Hong Kong’s secret knowledge management societies

Knowledge managers frequently talk about the importance of openness, transparency and sharing. Openness means to new ideas and new people. Transparent means easy to understand, available for critique or suggestion and freely available to anyone who is interested with low and weak barriers. Sharing means exchange of ideas, expertise, advise, connections to other people, information technology and other sorts of tools and how to use them. I can’t imagine any knowledge managers objecting to openness, transparency and sharing as concepts and activities that should be promoted and encouraged. Well, I couldn’t but then I joined the secret knowledge management societies of Hong Kong and was in for a big surprise.

In Hong Kong we have secret knowledge management societies. Take a look on my list of knowledge management organizations in the Pearl River Delta area here. The HKKMS (Hong Kong Knowledge Management Society) and the KMRC (Knowledge Management Research Centre) are two of the many knowledge management groups in Hong Kong. I’ve been a member of the HKKMS on and off since it was founded in 2001 and I’m a member of KMRC by default for 2 years since I graduated from the HKPolyU MSc KM program. In my opinion, these two organizations run themselves like secret societies. By secret I mean they don’t open-up themselves to new ideas, they don’t encourage their members to know each other and they don’t promote their activities widely, openly and transparently.

These two organizations like to hide behind the reason that they have Chinese members who don’t like to be open, transparent and share. I’ve listened to this reason for poor openness in Hong Kong for 20 years and what I notice it that it is normally the reason given by westerners and very westernized Chinese who live and work in Hong Kong and want to appear to be ‘experts’ on the local Chinese culture. I’m very doubtful on the validity of this observation because I’ve run very open and transparent projects, activities and groups in Hong Kong with mostly local Chinese members on many occasions for many years. Most of the knowledge management organizations on my list are very open and transparent but these two, the most westernized in Hong Kong in my opinion, are not open and transparent at all.

The HKKMS has not had a current website for a few years now. There is no way of knowing what the HKKMS has done in the past or what it intends to do in the future. The society has tried to ‘amend history’ by removing the name of its past president from its webpages but it can still be found on the ‘way back machine’ see here [!warning this takes time to retrieve!]. This is really alarming and rather like Stalinist USSR or Mao’s China. I tried to help the society last year so I ran a list of HKKMS activities from March 2009 – March 2010, see here. The HKKMS resists mightily the idea of sharing the names of members among its members. I suspect their are about 25 to 30 individual members and 4 to 6 corporate members. I’ve asked several times over the past year and was told the society does not share such information for privacy reasons. At the time I wondered how the numbers could be private. The society was supposed to publish its accounts and balance sheet as part of its last annual general report but this was conveniently ignored, see here. I found it spooky to be a member of a society where I didn’t know the number of members, the types of members or the members’ names. The lack of transparency in the accounts is disturbing. I’m no longer a HKKMS member and I actively discourage others from joining the society or renewing their membership.

The KMRC sponsors and supports many knowledge management events in Hong Kong and sometimes in the surrounding area. However, if you go to the KMRC website it only lists a few of the many activities it sponsors and supports. My list here has many more KMRC events than the KMRC official website. Normally, the KMRC sends out emails to its members informing them of upcoming activities. I suspect it classifies its members into groups and sends out emails to only those members it thinks may be interested in a particular type of event. The center is a closed world of HKPolyU academics, students and possibly clients of past KMRC projects. In my opinion, the centre doesn’t promote the free flow of ideas, expertise and advice that would come from encouraging members to know each other. There is a ‘member’s corner’ in the KMRC website but its been ‘under construction’ for a long time. Interestingly, the HKPolyU is embroiled in a big controversy on the lack of transparency in its operations and there is an ongoing enquiry now in progress, see here and here. I won’t renew my KMRC membership when it expires and I actively discourage others from joining the centre or renewing their membership.

5 Comments »

  1. Baoman said

    …. I received this email from a KMRC member. In the interests of openness, transparency and sharing I reproduce it here …. without this person’s name …. BTW – the KMRC did recently start a Facebook Page but as a Facebook Page there are very limited ways of connecting with others on Facebook.

