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Guerilla KM
Christian Young explains how to be a knowledge management revolutionary

f there’s one thing you can say about knowledge Through the lens of KM, guerrilla warfare offers
management (KM) professionals, it’s that we’re a flexible an appealing, out of the box approach to rendering
lot. We wear many hats as we endeavour to facilitate organisational change:
change – often in uncooperative and, perhaps even, adversarial
environments. Being successful necessitates pushing the limits ƒƒ Guerrilla warfare – a small contingent attempts to undermine
of our flexibility and, true to the multi-disciplinary nature of a larger military force, usually in pursuit of a political agenda;
our field, drawing inspiration from unlikely sources. ƒƒ Guerrilla KM – a small contingent (maybe even a party of
During my first KM ‘tour of duty’, when I was a wet one) attempts to ‘influence’ the larger organisation, usually
behind the ears, ambitious, but ever-frustrated knowledge in pursuit of a politically or culturally charged objective.
analyst in search of ways to promote KM, I conceived
a strategy that I affectionately called ‘guerrilla KM’. The Organisational change is inherently political and the more
objective: to increase knowledge sharing by any means KM (or any functional area) attempts to influence (or create
necessary. Yeah, I was feelin’ all ‘knowledge analyst X’ at change in) behaviours, strategies, and policies, the more
the time. likely it is to arouse the ire of any number of people. This
Reflecting my adult education and policy analysis studies, makes the use of guerrilla tactics an intelligent and savvy (if
my initial approach focused on building an army of ‘KM unconventional) methodology to explore.
champions’ across the organisation. However, as I continued For those of you intrepid enough to add a guerrilleros’
to study guerrilla warfare and the teachings of Mao Tse-tung sombrero to your, no doubt, already extensive collection of
in his treatise On Guerrilla Warfare, my strategy evolved to hats in order to go underground from time to time, I offer the
evoke more traditional guerilla tactics – minus the less savoury following eight principles of guerrilla KM.
elements, mind you. I prefer to rely on positive, lasting tools
as a means of facilitating positive, lasting change, which One: (Intel)ligence
takes tactics like ambush, deception, sabotage, and espionage Being revolutionary isn’t just about fighting passionately; it’s
entirely off the table. Yes, even if Sun Tzu says it okay. also about acting thoughtfully and with deliberation. Whether
Of course, that’s just me – feel free to be as janky [tricksy, you’re planning a long-term offensive or a strategic ‘hit’,
dubious] as you please. having the right intel is vital:

February 2010

ƒƒ What are the organisation’s strategic goals (alignment is Six: Time

key to credibility)? The factor of time is only an obstacle if you perceive it
ƒƒ Where do critical human, technological, and economic as one! Mao Tse-tung wrote, “Guerrilla strategy must be based
resources lie? primarily on alertness, mobility, and attack. It must be adjusted to the
ƒƒ Who are potential allies… and enemies? enemy situation, the terrain, the existing lines of communication, the
ƒƒ Where do areas of opportunity exist (particularly those relative strengths, the weather and the situation of the people.”
long ignored)? Since successful strategies are organic and not static, as
guerrilleros we mitigate the time factor by remaining diligently
Two: Strategy alert and using gathered intel to adjust the strategy so as to
After achieving some awareness and understanding of remain one step ahead at all times.
organisational current and future states, developing a
comprehensive strategy is the next step. No matter how well Seven: Leadership
supported and/or funded your KM efforts are, there must In his treatise, Mao Tse-tung also provides some
be a roadmap detailing and prioritising the desired goals characteristics of the type of leadership necessary for guerrilla
and the methodology for realising them. Otherwise, it’s like warfare: “… unyielding in their policies - resolute, loyal, sincere, and
playing darts in the dark, wearing a blindfold – you might hit robust; well-educated in revolutionary technique, self confident, able to
something but it’s a whole lot easier to hit the mark when you establish severe discipline, and able to cope with counter-propaganda.”
can see the target. While all of these qualities are perfect in military leaders,
we’re not exactly running a communist régime so ‘establishing
Three: Relationship building (networking) severe discipline’ (share or die) might be a tad excessive. It is
Revolutionary icon Che Guevara, wrote, “[T]he guerrilla fighter is true, though, that leadership should be models for the people,
a social reformer…he takes up arms responding to the angry protest of leading by example and, equally important, with discretion.
the people against their oppressors, and fights in order to change the social As guerrilleros we practice discretion not to conceal any illicit
system that keeps all his unarmed brothers in ignominy and misery.” activity (I hope), but to avoid ‘tipping our hands’, so to speak.
That might be slightly north (south, east, and west) of To quote Change and Innovation Agency founder, Ken Miller,
dramatic for our purposes, but the essence rings true: the “If nobody notices what you’ve done, you’ve missed the point of guerrilla
work of a knowledge manager is not meant to be vainglorious, warfare. And if everybody notices what you are doing before you’re done,
it’s meant to benefit the organisation. For that to happen, we you have also missed the point.”
must make common cause with others to build – and maintain
– relationships that matter. Eight: Promotions/branding
One of the most well known – much maligned, though often
Four: Mobility and adaptability utilised – guerilla tactics is propaganda. Given its unsavory
Having access to unlimited resources is every project connotations, however, I prefer the terms ‘promotions’ or
manager’s dream, yet it is rarely the reality. Working with ‘branding’, which don’t have to be fed on lies and half-truths,
fewer resources stimulates creative, out-of-the-box thinking or fuel dissent to be effective. KM branding (a favourite term
and affords a measure of mobility, both of which guerrilleros of mine) combines the use of marketing tactics and adult
regard as advantages to be capitalised upon. For example, education techniques to generate buzz around KM activity and
working with a smaller staff means fewer chances for build social capital. It should be de rigueur for every KM strategy.
miscommunication; a smaller budget provides less visibility Ultimately, the desired net effect of a guerrilla approach
and makes accomplishments all the more impressive; and, is to position the KM function or initiative to deliver what
poor or non-existent executive buy-in (with the proper spin) Chairman Mao called ‘the lightning blow’ – “… the tactic of
can help to legitimise KM efforts with change-weary staff. seeming to come from the east and attacking from the west; avoid the
solid, attack the hollow; attack; withdraw; deliver a lightning blow, seek
Five: Tactical initiative a lightning decision.”
Typical guerilla campaigns exploit the use of brief, offensive And, when you get right down to it, isn’t this why
strikes that make the best use of a small, organised force with most organisations invest in KM in the first place? To
limited resources. They study their obstacle/situation earnestly, develop the capability to deliver such blows, at will, in their
plan well (anticipating and mitigating potential problems), respective markets?
choose the time and place, and take advantage of the element
of surprise. The demonstration of high, moderate, or weak Christian Young is an independent KM strategy consultant
tactical initiative is a reflection of how much control you’re and occasional blogger based in Atlanta, US. He can be
able to maintain during a campaign. The better your plan contacted at To read Christian’s
(strategy), the greater your control and, thus, your success. blog, visit: