The search for legitimacy for Knowledge Management

The legitimacy of the many practices collected under the Knowledge Management umbrella, such as Lessons Learned and After Action Reviews is accepted and frequently references in many contexts. Many of these practices are included in methodologies, such as project management frameworks. The ability to learn from failures and successes is regarded as being part of progressive leadership in an organisation (see recent articles in the Harvard Business Review). We also read frequently in business literature about the virtues of effective thinking skills, the need for the orchestration of collaboration, improvement of decision-making and facilitation and development of innovation readiness (incl creative thinking skills). One could ask then why is it that the Knowledge Management professional feel they still need to fight for strategic relevance and support in organisations? Why the ongoing search or legitimacy?

What is the then the legitimacy concern pertaining to Knowledge Management? When asking this question, one response could well be that “KM is dead”. Another response could be that KM is now embedded in our way of working, and not regarded as a distinct and separate function in our organisation anymore. There may still be KM professionals in dedicated roles, and often then found in a ‘Centre of Excellence’. But the organisation does not practice Knowledge Management as such.

legitimacyIf we look at the definitions of legitimacy in the picture on the left, the practices encapsulated in KM is regarded as valid. We are acting and competing in a Knowledge Economy and thus knowledge practices should be expected to be valued.  And in some contexts (such as Project Management) certain knowledge practices are rule driven and there is a sense of conformity, as it is embedded in the requirements of methodologies.

Which brings me back to the question. What is the then the legitimacy concern pertaining to Knowledge Management? APQC defines KM as a systemic effort.  And that is the legitimacy the KM community is looking for – the recognition, validation and requirement of a systemic approach – such as systemic management of HR, Finances and facilities (and other core resources and functions).  This is supported by questions such as what has happened to the Chief Knowledge Officer or Director of Knowledge Management? Others voice their concerns and frustrations that KM is often seen and practices on an operational and maybe tactical level that fails on a strategic level.

The development of ISO standards for Knowledge Management will provide an argument, framework and instrument to legitimise Knowledge Management as a systemic approach by means of compliance to principles and requirements. It is expected that these standards should underpin conformity and validity for Knowledge Management as a systemic effort. Will this be enough? My understanding is also that these standards will be more descriptive, and not prescriptive. It will, however, provide a reputable reference as being an ISO standard. It could provide the substance for (more comprehensive) inclusion in strategic plans, likewise as Quality Management.

I am also pondering what this would mean if KM is reduced to a compliance-driven effort? Will we see the same kind of discussion that you see in Quality Management? What can we learn from Quality Management? Is this referral to Quality Management even valid? I realise I am framing, and would appreciate your input in providing relevant frames for the discussion.

I am looking forward to the discussion about the meaning, contribution and potential value of ISO standards in KM in our Knowledge Hangout tomorrow with Paul Corney, Kholane Chauke & Refiloe Mabaso.

In a next post I will reflect on another dimension of legitimacy that is found in a professional society and/or community of practice. Other questions that are also raised include asking if there can be a standard for a field that is still evolving?


A related discourse is about Certification in KM.  Stan Garfield asks:  Are you certifiable in knowledge management?  This piece includes many aspects to also consider when discussion standards for KM.

KM is now officially linked to Quality Management in ISO 9001 (2015)

For the first time, organisational knowledge and its management are a core part of ISO certification requirement. Will this be a game changer projecting Knowledge Management as a mandatory thing to do?

Clause 7.1.6. Knowledge

Determine the knowledge necessary for the operation of its processes and to achieve conformity of products and services.

This knowledge shall be maintained and made available to the extent necessary.
When addressing changing needs and trends, the organization shall consider its current knowledge and determine how to acquire or access any necessary additional knowledge and required updates.

The following notes are also included:

NOTE 1: Organizational knowledge is knowledge specific to the organization; it is generally gained by experience. It is information that is used and shared to achieve the organization’s objectives.

NOTE 2: Organizational knowledge can be based on: a) Internal Sources (e.g., intellectual property, knowledge gained from experience, lessons learned from failures and successful projects, capturing and sharing undocumented knowledge and experience; the results of improvements in processes, products and services); b) External Sources (e.g., standards, academia, conferences, gathering knowledge from customers or external providers).

