Knowledge Management Institute

Why do Knowledge Management (KM) Programs and Projects Fail?

Why do Knowledge Management (KM) Programs and Projects Fail?

Sep 22, 2015   |  By
Dr. Anthony J. Rhem

Let’s begin by determining the difference between a KM Program and a KM Project. In many of my Knowledge Management (KM) engagements, organizations look to initiate KM through a specific initiative or project. Once that project is concluded many of these organizations believe that their KM involvement is done and they move on to the next initiative. In order to have a sustainable KM presence at an organization we must move from the tactical approach of a KM project to that of a strategic approach of a KM Program. In order to accomplish this a Knowledge Management Strategy has to be developed.

To increase the opportunity for success, the KM Strategy must be positioned at the Program Level and this strategy will drive specific initiatives that align with the mission and objectives of the KM Program. The KM Strategy includes formal procedures to collect knowledge throughout the organization, a well-established infrastructure, networks for transferring knowledge between employees, and tools to facilitate the process. The KM Strategy will lay the foundation to align specific tools/technology to enhance individual and organizational performance. This is accomplished by incorporating the following three (3) components into the fabric of an organization’s environment:

  • People, those who create, organize, apply, and transfer knowledge; and the leaders who act on that knowledge
  • Processes, methods of creating, organizing, applying and transferring knowledge
  • Technology, information systems used to put knowledge products and services into organized frameworks

According to an April, 2013 article by Robert Simmons a principal within Forsythe’s IT operations management practice on implementing a Knowledge Management Program, he points out eight specific steps as follows:

Step 1: Establish Knowledge Management Program Objectives

Simmons points out that articulating the end state is important to establishing the appropriate program objectives, identifying the business problems and the business drivers that will provide momentum and justification for the endeavor (Simmons, 2013).

Step 2: Prepare for Change

Simmons indicates that a major component of establishing a KM Program is to execute change management. The change management strategy will address the cultural changes that need to take place on how employees perceive and share knowledge, as well as addressing the changes within the organization’s norms and shared values that need to take place. A change management strategy will establish an approach for managing cultural change and produce a knowledge-sharing, knowledge-driven culture end state of the KM Program (Simmons, 2013).

Step 3: Define High-Level Process

To facilitate the identification, capture, cataloging, use and maintenance of the corporation’s knowledge assets, effective KM processes need to be established (Simmons, 2013).

Step 4: Determine and Prioritize Technology Needs

Simmons indicates that depending on the program objectives that have been established as well as the process controls and criteria that have been defined, a prioritization of the knowledge management technology needs can occur (Simmons, 2013). It is important to understand how the knowledge Management technology will address the knowledge processing and cultural knowledge needs of the organization as well as how the KM solution will be adopted by its users.

Step 5: Assess Current State

Assessing the current state of knowledge management within your organization should focus on the five core knowledge management components: people, processes, technology, structure, and culture (Simmons, 2013). This assessment according to Simmons should uncover the gaps between current and desired states, and the recommendations for addressing/closing these gaps. This assessment will become the foundation for the KM Roadmap (Simmons, 2013).

Step 6: Build a Knowledge Management Implementation Roadmap

Simmons stresses that “before going too far, you should re-confirm senior leadership's support and commitment, as well as the funding to implement and maintain the knowledge management program” (Simmons, 2013). This is crucial to the development and execution of the program.

The KM Program Strategy should be presented as a “roadmap of related projects, each addressing specific gaps identified by the assessment” (Simmons, 2013). The roadmap will indicate timelines, milestones as well as dependencies. The roadmap should indicate the initiation of specific projects to execute the KM Program Strategy.

Step 7: Implementation

Implementing a knowledge management program and maturing the overall effectiveness of your organization can require significant personnel resources and funding. Implementation of the KM Program will involve the execution of the roadmap, insuring that short term goals and wins are realized to gain momentum and maintain the support of key stakeholders (Simmons, 2013).

Step 8: Measure and Improve the Knowledge Management Program

In order to understand if your organization’s KM Program and its associated initiatives (projects) are effective, establishing the appropriate metrics/measurements are necessary. These metrics must be utilized in a way to measure the actual effectiveness and comparing that to anticipated results (Simmons, 2013).

