Don’t try to boil the ocean – Influencing organisational culture 

I was honoured to present a guest lecture on knowledge management to students at QUT last night. I enjoy sharing my experience and stories with people who are interested in the topic and are eager to learn.

It is also an opportunity to provide some perceptions on the practical reality of popular KM concepts and mythical ‘best practices’. So after commenting on the DIKW pyramid, the SECI model, limits of codification and the futility of long term strategic plans, I decided to share my thoughts on programs focussed on changing organisational culture.

I believe that efforts by knowledge management programs to change the culture of an organisation are an exercise in futility, tantamount to the “boiling the ocean” metaphor. There are much better qualified and resourced areas of the business that try to modify the systems, symbols and behaviours of staff with mixed success, so how do we somehow think people will quickly embrace the alternative culture that we put forward?

Instead of trying to change the culture, look for traits that already exist that support the tenants of KM. Find behaviours that are sympathetic to valuing knowledge as an asset, facilitating discovery, sharing and transfer, and promote the leveraging of data, information and knowledge as a means to minimise risk and increase the chance of success.

The other important factor in this area is time. There are very few things that result in quick wholesale change in behaviour across an organisation. In a recent survey of KM practitioners, the following interpretation was drawn when it comes to realising the value of a KM program:

“It is obvious that the longer an organisation is involved in KM, the more value is delivered. This is not however a linear relationship, partly because the companies with a longer history are also the larger companies. However it seems clear that the delivery of significant value from Knowledge Management will take at least 2 years.”

The table’s results showed that participants believe their KM programs produce no value in the first six months.

I’m sceptical. In the current climate of cost reduction, short term gain and doing ‘more with less’, do you really believe that senior stakeholders will be willing to invest in an internal program for two years before seeing any significant value? That doesn’t even happen in IT any more.

KM programs and initiatives compete with other internal investments in product development, marketing, IT, customer service and business improvement. What we deliver must have a positive ROI in a very short period of time to get runs on the board and show that it is a worthwhile investment. We need to be very specific about how KM practices and techniques help solve business problems and make better decisions.

Don’t try and boil the ocean. Start small. Find a manageable opportunity, define the problem, co-design the solution, deliver return on the investment, rinse and repeat.

I’d be very keen to hear how you feel about trying to change culture with a quick ROI. Drop me a line at cory.banks[at]