    Bill, I am quite disappointed and disturbed at your latest blog.
    1. The KMRC has adopted the principle that only its events or events that it sponsors/supports, or that a KMRC speaker appears in will be mentioned/reported on the Web site. Whether this is right or now subjects to debate but it is the current practice principle.
    2. Think about our operations, we host many events, large to small, some with ample lead time, some (though no fault of us) with very little lead time. It is very hard to estimate to how many people will turn up and there is also the constraint of booking the right size room in PolyU especially during semester period. Combining all these what is wrong with sending out emails to selective groups of people for specific events? Of course, I am not saying that we have a consolidated email database; we still need to do that.
    3. All in KMRC put their dedication and efforts into the centre and I am very sad to see your statement of actively discouraging people to join or renew KMRC membership.
    4. There is a K4Fun group which pretty much represents the social networking/unofficial group of alumni of the program.
    5. OK We will take out the individual membership page on the Web site for the moment.

  2. Bill, what surprises me most about your post is that it seems to reflect surprise on your part! IMO, the tremendous potential of KM in Hong Kong falters on a risk averse, status quo maintaining focus (i.e. power and privilege management) that is not unique to Hong Kong, but is perhaps seen in high relief where rhetoric is so much at odds with reality.

    Transparency, collaborative process, etc. are desired most by those who are not in more senior, accountable roles in my HK experience. Such elements simply get in the way of process within organizations (a process rather than outcome focused perspective). One could be harsh, but I do think that there is a general belief that if process is followed, there is a degree of transparency and the outcome is assured. It is a disarming naivte, IMO, but there it is. This is not unique to Hong Kong but, as you say, seems to follow an agenda aimed at keeping small-p power.

    I do agree that once one is able to get beyond rank and hierarchy, local Chinese are as capable of resourcefulness and innovation as anyone. But the cultural frame is a real impediment–one that Hu Jintao has spoken of as something to work on. I was painfully conscious that when I was able to contribute to a staffperson’s willingness to risk their personal best, I was removing that person, in a sense, from the norm with potential consequences in terms of group expectations of conformity, place, etc. Not being there to champion the few such risk takers is one of very few regrets I have in not accepting another contract as GRSD. The notion of people acting so as to be perceived as experts locally is also not limited to expat behaviour–or knowledge management. (My head reels from recollection of this issue in archival science.)

    Change cannot be achieved through simple direction. It must been seen as relevant and sustainable by those who would engage in change. It is something enabled by leadership behaviours–but all leaders have limits on autonomy, reporting context not being the least of these limitations. I would like to see the KM societies push the boundaries to demonstrate a way of conceiving and engaging knowledge as a force that is fundamental to organizations. Achieved outside of the boundaries of the workplace and school, participants may be more free to engage than if conscious of the potential consequences of doing so in front of those who have the power to make life affecting decisions in other contexts.

    Rob Tornack and I found it no end of ironic that we could not find support for a study looking at recreationally induced hearing loss that could provide a learning ground on so many levels and feed knowledge for public policy development. It was not seen as a “knowledge” effort, perhaps lacking IT focus (!?!). Now several countries are ahead of Hong Kong in this and HK is finally looking at hearing to some degree. This is also typical.

    Hope springs eternal. I have met so many dynamic, thinking people in Hong Kong. They also have expressed frustration along the lines you have addressed. However, I am not aware that any have actually raised this to the bodies in question. They must risk leading from below, aside, beyond if the change they long for is to be realized.

    • Baoman said

      I agree with much of what you say – Hong Kong people are not so closed minded and are quite willing and open to exchange and share their knowledge. I’ve had many good experience within working situations in Hong Kong over the years. It is true that the further someone rises up the chain they are more likely to become closed minded and less willing to exchange and share their knowledge. This is true almost anywhere – certainly true in Hong Kong, Japan and Switzerland where I have lots of first-hand experience. What bothers me is that these are knowledge management organizations and they are simply dreadful at opening up and creating an environment that is conducive to knowledge exchange and sharing. If this happens anywhere it should happen in the KM organizations. Yes, I’m shocked and amazed.

  3. […] posts about the HKKMS are here and there is a list of HKKMS events here from March 2009 to March […]

  4. Baoman said

    Take a look at the Events page for 29 March 2011 HKKMS Monthly Event for information on the HKKMS Annual General Meeting – https://baoman.wordpress.com/km-events-in-hong-kong-and-nearby/ – I wonder if Dave Snowden knew he was being used as deep cover for the Annual General Meeting?

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