaways: International Conference on Knowledge Management

Top 15 Takeaways: International Conference on Knowledge Management


by Madanmohan Rao; Dec 10, 2009

Editor, The KM Chronicles



I attended the first inaugural International Conference on Knowledge Management in Singapore in 2004, and was delighted to attend its six incarnation in Hong Kong this month ( The past few editions were in the US and Europe, and the next two will be in the US and Jordan. My first trip to Hong Kong was in 1995, before its handover to China, and in my many trips here since then I have always been amazed at the terrific buzz and energy of this place. This time I even saw the rehearsal of the opening ceremony of the East Asian Games, with a spectacular boat parade and laser light showcase on Victoria Harbour.


The conference as usual had a strong academic research component, but with good practitioner tales woven in. You can always count on solid reading material from a well-organised academic event, and this time a hefty book of edited papers was released: “Managing Knowledge for Global and Collaborative Innovations,” edited by Samuel Chu, Waltraut Ritter and Suliman Hawamdeh (33 chapters, 420 pages. World Scientific Publishing


I had a chance to network with attendees from Africa and Latin America as well; KM has become a truly global movement now. There were good networking breaks over coffee, but since there was no common lunch area we had to scatter across the layered hillside campus of the University of Hong Kong, which actually gave us a good opportunity to chat with local students. (Good tip this time: it is better to do the Peak hike at night than day time, due to the increased haziness and smog during the day!)


With 7 parallel tracks in 5 time slots, plus 4 keynote addresses over 2 days, there was a lot (almost too much!) to choose from, but that is a nice problem to have! Poster sessions (as in the first ICKM event) would have been a good addition. Here are some of my key takeaways from the event; see more tweets at the Twitter hashtag #ICKM (


1. Always start with the basics


You would think that after two decades the KM community would have a common definition of knowledge and KM, but I continue to be delighted with the new metaphors and descriptions that keep emerging. Edward Rogers, CKO, NASA, said KM is like a pair of shoes! “It has got to be comfortable, and get you to where you want to be. Fit KM to the unique character of your organisation,” he said. Max Boisot (author of the book “Knowledge Assets”), said there are 3 kinds of knowledge: experiential, narrative and abstract symbolic (reflecting “What do I see/hear/feel,” “What can I say about this,” and “What stable durable content can I extract from this”).


2. Connect KM to organisational vision and function


NASA’s Rogers says KM works best when people feel that (1) I can see how what I know matters to others (2) If I speak, something happens (3) If I work hard, it matters. “We are going back to the moon. But we can’t do it without KM,” said Rogers eloquently, placing KM in a central role for NASA.


3. Branding should reflect local culture and nomenclature


Once again, speakers brought out the fact that for a KM initiative to appeal to employees, one must start with the very name of the initiative and its components. Cagari Sasikala said that India’s Vizag Steel has a KM system called GNANA (Generating, Nurturing, and Acquiring Novel Assets) – gnana or gyana also means knowledge in India. Andrew McCusker of Hong Kong MTR said “Learning Organisation” (LO) underlies branding of their KM initiatives, such as raiLOvation Week and raiLOvation Jam events for innovation. Their KM and learning programme is called LIPS: Learning, Innovation, People, Sharing (perhaps inspired by “Read My Lips?”    ;-)


4. KM practitioners and academics should appreciate each other’s work and cooperate more


Perhaps more than ever before, it is important for KM practitioners and academics to cooperate in research and brainstorming. I often hear each group dismissing the other (fuddy duddies, ivory towerheads, moneygrubbers, shallow managers, etc!). This is perhaps particularly so in emerging economies. But thought leaders from each sector have a lot to learn from each other and even more in co-creation of frameworks and opportunities. This could include student research internships in organisations, joint research of knowledge assets, and guest lectures in academic organisations. (Next year I will be part of the ICKM track on KM education, send me your inputs!)


5. Communication to the fore


After all this theoretical and philosophical speculation, however, it is important for knowledge managers to communicate the essence of KM in an actionable way to their colleagues, otherwise they will not get the meaning. Don’t use big words, says NASA’s Rogers, otherwise knowledge communication may not take off. Knowledge circulation is more important than knowledge capture. “Your organisation needs to breathe an atmosphere of knowledge,” said Rogers, drawing on another classic NASA metaphor.


6. Sociology also to the fore


It is not just communication that is becoming central to KM activities (eg. offline events and online social media), but also the nature of social groupings that such activities create. This is leading to a number of sociological and anthropological studies of knowledge sharing and performance behaviours in fiefs, clans, bureaucracies, expert circles, and markets; Max Boisot alluded to many of these.


7. Social Media allow for mining, re-packaging and re-mixing of knowledge


I was delighted to hear Joyline Makani of Dalhousie University use a music metaphor and explain that Web 2.0 allows organisations to remix knowledge (another hat I wear is world music DJ!). The multiple forms of social media allow stocks and flows of knowledge to be sequenced and packaged in multiple ways – the more the merrier, but without work/information overload. Blogs and micro-blogs add an important realtime component to knowledge flows.


8. Optimal use of social media also requires culture and governance


While social media are more than the flavour of the month and are here to stay, optimal use of social media for knowledge flow requires more than just allowing employees to blog and tweet. Bonnie Cheuk, Global Head of Knowledge at ERM, said many companies are now focusing on Web 2.0 tools — but they should also address rules and culture.


9. Analyse intrinsic and extrinsic benefits of KM tools


Using KM tools effectively can empower employees and improve work. IT tools have two effects on KM, according to Boisot: Diffusion Effect (wider reach for knowledge created), and Bandwidth Effect (media richness brings communities/clans closer). For instance, the fax was a richer and more personal medium than the preceding telex machine (GASP, this was true even with medieval technology?!   ;-)     Ngai-Keung Chow from the KM Development Centre in Hong Kong said IT tool usage in KM can yield intrinsic benefits (eg. job satisfaction for employees, broad perspectives of the entire organisation) as well as extrinsic (eg. proving competence in narrative and content creation areas).


10. Dream big, but understand limits as well


It is easy to get swept up with the vision that all knowledge in the organisation should ultimately become visible, but one must accept real constraints as well. “Understand and live with your structural limits. Learn how to “live with dust.” I don’t complain that NASA has a government culture,” said NASA’s Rogers, referring to perceptions that people with secure government jobs may be less competitive and less incentivised to share knowledge. (In my second KM book, “KM Tools and Techniques”, Tharun Kumar of Cable&Wireless advises: “Accept the fact that some hoarding of knowledge is natural.”)


11. Keep the momentum


Knowledge managers should focus on long term benefits as well as quick wins in order to keep the momentum. “Scale, scope, speed are all important in KM,” advised Andrew McCusker of Hong Kong MTR. Indeed, the organisation, a MAKE Hong Kong Award winner, has launched a dizzying array of initiatives in learning, innovation, culture and benchmarking on a regional and global scale.


12. Benchmarking is a great way to learn and progress


Comparing and contrasting your organisation with competitors, counterparts from other countries, and even entirely different organisations gives you very good insights into your own organisation. “We have been benchmarking with other organisations for 15 years, starting off with rail networks in New York city and Tokyo. We have been benchmarking our technology with IT companies,” said Andrew McCusker of Hong Kong MTR. “We are now benchmarking with Qantas, Hong Kong Police and Rolls Royce. It helps us learn from successes and failures of other organisations. Never be embarrassed about stealing good ideas from other companies!” added McCusker. KM has helped the organisation expand and manage rail networks in Beijing, Stockholm, Melbourne and London.


13. External knowledge: learn from other disciplines and your own customers


A couple of interesting trends were pointed out by Yeon-Long Chen, a Taiwan-based author of three KM books in Chinese. A key knowledge trend in many fields these days is “intersectional innovation”, arising from the convergence between different fields. “We have also moved from era of customisation to “customerisation,” where design for the customer is being augmented with design by the customer,” said Chen. It is important to not just conduct occasional surveys about customer needs and satisfaction but involve them closely and directly in product and service design. “Hard technology” specialists are also learning of the need now to use “soft” or social research in their work, said KM consultant Vincent Ribiere. At an individual level, social knowledge tools can serve as external scaffolding for the mind, and can create extended and collective minds, said Boisot, drawing on the work of Andy Clark.


14. Issues of national culture are important


Much work has been done in defining organisational culture along national cultural parameters such as uncertainty avoidance and collectivism, eg. for European and Asian cultures. But not much has been shared in professional KM forums on how these cultural differences may affect knowledge sharing and contesting behaviours (it is important to avoid excessive national stereotyping also, of course). At ICKM 2009, Thai and Chinese speakers did address some of these issues. For instance, Ngai-Keung Chow from the KM Development Centre in Hong Kong mentioned that national culture can be a challenge for KM in Chinese organisations due to uncertainty avoidance and collectivism. “In Chinese culture the employee has to follow the boss — so KM initiatives have to be strongly promoted top-down by the boss,” said Chow.


15. Knowledge is key in the move from industrial to creative societies


Knowledge societies or creative societies require fundamental high-level changes in the way countries position themselves in the global knowledge economy. Some regions are feeling this pressure due to external changes. For instance, the University of Hong Kong started research in knowledge societies in 1997, according to Waltraut Ritter, around the time of the city-state’s handover to China. The first KM conference in Hong Kong was exactly 10 years ago, and the theme this year (“Managing Knowledge for Global and Collaborative Innovations”) also reflects a move away from regional industry to global services.





Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>