This is not a KM standard, only a requirement for KM. It basically states that organisation need to give proper attention to organisation knowledge in context of quality of product and services.

Together we grow knowledge leadership

A knowledge leader (or champion) is widely recognised as the person who is setting the direction for knowledge management and driving it forward.
David Skyrme

Do you see yourself as a knowledge leader? The following are just a few of the key roles for a knowledge leader that were discussed at the Knowledge Leadership Roundtable at the Southern African Knowledge Management Summit.

Being able to close the strategic gaps – ask “what are the business challenges?” and bring knowledge management to bear on directly addressing those.
The future role of the knowledge leaders is as facilitators or instigators of KM across the organisation – collaborating and leading collaboration across organisational silos.
Leading innovation management, bringing the experience and principles of knowledge management into innovation management.

In essence, it is about taking responsibility and building trust, amongst our profession, as well as in our different organisations.

Please add to the list, we would love to hear your thoughts on this.

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Why we used Strategic Narrative Embodiment (SNE) at the Summit and what it did, and did not, deliver

Co-author: Petro Janse Van Vuuren

During our planning for the 2016 Southern African Knowledge Management Summit (2016SAKMS) we pondered the current state and needs of the KM network in South Africa. Based on Etienne Wenger’s [1] stages of community development it seemed to us that the current KM network in South Africa represented a potential community, with a desire to coalesce towards community. It was this move to a next stage in the lifecycle of  a community that we wanted to stimulate.  According to Wenger & Snyder (2002)[2]  the emergence of the strategic purpose or intent for the community is a core construct in this shift from a potential community to a coalescing stage. The structure, role and activities of the community-to-be need to fit and adapt with this strategic purpose.

The discovery of strategic intent or purpose is supported and informed by the finding and recognition of common ground and engaging issues on a communal level. There must be a sense of the development of a shared domain together with the redirection of attention towards seeing own issues as a communal fodder. People also need to see how their passions and desire for community can translate into something useful. They find energy for coalescence around recognising similar problems, passions, and contributions.

These typical aspects of a potential community informed the design for the Summit.

Strategic Narrative Embodiment (SNE) presented an interesting opportunity as methodology and conversation partner for our summit design. Not only is it a methodology designed for organisation (and per implication community) development, but it would also be fresh and innovative. We were intrigued by the embodiment component especially since the possibility of accessing tacit knowledge located in the body is a hot emergent topic in the KM space. Initial conversations made us curious about:

  • What knowledge in and about our network can such a process access and externalise?
  • How can it enable the network to shift from potential community to coalescence towards community?
  • What can it tell us about emergent narratives in the KM network?
  • What level of engagement can it elicit from delegates?
  • How can it facilitate the interplay between individual and collective learning?

What is SNE and how was it used at 2016SAKMS?

Strategic Narrative Embodiment (SNE) is an applied theatre methodology that has been developed for application in leadership and organisation development contexts.

SNE translates the transformational effect, story shaping, and ensemble skills of stage performance into the language of work performance. It functions particularly well as a methodology for mindfulness training, development of change agility, team and community development, innovation, leadership development, strategic planning and relationship selling.

SNE is based on a model developed in Petro Janse van Vuuren’s Ph.D. in 2008 and has, since then, been influenced by trends in organisational and leadership development. These trends include mindfulness and neuroscience, systems thinking and systems coaching, narrative coaching, sense-making, gamification, and applied improvisation.Click here to read more on the foundations of the model.

The Strategic Narrative Embodiment (SNE) model consists of three aspects: strategic intent, Narrative design and embodied participation.

SNE is designed to identify stories that are no longer helpful to the individual or the collective, and to understand its embodied effects, generate workable alternatives and implement these in the world of work. Along the way it teaches communication skills, relationship building skills, presentation skills and inspires people to change for the good of the organisation and the world.

