The term “knowledge management” was big in the mid-1990s when big companies saw the need to share expertise beyond those proximate to it. A decade and a half later, the term “thought leadership marketing” is in vogue, and some see a connection between the two.
What prompted me to bring this up? Over the last year, we have been paying attention to a consulting firm called Knowledge Architecture. Given that KA is only two years old, a small firm, and on the opposite coast (in San Francisco), you might ask why.
In part, it’s because KA’s founder and CEO, Christopher Parsons, reached out to us. In part, it’s because he has a number of intriguing ideas and expertise that relate to our business. But perhaps most of all, it’s because we believe he is onto something in the sector he cares about: architecture, engineering firms and construction firms.
What Chris is passionate about is helping AEC companies compete on a basis that few of them are competing today: bottling knowledge about how to design and build buildings and inculcating it widely across an AEC firm. The ultimate goal, I presume, is to make the newest employee as proficient as the oldest.
Chris recently has noticed a glaring need to connect the disparate disciplines of knowledge management and thought leadership marketing. (I use the term “disciplines” loosely; in sophistication, I see both to be in their infancy.) He sees a connection that we have seen, although we have put it all under the moniker of thought leadership.
No matter. We, like Chris, believe that B2B firms of all types – especially professional firms – that excel at both knowledge management and thought leadership marketing, and (very important) connect the two, will have a distinct advantage. But that’s if they recognize they need it, which at this point is a big if for most.
Knowledge Architecture consults to architecture, engineering and construction firms about how to gather, codify and scale up the knowledge their architects and engineers bring to projects. KA also has a software product that helps with this process. Chris, a former CIO at a mid-sized California architecture firm, believes these sectors must begin explicitly connecting what they do in knowledge management with what they do in thought leadership marketing. Not that most AEC firms are zealous about either. While Chris may be a bit ahead of his market, if the winds of technology and offshoring blow even harder in the next few years, he will have timed his sector right.
The reason is that Chris sees a rapid commoditization of the architecture and engineering work that flies off the drafting tables and CAD systems of Western AEC firms. With powerful but cheap computers, an even cheaper Internet, and capable workers in other countries enabling engineering drawings to be drafted and transmitted economically from Malaysia to a building site in Atlanta, Chris sees this scenario upending the tranquil world of Western AEC firms.
By “upending,” he means architecture projects shifting to lower-cost places where engineers and architects work (hint, hint -- not North America and Europe). Those that can’t compete on price will have to differentiate their services in other ways -- ways that matter to customers. If you can create superior ways of designing and engineering buildings – and in doing so, make those buildings far more valuable to their owners and occupants – then you have something that’s resistant to services offered at rock-bottom prices.
Chris has a framework that ties KM and TL together. My colleague Tim Parker referred to it in a recent blog post. In Chris’s model, the knowledge management function reviews projects, codifies methods that are used in practices, and conducts R&D on external practices (i.e., outside a firm) because no firm is the font of all knowledge on any topic. As Tim said of Chris’ model, “R&D helps them push the envelope in areas where they want to get ahead of the competition – especially areas where there is an unsatisfied need in the market.”
Thought leadership marketing uses the content that knowledge management collects to give prospective clients a flavor of the firm’s expertise -- a way to “sample the merchandise,” as they used to say in old gangster movies (although I remember it pronounced as “muychindice”).
Chris’ framework spurred me to update an old Bloom Group framework. First, I think most companies have viewed the content they produce for thought leadership marketing programs as serving only marketing purposes (i.e., the purpose of "increasing demand," as illustrated below). I have said for years that this content needs also to fuel the way they deliver their expertise – new approaches to doing their work, or even whole new services (i.e., "scaling up supply," the bottom part of the value chain below). Over the last 25 years, I have rarely seen firms get programmatic about the bottom part of the chain. As a result, they produce a lot of great ideas that few in their firms can actually deliver.
My perception of KM is that it is conducted in most companies by groups other than marketing – by at first an internal library function. KM, my perception goes, has continued to be an inward-looking endeavor – capturing the approaches and expertise of a firm’s professionals. Its use then continues to be internal: helping professionals deliver their expertise rather than let the world know about it.
Thought leadership historically has largely been conducted by marketing. As TLM became more sophisticated, firms have conducted more sophisticated data gathering – research studies featuring external best practices (not just internal) or even whole research programs with clients as annual subscribers.
Both versions are incomplete. Companies today need to gather best approaches/practices both within and outside their firms – particularly outside their firms because the rate of change in the marketplace can make a firm's methods obsolete far faster today. They then need not only to market it but bottle it and have many people in their firm who can master it.
So it’s time to erase the artificial boundary between content gathered through traditional KM (internal practices) and content based on external practices (TLM) and to look at all this as knowledge that firms need to gather, analyze, and turn into formal methods that reflect unique expertise. Call this plain R&D – research of external and internal practices. The “D” is how you develop the content a) you use in your marketing programs, and b) that fuels new methods and services.
What do you think? Is it time to connect thought leadership marketing and knowledge management? If so, how would you do it?