When is a KM Tool not a Tool?



April 05, 2017

In Neil Olonoff’s excellent post “Knowledge Management Tools That Aren’t Tools,” he takes us back to the basic purpose and definition of a tool: something that is supposed to make work easier. It’s easy to agree with that, yet there are so many KM “tools” that only complicate matters, and make work harder. And there in a nutshell is the biggest barrier to user adoption.

As KM practitioners, we’ve all heard users tell us, time and again, that the “old” way of doing something was better, and that our new tools take more time, have a steep learning curve, and do stuff that they don’t even want or need. Then, passive resistance starts. Nobody uses your solution(s), and it’s really difficult to get a do-over.

It’s easy to agree that we embrace “applied technology,” and that software should be first and foremost, practical. But let’s not simply define what’s practical by whether it solves one problem, such as streamlining content classification. Rather, it must solve two problems: it must enable the user to do the task at hand, and it has to make their work easier than it was before.

It’s true that what works beautifully in theory may well not work in practice. That’s why it’s important to develop or customize/configure KM tools based on:

  • lots of user input
  • beta testing
  • observing people as they use the prototype (or Version 1)

By the way, building or buying an application that enables people to do something they could never do before isn’t necessarily solving a problem—because they might have no need to do whatever it is, nor any interest. Yes, it may be cool, but it’s not a tool.

In order to deliver a true KM tool, based on an applied technology approach, you first need to achieve alignment.

  • Stakeholders must agree that there is a problem to be solved
  • Stakeholders must agree on exactly what the problem is
  • Your KM solution has to make everyone’s work easier while solving the problem

Of course, sometimes even the most straightforward tools don’t have a chance. I once tried to help a user who had forgotten her password for the 100th time—and was trying to log in to a company resource using her personal email address—and she literally screamed that our KM system was telling her she wasn’t welcome, and asked why it was even secured. I think that scenario requires an organizational psychologist rather than a knowledge manager. Just sayin’.

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