The failure rates for knowledge management initiatives are at 50% (Frost, 2014). Knowing this we must determine, what is the cause and effect? Is it because of lack of senior leadership/support? Is a cultural issue? Or much more? I believe the reason why knowledge management initiatives fail are varied and it stems from the key indicators listed below.

In examining why KM Programs/Projects fail, besides the lack of a KM strategy other key indicators include:

  • Lack of Executive Leadership/Sponsorship
  • Inadequate Budgeting and Cost Expectations
  • Lack of participation from all levels of a corporation
  • Inadequate processes and technology
  • Lack of Knowledge and Resources
  • Lack of education and understanding of KM
  • KM does not become ingrained into the corporations work culture
  • Lack of a Knowledge Sharing Environment
  • Lack of metrics to measure the impact of KM on the corporation or insufficient/incorrect metrics being captured
  • Lack of monitoring and controls in place to ensure the knowledge is relevant and is current and accurate

The organization must view knowledge management more than just a function of the call center or a cost of doing business. KM is a method of enhancing the collective know-how of the organization, improving productivity, and enhancing overall organizational value. KM will improve efficiencies that will increase a corporations’ profitability, enhances the quality of work, performance, and overall value of the corporation. KM allows tacit knowledge to be leveraged, transferred to increase the quality of work performed across the corporation. This tacit knowledge allows KM to eliminate the “reinvent the wheel” syndrome. This transfer of knowledge is a core value of knowledge management.

Lack of Executive Leadership/Sponsorship

Successful KM initiatives depend greatly on management backing and has been documented and proven over many years of implementing KM initiatives (Davenport, De Long, and Beer, 1998; Chong and Choi, 2005; Wu et al, 2010). In contrast, failure of KM initiatives have been a consequence of inadequate management support (Singh and Kant, 2008; Weber, 2007; Pettersson, 2009).

Developing and operationalizing a KM strategy and subsequent program involves the creation, acceptance, and adoption of processes, values, and systems that are either company-wide or in the very least span across functions, departments, and communities. The implementation and long term success of such far reaching changes require top and central management backing, both from the perspective of resource and political support but also to ensure day-to-day acceptance and use of knowledge management.

Sustained management support in particular senior leadership support is necessary for continued KM success because of the following factors:

  • KM requires strong guidance, decision-making, and change implementation
  • KM efforts require a clear vision and the example set by management, as well as implementing policies that serve as a way to legitimize KM and highlight its importance in the organization
  • In order to prevent lack of enforcement of responsibilities and lack central management responsibility
  • Failure can occur due to a lack of leadership support in the organization
  • When KM is used as a political instrument to gain influence and leverage within an organization
  • To incentivize the use of KM a standard for rewarding that enforce appropriate behavior need to be set by management. The extent to which this is useful should be discussed among leadership.
  • Management must provide the resources necessary for KM implementation. KM requires a great deal of financial, human, and material resources; this includes the assignment of competent professionals and a sufficient budget.
  • Management must stem the lack of understanding of the benefits, complexity and requirements of KM by instituting an awareness campaign that includes but is not limited to lunch-n-learn briefings, KM training both instructor lead and online, and the ability to attend and participate in KM conferences.
  • Management needs to ability to present ROI. The need for solid performance indicators is extremely important for management to continue investing in KM.
  • KM must not be just another task to do, it should be a part of what is done by everyone in the organization. It must become part of the corporate DNA to have longevity and lasting success.

Without the enforcement of managerial responsibilities, an organization may end up with no control of the shared or reused knowledge. Management can mitigate this through the creation of the Knowledge Manger, KM liaison and KM Champion roles within the organization. These roles will be an extension of management and will facilitate the distribution of managerial responsibilities of KM and increases the level of KM acumen and at all levels of the organization.

- excerpted from Dr. Rhem's book, Knowledge Management in Practice, due out at the end of the year.


Dr. Rhem serves as the President/Principal Consultant of A.J. Rhem & Associates, Inc., a privately held Information Systems Integration and Training firm located in Chicago, Illinois.
Anthony is an Information Systems professional with more than thirty (30) years of experience, focused on implementation of major application systems. Anthony is also a published author, and educator, presenting the application and theory of Software Engineering Methodologies, Knowledge Management, and Artificial Intelligence.  He teaches the KM Institute's course in Information Architecture - next class the week of October 26-29 in San Diego, CA.

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