Why And How We Wrote the Knowledge Management Standard (BS ISO 30401)

Judy Payne (Hemdean Consulting),  Nick Milton (Knoco Ltd.)

Ron Young ( Knowledge Associates)

 Judy, Nick and Ron are members of the ISO working group that developedISO30401Knowledge management systems – Requirements and members of the UK mirror committee BSI KMS/1. This article contains their personal experiences and views.

‘Knowledge’ and ‘management’ are familiar, everyday words. But does everyone attach the same meanings to them? And is there a common understanding of knowledge management? Each of us has worked in KM since the 1990s and we can say with confidence that the answer to both questions is ‘no’. When somebody approaches us to talk about knowledge and KM, it often becomes immediately apparent that we have totally different views of the topic. There is no common understanding of what KM means, let alone a standard approach to delivering KM.

Various standards organisations (including BSI and Standards Australia) have already published guides to KM, but ISO was silent on the subject until January 2014, when we became aware of a proposal for a new ISO standard on KM. The proposer was SII, the national standards body in Israel, where a national KM standard had been published in 2011. The proposal was for a management systems standard (MSS) of the ‘requirements’ variety: a standard to which organisations can become certified, although this is voluntary. ISO 9001:2015 (Quality Management) is the best known requirements-based MSS.

The KM community’s reactions to the proposal were mixed. Some KM practitioners and academics rejected the proposal because they disagreed with the content of the Israeli standard on which it was based, in spite of assurances that the content would change significantly once it entered the ISO development process. Some thought it was a good idea. Some rejected the proposal on principle, on the basis that KM can’t be standardised. Although we agree that every organisation is different and that KM recipes don’t work, this proposal wasn’t for a KM recipe. It wasn’t even for a list of the main ingredients of KM: it was a proposal for setting out the principles of a kitchen in which KM recipes could be created and tested.

We recognised the proposed standard as an opportunity to create a common language for global conversations about KM that just might help organisations manage knowledge more effectively. It was also an opportunity to help people avoid falling into the KM traps of the past, for example the trap where KM is a rebadging of content management, or where people think KM can be delivered through technology alone.

When the proposal was approved, ISO wanted an existing technical committee to take on the work of developing the standard. Technical Committee number 260 (TC 260), Human resource management, agreed to adopt the standard and created a working group to draft it. In the UK, BSI resurrected the KMS/1 committee responsible for their 2001 KM guides and we each accepted the invitation to join. Not wishing to do things by halves (and without fully understanding what we were letting ourselves in for) the three of us also agreed to join the ISO working group.

How ISO works

ISO has 161 members, each a national standards body with its own policies and practices. That’s almost as many as the United Nations. Over its 72 year life so far, ISO has developed and established formal processes for developing standards in multi-stakeholder groups. It’s easy to criticise ISO processes for being bureaucratic, outdated and lacking in transparency (and we did!) but we had to play by the ISO rules. ISO processes are accepted by all 161 ISO member countries, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe. The diversity of values, philosophies and perspectives is mind-boggling.  Even seasoned, independent-minded KM specialists who know a bit about collaboration don’t mess with that!

The ISO watchword is consensus. Don’t be fooled. This doesn’t mean representatives of up to 161 countries agree on everything. Developing a standard involves listening, appreciating others’ perspectives, and compromising. If a member of the group feels that the ability to comprise is being stretched too far, the words ‘I can’t live with that’ are enough to force a rethink. The result is a standard that all members of the working group can support.

Learning to swim at the deep end    

The first face-to-face meeting of the working group was in November 2015, in parallel with meetings of TC 260 and its other working groups. It’s fair to say we got off to a shaky start. The proposal had been prepared independently of the parent committee, which didn’t yet understand KM. Most of our working group members were new to ISO processes, and relationships were yet to develop. Our convenor was disciplined, focused, and keen to move straight to the work of developing the content: an approach we came to appreciate later in the process, but in the early stages we needed to move more slowly.

During three days of solid meetings, it became clear that the standard had to be written to a standard template used for all management systems standards. The template contains text and definitions that cannot be changed, only added to. It also became clear that we could use devices such as ‘notes to entry’ to make the template text KM-specific, and that we could use the introduction and annexes to top and tail the standard without working to a template.

Over the next 30 months we worked together face-to-face, virtually, as a whole group and in sub-groups. Working relationships and friendships developed. We learned that different countries have very different approaches to KM. We learned the magic ISO words ‘shall’ (to indicate a requirement) and ‘should’ (to indicate a recommendation). We learned that some English words are impossible to translate into other languages.

Membership of the working group, as well as being voluntary and unpaid, is best described as dynamic. During the development process, over 40 KM experts from fourteen countries were involved – plus delegates from the parent committee, members of other working groups and representatives of national standards bodies. The UK mirror committee met frequently, as did other national groups. Every word and every concept in the standard was subjected to repeated scrutiny. We tested whether the wording was based on proven experience, would work for KM in every industry from call-centres to engineers or to aid workers, and would work for all sizes of organisation from the garage-based start-up to the multinational.

Public comments

In late 2017, a draft international standard (DIS) was approved by the participating TC 260 countries and published for comment. Each ISO member country has its own process for inviting comments. In the UK, BSI published the DIS on its website and anyone could comment. As a result, BSI received many hundreds of comments, often from people in countries without such an open system.

Most of the comments were positive and constructive. Some were repeated. Some pulled the standard in opposite directions. Many commenters didn’t appreciate the existence of the MSS template (why should they?) and rewrote chunks of the inviolable template text. A few criticised ISO processes and called for more recent specific KM developments to be included, but this is not how ISO standards work. ISO standards are necessarily generic, otherwise standards would be out of date, would stifle innovation, or both.

Every single comment was discussed by the UK mirror committee, which produced a consolidated set of recommended changes for consideration by the ISO working group. These and other comments – whittled down now to just over 400 – were discussed at a final three-day meeting of the working group in May 2018. Many changes to wording and emphasis were agreed, but nothing substantive enough to force a second round of public comments or voting according to our ISO “referee”.

 The future

ISO Management Systems Standard 30401: Knowledge Management is due to be published in late 2018. Our work is over, for now. The standard will be reviewed and updated in five years’ time, once we have some experience of its use and application.  Future versions of the standard will include recent KM developments – and might well be developed using updated processes.

We can only speculate about how the standard will be used. Certification is an option – but we don’t think this will be widespread. It is much more likely that organisations will use the standard as a guide to getting started in KM, while those with established KM programmes will use it to audit against internally.

We hope that publication of the standard will lead to conversations that improve awareness, understanding and practice of KM. We hope it will provide a common language, and a way for organisations to avoid the pitfalls of the past when implementing KM. To us, the standard is a first step towards a better future for KM – and for Knowledge Managers – the world over.


K & IM Refer 34(2), Autumn 2018


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