SNE functions on two levels, both of which were present in our summit process: design and technique. On the level of design, SNE uses a narrative arc to shape the flow of an engagement such as the summit.


We employed the arc  as follows:

Many techniques characteristic of SNE is mentioned in the second column above: the use of metaphor, community storytelling and sharing of insights, maximum interaction and participation, the use of post-it notes and community involvement in patterning and sense-making, and the employment of physical room set-up to enable certain kinds of interaction (e.g. the Café setup).

These are not unique to SNE, though they contribute to its effectiveness. The uniqueness of SNE is in the use of embodiment in the following forms:

  1. Delegate participation in exercises that access the DEC (direct experience circuitry) of the brain to momentarily bypass the NC (narrative circuitry). The value of this is to allow delegates to ‘park’ existing dominant stories about KM in SA and experiment with other perspectives.
  2. Delegates sharing stories and translating stories into movement vocabulary. This process accesses knowledge about the stories that do not often receive attention and so-doing allow possible insight and breakthrough. It also has a community building effect as it makes delegates equal to each other and adds a level of human vulnerability.
  3. Actors are employed to act as mirrors for the stories of the community. Through projection, a distance is created between the story and its proponent allowing for the possibility of experimentation. This process lets delegates try out future scenarios, test ideas, and grapple with relationships, actions and the dynamics of the system represented by the forces in the story.
  4. Delegates are invited to change the motivations and the purpose of characters in the story presenting a clear picture of the perspectives and beliefs present in the KM network. The same process also begins to alter these perceptions and beliefs based on its interaction with other perceptions in the externalised system. This process is organic and dynamic with little interference from a facilitator; it comes from the group and returns to the group to impact understanding, insight and action.

What the SNE methodology did and did not deliver

  1. SNE is designed for accurate representation of diverse voices, not for the forging of consensus.
  2. It strives to show the dynamics of a system of relationships (in this case the KM network and its narratives) to itself with minimum interference from the dominant voices of facilitators.
  3. It works with the dynamic between carefully considered responses and spontaneous reactions – each of which brings a different kind of knowledge to the fore.
  4. It stimulates emergence and works with what is present, rather than with what is hoped for and desired.

All of the above means that the experience can be somewhat messy, slightly alienating and potentially confusing or frustrating to participants. For this reason, great care is taken to hold the facilitation, explain the processes and allow for descent.  However, the benefits outweigh the costs in our experience for the following reasons:

  1. When building community, it is of great importance to not silence divergent voices in favour of well formed and packaged opinions that invite consensus.
  2. While reflection is important for sense-making, it usually draws on the NC of the brain that likes things to fit into predetermined categories. This process therefore must be disrupted through spontaneous response and interaction that could point to alternative insights that may be missed if never considered.
  3. As a KM community, accuracy of what is going on is more important than feeling good about it. The KM professional has to be able to hold messiness and divergent pieces of data without forcing tidiness especially when companies and organisations are in flux.
  4. The value of identifying emergent narratives, rather than confirming dominant narratives is in the possibility of these narratives to shift the KM profession towards its desired place in the world of work.

Of course you are now wondering what these emergent narratives are and what we have learned from the summit experience. We are in the process of perusing all data and drawing conclusions. Within the next month or so we will arrange interviews with some of the delegates who gave us permission to do so. Then we will write it all up and present it back to you on this website and in the form of a published article. Watch this space for updates.

[1]Wenger, E., n.d. Communities of practice: development stages. [Online] Available at:[Accessed February 2016].

[2]Cultivating communities of practice: a guide to managing knowledge. By Etienne Wenger, Richard McDermott, and William Snyder, Harvard Business School Press, 2002.

Three perspectives when presenting the case for Knowledge Management

  1. KM as a PROGRESSIVE capability, an enabler that is a key element in building the organisation’s future.
  2. KM as a CORRECTIVE intervention, fixing problems such a poor customer service or poor service delivery.
  3. KM as a PREVENTATIVE measure, to mitigate the knowledge that ‘walks out of the door’ with the retiring workforce and knowledge hemorrhage during a cycle of retrenchment.

Originally published on LinkedIn Pulse: