What Progress on Knowledge Management Systems – Requirements (BS ISO 30401)

Dion Lindsay, Real Knowledge Management DLC Ltd.

This article was commissioned to appear in this issue to coincide with the publication of BS ISO 30401. As many readers will know, the publication of the completed standard has been put back until early 2019. But as part of the work of the national standards organisations, a draft was available on the BSI website for public consultation from November 2017 to January 2018.

That release gave the knowledge management community time to assess what difference the full standard might make to the discipline, as well as submit comments on the BSI’s interactive pages. A grand total of 244 comments was received by the 16 January deadline! CILIP’s comments were garnered from some of its Special Interest Groups and submitted by its Policy section.

The story behind the standard’s development as far as it can be gleaned from public sources is an entertaining one, and the draft gives a very clear idea of the context in which ISO place Knowledge Management and the principles by which it would like to see KM operate. Naturally this raises questions about the value of the standard when it is published, and what might happen next.

 The story so far

The story of the standard is both interesting in itself and illustrates how standards development can work in the context of the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) and the national standards bodies.

  1. The only published ISO standard that refers to knowledge management already is ISO 9001:2015 Quality management systems – Requirements[1]. Clause 7.1.6 makes the management of organisational knowledge a requirement for establishing a QMS, and even outlines a 4 step process to do so, but without defining organisational knowledge. So it was likely that moves would be afoot to define and illuminate knowledge management.
  2. And so in 2015 an ISO working group (WG6) was formed under the care of ISO’s Technical Committee TC260. TC260 is chaired by Dr Ron McKinley, a USA expert in human resource management particularly in the health services field, with secretariat support from ANSI. WG6’s remit is to develop the first ever international standard devoted to knowledge management, and its structural relationship with TC260 is significant: the Technical Committee’s responsibility is for human resource management, which from the start placed the nascent draft firmly in a human systems context, rather than for example one of IT technical standards work.
  3. The membership of WG6 was soon formed, under the chairmanship of Moria Levy, a leading KM specialist in Israel, with members nominated by national standardisation bodies including Ron Young of Knowledge Associates, based in the UK.
  4. The text completed by WG6 was registered as draft international standard ISO/DIS in late July 2017) and was referred to national standardisation bodies for comments, which is how it came to be available for comments on interactive pages of British Standards Institution’s website from 27 November to 16th
  5. By now the BSI had created its own KM “mirror” committee, with a membership representing many aspects of KM interests in the UK (CILIP is represented by a Trustee for example). I understand it will be busy this year resolving the comments and reporting back to ISO. Timings always seem subject to change with BSI plans, probably because of the logistical difficulties of keeping pace with the other national standards bodies (ISO has a membership of 161!) and the necessarily complex structures within the ISO. However the BSI standards development page for BS ISO 40301 is currently showing
  • 20th August as the comment resolution start date
  • 23rd October as approval start date
  • 17th January 2019 as publication date.

What was in the draft (ISO/DIS 30401)?

The draft is still available, but not free of charge on the BSI website. It can be found on the ISO website priced CHF 58.00 at https://www.iso.org/standard/68683.html .

Here are some personal reactions to the content:

  1. It is tempting to nitpick, but I think that would be to miss the point. Knowledge Management is a discipline where only the obvious finds common agreement, but where a lot of value lies in insights based on careful observation in situations which do not obtain universally. It is clearly an achievement to have got so far with international agreement to produce a 19 page statement on KM principles and contexts, and it seems to have been achieved by taking a stand-back position where the document does not try to tell us what is required of a successful KM system, but rather how to assess for ourselves what will work in our own workplaces. This does make the experienced IM/KM professionals’ eyes glaze over until they realise…
  2. That not all senior managers will have heard the common sense of the draft before. Its value to practising knowledge managers is likely to be that it provides authority for what they’ve been saying all along. The requirements of the title are based on 8 guiding principles, ranging from the anodyne “culture is critical to the effectiveness of Knowledge Management” to the provocative “Knowledge is not managed directly…” and the startlingly well-put “People create their own knowledge by their own understanding of the input they receive”.
  3. It’s alarming that “all the requirements of this international standard are applicable to any organisation, regardless of its type or size, or the products and services it provides” (Draft section 1. Scope). This seems to be required of most, if not all ISO standards, but makes the reader lower his/her expectations. It’s not necessarily ominous – but it is clear that it limits the excitement of any statements the draft can make within its scope of requirements for an effective knowledge management system.
  4. The definitions list (section 2) has 30 entries, and they are a great checklist, even if one can’t sign up to all the content. The emphasis on measurement, which shouldn’t be a surprise in a formal standard, is still a bit disconcerting. It defines “performance” for example as “measurable result”, which makes me worry a bit for the future of the kind of collaborative environment which KM is concerned with but in which innovative outcomes cannot always be traced back to specific conversations.
  5. I’m really glad to see “managing invalid knowledge” highlighted as a requirement of a KM system – too much knowledge management seems to ignore the question of how to verify “knowledge” and how to deal with it.
  6. In short the overall shape of the draft provides more of a reference document than something joined up which might be a good, or provocative read. Still, its main headings of scope, definitions, then organising the requirements of a KM system under Context of the organisation, Leadership, Planning, Support, Operation, Performance evaluation, and Improvement, provide a clear structure and the style of writing discourages turning it into the source for a box ticking exercise.
  7. When the full standard comes out, don’t overlook the 3 annexes! They are: The knowledge spectrum-knowledge inner boundaries; Boundaries between knowledge management and adjacent disciplines, and Knowledge management culture. They provide a gentle counter to the sometimes necessary sterility of the main text, and a thought provoking view of the context for our discipline.

What difference will the standard make?

This question is hard to answer yet: understandably most potential commentators have chosen to wait until the standard is published next year before going into print. Perhaps the best thing to do in the gap is to ask more questions and look out for the answers. Here are my three:

  1. Will the standard be useful beyond the manufacturing or heavily regulated environments where formal standards seem most appropriate? I think it will – if only just. For those that can afford it (probably around £160 for organisations who aren’t BSI members), it may well provide both authority for action and a source of ideas.
  2. Will there be a rush to include the standard in processes for external auditing and certification of enterprises? I don’t on balance think so: it’s possibly the subject for another discussion, but it’s not always obvious how to determine whether the requirements are measurable, or how to define levels of compliance.
  3. Will the standard drive the development of the profession? Perhaps it will contribute, rather than drive. It may have a role to play in the professionalisation/certification of knowledge management roles, or the design and certification of courses. The standard, judging by the draft, will be more a starting point than a destination.

[1] https://www.iso.org/standard/62085.html

 K & IM Refer 34 (1), Spring 2018






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