So What is Knowledge Management Anyway?

This column published as So What is Knowledge Management Anyway? in LearnScope online Apr 10, 2003. [Link] [Info] [List all Publications]

Though hundreds of articles have been authored on the subject over the last few years, there is no real shared understanding of what is meant by ?knowledge management.? Indeed, there is no consensus around the question of whether knowledge management is even possible. The two issues are related: the possibility of knowledge management depends on what you think it is.

So let?s begin slowly. ?Each player in the network acquires specific knowledge from other players for decision support.? (Pederson & Larson, 2001) What does that mean? On the one hand, as Wilson (2002) suggests, it looks like a mere renaming of what we used to call ?information sharing.? And if you look at the knowledge management products sold today, the online equivalent of paper-shuffling systems, that?s how it appears.

These are good grounds for skepticism. After his exhaustive survey, Wilson concludes that knowledge management ?is, in large part, a management fad, promulgated mainly by certain consultancy companies, and the probability is that it will fade away like previous fads. It rests on two foundations: the management of information - where a large part of the fad exists (and where the 'search and replace marketing' phenomenon is found), and the effective management of work practices.?

Despite such scepticism it seems that there is something to knowledge management, something beyond management fads and repressive workplace practices. Anyone who has pored through massive product manuals or has dug into the shared files directory for some obscure document that may or may not exist is able to tap into the intuitive idea that there must be a better way. Even so, it feels as though there should be something more than mere information retrieval to justify the hype.

Part of the problem with what has been described thus far lies in our understanding of what we mean by ?knowledge.? As Wilson suggests, much of the literature seems to equate ?knowledge? and ?information? and to suggest, therefore, that knowledge management is nothing over and above the collection, storage and distribution of information. Consequently, it is no surprise that much of the discussion related to knowledge management amounts to little over and above a complex and slightly more intelligent content management system, an environment where the sharing of data is analogous to the sharing of knowledge.

That said, there are also those companies and authors who believe that the ?knowledge? in knowledge management can be realized through the conversion of what has come to be called (after Polanyi) ?tacit knowledge,? that is, the unarticulated wisdom and experience acquired by people through undocumented day-to-day experience. Tacit knowledge consists, for example, of the stories that would be told around the coffee-room table, and the purpose of knowledge management is to capture this information, articulate it, and make it available online.

The latest instantiation of this trend has surfaced in the idea of corporate blogs. A blog ? short for web log ? is like an online diary, a journal in which a person records his or her thoughts on a daily basis. Blogs are personal, informal and experiential, so they appear to the knowledge manager to be a perfect candidate for tacit knowledge. Thus Macromedia, for example, has asked four of its managers to begin blogs about their software and related issues. (Manjoo, 2003)

Corporate blogs are no more likely to be successful than any previous form of knowledge management, and for the same reason. Knowledge isn?t information; a person, as we saw last month, does not acquire knowledge merely by the accumulation of facts. Thus, the mere collecting and distributing information (or content, or data, or personal reflections) isn?t going to result in anything more than a data input exercise. Over and above mere acquisition, knowledge requires evaluation and integration.

Picture, then, a piece of information (putative ?knowledge?) as it enters the knowledge management system. If it is merely stored in some convenient location, awaiting retrieval, then it could hardly be said to constitute knowledge. In a knowledge management system, there needs to be some means of evaluation and integration. What makes a system a ?knowledge management? system is therefore whatever allows it to perform this additional function.

There are many ways to approach this, but in the end such solutions amount to the same thing: a knowledge management system is not merely a content management system, it is also a communication system. That is to say, it allows people (employees, say, or students, or experts in a discipline) to exchange information, to comment on or otherwise evaluate this information, and to place this information into some context where it would be useful.

What might such a system look like? It is, in short, a network, a system of exchange characterized by two key properties:

    1. Information flows in from the edges. There is no single ?authoritative? source of content; any person who is connected to the network is a potential contributor. By analogy, don?t think of the corporate library, think of the corporate telephone system as the closest approximation of a knowledge management system.

    2. Information flows out to the edges. Most knowledge management systems are based on some sort of central storage. But while such a repository may be useful for containing physical assets, those assets are by necessity decontextualized. Knowledge management involves placing those assets in context, something that can be done only by the people using the knowledge.

When corporations, governments or educational enterprises think of knowledge management, they usually think of large, expensive and richly featured centralized storage systems. Such systems, though, are the antithesis of knowledge management. The true locus of knowledge management is not in the organization. It is in the person.

Manjoo, Farhad. (2003) Blogging Goes Corporate.Wired News.,1284,52380,00.html

Pedersen, M.K. & Larsen, M.H. (2001). Distributed knowledge management based on product state models - the case of decision support in health care administration. Decision Support Systems, 31(1): 139-158.

Wilson, T.D. (2002) The nonsense of ?knowledge management?. Information Research, Vol. 8 No. 1, October 2002.

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