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Secret to KM Success    [Date Added : 07/14/2004 ]
Megan Santosus of CIO Magazine has reviewed Jeff Nielsen's new book on leadership. In his book, Neilsen emphatically states that hierarchical organizations are the enemy of successful knowledge management.

Nielsen is a business consultant who specializes in strategy, organizational development and training. In The Myth of Leadership, an outgrowth of his doctoral dissertation, he proposes a new management paradigm – one that eschews hierarchy and rank-based leadership in favor of peer-based thinking – which according to the author is future of business.

In Nielsen's peer-based world, knowledge sharing and decision-making are open, transparent processes. Forget about closed-door meetings and exclusive strategy-setting offsite retreats; in Nielsen's opinion, the most effective organizations will be those that replace C-level decision-makers with collective groups of employees who share everything they know and make company decisions accordingly.

Santosus notes that without his explicitly saying as much in the book, Nielsen's peer-based approach is the epitome of an effective KM organization. And as the author sees it, it's no wonder KM initiatives often fall short: in a traditional hierarchical business environment with its definite distinction among the superiors in charge and the employees doing the work, there's no such thing as open and honest knowledge sharing.

For the most part, traditional leaders control information and monopolize decision-making. "Genuine communication will only occur among peers," Nielsen says, simply because in a hierarchy "people will tell their superiors what they think they want to know." He adds, "A KM program in the context of a rank-based organization is like driving a car and stepping on the gas and brake at the same time."

Many organizations attempting to adapt KM principles offer incentives for sharing and contributing knowledge as a strategy to get employees on board. While the idea sounds good, Nielsen says such efforts will fail if the organization overall still clings to its rank-based structure. The managers are still essentially "telling you that you have to contribute to a knowledge system," Nielsen says. Rather than a sense of communal participation, the result is invariably secrecy, distrust and a feeling of being commanded and controlled, he believes.

As Nielsen sees it, there's little hope for KM in a rank-based world, and he finds it unlikely that current business leaders who manage in a hierarchical fashion will change their minds. But Nielsen isn't fazed. Like all new ideas, the peer-based concept for managing organizations will slowly evolve and become mainstream once its efficacy is proven.

Already there's a movement in that direction from the likes of Thomas Malone in his book The Future of Work, and companies such as Semco and W.L. Gore, which Nielsen highlights in The Myth of Leadership.

To establish a peer-based foothold in a hierarchical organization, Nielsen advises any manager to informally begin to create peer-space through offsite seminars, internal think tanks or other forums that allow employees to share ideas in a risk-free environment.

As Nielsen points out, Peter Drucker was among the first management gurus to say that the key challenge for knowledge workers is creating a structure that will promote and support how those knowledge workers can be most effective. If Nielsen is right, the C-level executives as we know them are a fading breed, and once gone, will be replaced by an organizational structure in which KM finally can flourish.

(Review by Megan Santosus, Senior Opinion Editor, CIO Magazine. Copyright 2004. CXO Media Inc.)

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