Re: Could KM have saved GM? #case-studies

Allan Crawford

Patrick’s clarification of what he means by heavy weights really resonated with me.  When I was at one of the mid size oil companies our KM team consisted of business managers with strong technical backgrounds (geology, drilling, petroleum engineering) all of whom had reputations as change agents…and all of whom were respected in the organization.  Each had been in significant mid management positions..and one had headed one of our foreign business units. In our organization these were both technical and management heavy weights…all had significant futures in the company.  And they were able to pick up and apply a solid set of KM tools in 6 to 12 months (CoP’s, peer assists, retrospects, AAR’s and the use of key collaboration tools).


As result of having this caliber of individuals on the team, with this experience, was that the team could walk into any office, including the CEO’s, and say “we have something that we think you should try, we’re pretty confident that it will have a significant business impact.”  After explaining what we were proposing, the initial response was typically a little skeptical, but because each of the team members had “business credibility” the line people would say…I’m not sure about this, but I know your track record and I trust your instincts… so okay let’s give it a try.” 


Our initial approach was to work with small teams that faced a significant business challenge.  And our promise was that after working with the team for a short period of time if we didn’t deliver significant business value…we would go away. 


We started by working on any problem that was presented to us.  After some initial success we approached managers about more challenging problems.  Within two years we were focused on the problems that were most strategic to the corporation.  Our criteria for assessing this was…is this a project that if it succeeded – or failed could move the stock price?  For this mid size oil company (it had a market cap of about $20B) there were a hand full of projects that meet this criterion.  By focusing on these we were able to have a strategic impact on the corporation.  Our efforts included both very tactical work…at the level of the working geoscientists and engineers, but also more strategic work where the outcomes of what we were doing with the lower level teams were shared vertically with management.  This allowed management to make better strategic decisions based on knowledge that was coming from the people that were doing the technical work as well as what we were learning from our partners and our contractors at the technical level.


Ultimately the company was sold to Chevron….which I believe was the right strategic decision.  And KM played a role in that decision.  It was clear to our CEO that based on the work that had been done with the teams, we did not have the depth of technical expertise that was needed to execute the significant number of very challenging projects that we faced.  Many of these projects were fairly high risk (big upside if they worked, but high cost and significant downside if they failed).  These high risk – high reward projects were ones that would fit well into a larger company’s portfolio, but were difficult to manage for a mid size company.  The result was a strategic decision to sell the company.


Bottom line for me, as a result of this experience, I agree with Patrick, Murray and Nancy; KM can and needs to operate at both the tactical and strategic level.  The processes are pretty much the same…but it does take a different focus.  One is horizontal and the other vertical.  I had never thought of it in quite those terms before but they certainly apply to the work that we did and the results that we obtained.


Allan Crawford


From: sikmleaders@... [mailto:sikmleaders@...] On Behalf Of Peter Marshall
Sent: Saturday, December 20, 2008 10:58 AM
To: sikmleaders@...
Subject: Re: [sikmleaders] Re: Could KM have saved General Motors?


I've really enjoyed this dialogue, which I think has been more serious and realistic than most on KM...  Many dialogues in many CoPs suffer from bouts of incense-burning and self-congratulation, and KM, with it's abundance of smart people, can be worse than most.

I think the topic has produced this good result -- because in fact, GM is not dead yet, and it's very interesting to ask -- if we've got something which is REALLY useful as a practice or set of tools or body of expertise or whatever, why the hell wouldn't a rational buyer buy it when they face the need?  GM certainly is in dire need.  Are they actually irrational?  Has their culture and environment and complex barriers to change so warped their understanding that they are incapable of recognizing the value of KM to them?  And if so, doesn't that actually mean that large-scale, strategic KM doesn't exist or can't work?  After all, in order to have value, strategic KM would have to work exactly in environments where it wasn't already well practiced.  It has to be capable of being absorbed and realizing value in hostile, unreceptive environments, or else it fails at it's fundamental goal -- producing meaningful change.

