Notes Towards a Theory of
Copyright 2009 by Andrew Gent
About This Presentation
The concepts presented here are the culmination of
twenty-five years of learning and practice (not all in
the field of KM). I began working on a theory of
sustainable knowledge management over two years
ago, when I became concerned that our efforts are
particularly susceptible to the foibles and
fluctuations of business strategy and budget
The ideas and opinions presented here are solely
those of the author and do not necessarily represent
the views of any current or past employers.
• Defining Sustainable Knowledge
• Principles of Sustainability
• Sustainability in Practice
• Final Thoughts
“Sustainable architecture is foremost
about reimagining the relationship
between human beings and living
systems... How do we build now that
there are six billion of us, now that our
supply of natural capital – water,
wood, energy, land – must be far more
effectively used? How do we make
zero-emission houses? How do we
design structures that can be
reincorporated into earth harmlessly
and endlessly? How do we metabolize
energy and water so that the sky and
land improve rather than erode?”
– Paul Hawken, Sustainable Architecture, 2000
• We need a similar reimagining of KM
• But rather than thinking in terms of
ecological footprint*, we need to
think of how to reduce our impact in
terms of human resources.
* Green computing is an admirable goal involving a set
of ecologically sound IT practices. But green
computing is not specific to KM. It applies equally
to all uses of computers 6
Defining Sustainable KM
Sustainable Knowledge Management is
the design of KM initiatives with a
smaller "footprint" in terms of:
• Dedicated headcount
• Learning curve
• Unique time away from people's
• We are all familiar with the issues:
− Too few resources
− Budget cuts
− Lack of attention or active participation
− Lack of support (“If we could only get
someone from upper management as a
sponsor, we could...”)
• What if, rather than fighting these
limitations, we accept them as reality
and work to reduce KM's reliance on
these diminishing resources?
• KM has a reputation for large, expensive
• Even small KM initiatives require a
significant initial "push" in terms of cost,
headcount, and executive attention.
• There is no believable way to justify most
KM programs (e.g. ROI)
• Without direct bottom-line impact, KM is
a constant target for budget cuts, fire drills,
Principles of Sustainable KM
• Do not make KM extra work. Embed
it in existing business processes.
• Avoid "Change Management". Let
change manage itself.
• Design for humans, not data.
• Pay attention to the people, not the
• Eliminate the opposition.
• Embedded KM
• Design to Zero
• (Re)Use What Exists
• Do It Yourself KM
• Embed KM practices in existing
− Look for milestones and knowledge “hotspots”
− Rapid adoption
− Tied to business metrics
− Trying to “improve” (i.e. change) processes to
make KM work better.
− Focusing on knowledge capture rather than how
knowledge is be used.
Design to Zero
• Traditional Business Planning
− Budget plans for initial “push”, but assumes
− Danger: if budget is cut, the program stops.
• Design to Zero
− Plan to reach zero expense some delta after
• Transfer expenses to other departments BUDGET
(H/W to IT, management to teams)
• Develop “self-managed” processes
(e.g. wikis, bar camps) Traditional
• Embed in existing activities Design to Zero
(annual conferences, etc.)
(Re)Use What Exists
• Look for untapped knowledge in:
− Business systems (project data, people, work
− Repositories (samples, best practices, lessons
− Events (Project reviews, sales gatherings, team
− Invite others to events, open up systems.
− Often information is most useful to people
who aren't invited or don't know a resource
• When no KM practice exists, how do
businesses solve the KM problem?
− Bottom-up: Grassroots KM (wikis, forums,
− Top down: KM services rather than programs
(quick setup, one day events, self-help guides)
− Guide to DIY KM
− Reinventing the wheel
− Document-centric solutions
− Local solutions, global blindness
• Next Steps
• What About the Web 2.0
• Not just another KM paradigm.
• Sustainability is applicable to all existing
KM approaches (knowledge harvesting,
communities of practice, storytelling, etc.)
• This is a work in progress. Having
identified potential solutions, how do we
help others move forward?
− Commitment to Sustainability?
(cf. the Designers Accord)
− Do-It-Yourself Guide to KM?
− Sustainable Consulting?
• What about Enterprise 2.0?
− Doesn't the Web 2.0 revolution solve this
− No. What is “free” on the internet is not free
inside the firewall. (Including servers, freedom
of expression, and room to fail.)
− Same issues as DIY KM