The future of Knowledge Management – Births, Deaths or Marriages?

A few months ago I was asked to present at Henley Business School’s annual conference on the past and future of knowledge management, looking backwards and forwards 15 years.
Without sharing the whole presentation, here is a summary of my thoughts.

My own family has changed dramatically in that time – as Hannah, my 15 year-old will testify!  In several respects, KM hasn’tchanged a great deal over the past 15 years.  Many of the practices which were pioneering approaches in 2001 are still surprisingly effective and still surprisingly novel for some in 2016.

Not all practice are equal though.  Different KM practices evolve and develop at different paces.  For example: communities of practice and lessons learned go through gentle spirals and eddies of improvement and iteration whilst other developments seem to go past in the fast lane…

We have also seen significant shifts in KM due to changes in other related disciplines.  The rise of enterprise social networks over the past 10 years has added much momentum to KM – probably changing KM’s mix and perception from then on.

At a high level, we have seen a shift from a focus on Knowledge capture and Information management – ‘just in case’ KM, which generated a response to information overload in the form of distillation and curation and the formation and management of knowledge assets – ‘just enough’. Timeliness – just in time’ knowledge is also a critical issue. As  Dave Snowden once said: “we don’t know what we know until we need it”. And now ‘just for me’ knowledge comes with the growth of personalization and tailored knowledge flows over the last 5 years.   5 years ago, when we searched for the same word on google, we got the same result.  That’s no longer the case.

Looking forward, I asked the SIKM community, one of the longest–standing KM leaders communities – for their thoughts on the key developments over the next 15 years. Technology will continue to disrupt (positively) the KM marketplace, but that doesn’t mean that human KM is going away – but we’ll continue to get better at it, especially as the nature of he employment contract, the psychological contract and the very nature of organizations shifts. IP will continue to evolve to keep the lawyers busy (the ones which haven’t been replaced by robots), as Open Data and the sharing economy combine with the changes to organizations to create what the Chinese might describe as “interesting times”.  At an individual level, we’ll see more of a shift to personal social broadcasting.  Periscope is just the tip of a bigger iceberg.  Add personal drones, virtual reality and wearable technology to the mix and we’ll all be streaming and broadcasting in multiple dimensions. Google search will just have to keep pace.

What does all this mean for KM?  The community had different views. They agreed that KM will be devolved further into the workforce, which could create a resurgence for expertise to help with that shift.

As part of its maturing, KM as an ever-growing umbrella may find that the unifying material has stretched too thinly to remain meaningful.  How broad can a broad church become, before it loses the faithful?

Back to our river of ‘justs’…  going on from ‘just for me’, I think we’ll see that increase in social broadcasting ‘just from me’ with our employees (whatever “employees” means then) – thousands of potential channels to tune into in real time.  In 2001, our only employee “footprints” were emails!  Think how much that will be enriched. And by the way, will any of us even use email in 2031?

Cognitive computing will better anticipate our knowledge needs based on current context, history, geography, proximity to others – and suggest answers to the questions we hadn’t even though to ask ourselves. ‘Just thought you should know’

Ultimately, some of those decisions will be made for us – ‘just decided for you’ –  and we will have to decide what we, and our children do to thrive in that world.

My predictions for the future of KM?

Some things are ‘evergreen’. People will always need to talk, learn, reflect,
network, collaborate and interact.

Expertise will continue be prized, but the bar will be raised on machine learning. Employment boundaries will change and become more permeable; communities and networks will become more flexible. HR will finally embrace the strategic, people-oriented elements of KM, and we’ll see it at the heart of OD capability, rather than on the periphery.

Technology will change significantly, offering huge opportunities to a smaller number of people who understand how to integrate behaviour, understanding and technology.


So for KM?  I don’t think we’ll be using the label in 2031 – but well recognise today’s KM DNA in a series of sub-disciplines which it has become unbundled into.  Knowledge, Learning and Change will still be fundamental to success.

A couple of years ago, a respected thought leader in KM blogged that KM wasn’t quite dead, but was in its death throes. I think he confused death throes for labour pains.  We’ll see KM as the mother and father of many thriving child disciplines.

However, just like my daughters Martha and Hannah – these child disciplines may one day chose to marry and take on a new surname – but they will always have my DNA.