I am worried that the situation may be something like another area I know something about -- speech recognition technology.  (I know, KM is not technology, but indulge the analogy for a moment).  Speech recognition has been around the corner and the obvious next big thing for 15 years... but it hasn't succeeded, because despite the obvious potential -- voice is the natural human interface -- it doesn't work well enough in practice.  It seems like a great idea, but doesn't produce the promised results.  The devil's in the details.  Do the real-work results of KM practice match the conceptual potential that smart people love?  Do they even produce positive results at all, often enough to be convincing to the un-converted?  If not, maybe it's because -- oops -- they really don't work yet.

Or to take a more mainstream analogy -- KM may be like green energy.  The coming thing? -- sure?  Worth investing in? -- sure.  Worth building a deep and broad and agile strategic program around? -- yes.  But don't expect miracles because it's really hard at the engineering and infrastructure and coordination of markets level.  It has to work well and cheaply and efficiently, and THEN it will be adopted organically, without the need of a massive bureaucratic and academic evangelism. 

Broadly speaking, I'm arguing that markets do respond to innovations that already work.  It's getting them there that's complex and emergent..  Is workable, strategic KM emergent or is it here?

Since GM isn't dead yet, and in fact has been told they better come up with a broad and deep and strategic and agile program of change and for change right quick -- who HERE is going to make the KM case?  Will it work?  In the messy real world?  It seems to me that evidence from Toyota on one end and Tesla Motors on the other argues yes, it could.  GM has all the resources to produce value.  What is their "better us of knowledge" roadmap?

Peter Marshall
CEO, Me-Me-Me (speaker-specific speech recognition for mobile applications)
"It's All About You"

On Sat, Dec 20, 2008 at 12:59 AM, Patrick Lambe <> wrote:

Nancy, I must finish editing the video podcast of the conversation we had in Singapore, it's highly relevant to this discussion - maybe this weekend!


What I took away from that conversation was that our problems are not just located at the top of organisations, but are pervasive throughout organisations, specifically in how we support knowledge flows vertically along power-relationships. I think just focusing at the top is seductive in many ways - it might create an illusion of effect, it certainly feeds one's sense of importance, and probably fills the grocery basket more effectively than focusing lower down in organisations.


But in reality, organisations such as GM are a socially produced balance of powers held in tension each imposing constraints from many directions. It's a culture that produces and reinforces its incapacity to act at many levels - at least, that's my guess from working with many other very large organisations. Getting a change of heart and practice in the boardroom would not survive long if you didn't get changes of heart and practice all the way through the culture - the legacy culture would just spit the dissonant leadership team out.


I take Murray's point and I think yours too, that the "tactical" KM game appears to be a different game from the "strategic" KM game, and that many - most even - knowledge managers are much more comfortable at the tactical level. I take the point that KM needs to get more serious at the strategic level. But I don't think it will, at the end of the day, be a qualitatively different game, working with different rules. It's the same game, just oriented vertically.


This is why when I say we need more heavyweights, I mean heavyweights in KM practice, not just thought leaders commenting from the sidelines, invaluable though they are. We need knowledge managers inside organisations who can command the respect of their peers and superiors, who can figure out how to influence people more powerful than they are, embed the practices you speak about, who can show impact and outcomes, and who can share what they learn with their colleagues in other organisations. Otherwise all this is just chatter.




Patrick Lambe



Have you seen our KM Method Cards?




On Dec 20, 2008, at 11:34 AM, Nancy Dixon wrote:


Over the brief history of KM we have had a number of shifts in focus, each one broadening how we think about knowledge and bringing us new practices. 


Early on we thought collecting explicit knowledge was the way to do KM, so we built large repositories.  Those were helpful, but did not give us the gains we hoped for.  Then folks like John Seely Brown and Nonaka broadened our perspective and we began to see there were ways to share tacit knowledge, and Wenger gave us a practice to do that with.  We broadened our perspective with the help of Pfeffer and Sutton, from thinking that only expert knowledge was useful, to recognizing that those who do the work have knowledge born from their everyday experience that can help the organization move forward.  Maybe these are the giants of which Patrick speaks, those who have helped us see a new perspective.



Peter Marshall
Mobile: (949) 689-7000
Skype: ideasware
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