A Knowledge Management Primer

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Defining Knowledge Management (KM)

Knowledge Management (KM) has had its ups and downs. It seems that just about everyone is selling it, but only a few are using it. Can the problem be marketing or application, or is the issue a too fluid definition? This article offers a KM benchmark for managers who need more substance than hyperbole.

Firstly, KM is not Information Management (IM) or Information Science (IS). 

IM / IS are disciplines for managing product, where quantity is a more common measure than quality – such as number of documents on a Web site. Sometimes the measures go beyond inventorying and into actual use, but we shall never know, for example, whether the borrowed War and Peace was read, or used for pressing flowers.

That IM / IS are not KM does not make it unimportant. We would be lost without files and their cabinets, libraries and their books. From IM / IS we have learned order – the many rules needed for good information product management. They have given us good navigation systems for the knowledge age.

IM and IS are not KM primarily because one of those rules is about value – and in these domains information provenance is deemed more important than use. In the KM world, “knowledge” is information that has business use.

Secondly, KM is not Information Technology (IT). 

IT is hardware and software and has to do with product storage and movement. The product is called “content,” a word that appeared when IT realized that growth and development possibilities based solely on technical efficiency had evaporated, replaced by a management and user demand for utility. 

The IT world has taken IM and IS into its confidence to a limited degree, but there is still a wide gulf between it and KM. The reason for that gulf is the widely different world views of the technician and the holistic knowledge entrepreneur.

IT will eventually achieve a key role in KM as the IT profession becomes more user-savvy, and continues development of new people / knowledge applications in orchestrated corporate IM/IT/KM architectures. New expertise locators, theme-based searching tools and Intranets show promise. But none of this will be successful if IT does not recognize that workplaces are made up of individuals and groups that do not behave like photocopiers. And none will be of any use whatsoever if these tools are so centrally controlled and rule-bound that employees can’t even get in to change their personal coordinates.

Thirdly, KM is not (yet) related to either Human Resources (HR) or Business Intelligence (BI). Clearly, KM is about people, and intelligence, but HR is far too transaction and process oriented, and BI far too data management related for the comfort of knowledge professionals. HR and BI have been married to IT for a long time now and there is no sign of a divorce in the works. But recently, HR has taken an interest in knowledge, as baby boom talent resigns or retires, taking “corporate knowledge” with them. HR however remains focused on finding a “magic bullet” that will deliver the perfect form for capturing a lifetime of experience and wisdom. The darling of financial managers, BI is only data mining with a new suit of clothes, a high-priced and complex infrastructure that is counter-evolutionary and of limited utility. BI leaves bruised and broken major data systems in place while extracting allegedly useful “management information.” Have we forgotten the old adage “junk in – junk out”?

HR, BI and IT are potential KM friends, but at the moment offer more challenges than opportunities. These process functions are linear, seeing from an A to Z perspective, while people, and the knowledge they hold, are multi-dimensional. Building a business process – automated or not – on any other understanding of human intelligence is doomed to failure.

Organizations starting on the knowledge trail need to get clear right up front what knowledge is and how it is or could be managed. And then, organizations need to know who in the organization ought to be chatting about those issues. Here’s a start list:

  • Organizational Development (OD). Defining the kind of organization needed to realize specifically defined outcomes takes considerable knowledge about forms and functions.
  • Competitive Intelligence and Environmental Scanning (CI). Many, possibly most organizations don’t know what their competitors, suppliers and customers have on their minds, and where their minds are taking them. In addition, many organizations are continually in reaction-mode as yet another surprise hits them face on. Knowledge professionals know what to look for, how to gather what needs to be known, and how to integrate that intelligence into the corporate mainstream.
  • Innovation. Proponents of innovation seem agreed that it is far easier and far more effective to build environments where innovation can occur, than to drive innovation through command and control. How does one know that the workplace is nurturing experimentation, risk-taking and innovation?
  • Competency. Global competition demands individual and collective capability in understanding, planning and delivering. This competency does not come from linear trainers.
  • Governance. Quality decision-making is hard to measure and almost impossible to benchmark. But it is an outcome that will show up on the year-end balance sheet, in product and process quality, operational efficiency and employee morale. Who needs to be involved in making decisions? What do they need to know to decide wisely?
  • Transparency. Secrecy is anathema to knowledge work. Information should be available unless there are good business / personal reasons why not. Managed organizational knowledge happens when users filter, not when filtering is done for users. Honesty, integrity and confidence rise in open organizations, where what is known and how things happen, is there for all to see and experience.
  • Communications, collaboration and teamwork. The “information age” would have been better called “the information product age.” Computers have certainly succeeded at generating vast treasure troves (and waste bins) of data and information, but we have made miniscule progress in mining, leveraging, sharing and applying all that we have learned. How are we going to break down the workstation stovepipes?     

The first step in enterprise KM is the hardest. It is the recognition that people are what the organization is all about, and knowledge is not a product that is stored in boxes. With those understandings, knowledge initiatives can commence. Those initiatives need to focus on effecting changes in perception and perspective. Changes in the way things are done will follow accordingly.

KM works best when its new perceptions and activities come together as a composite whole. Here KM resonates with the drive for “enterprise architecture” – the notion that organizations work best when their business lines, business processes and supporting infrastructure (including information technology) – have been “architected” – which is to say defined, linked, and managed in an integrated way.

New perceptions include a new way of looking at methodologies, deliverables and outcomes. Insisting that a KM “program” or “project” be defined in the manner of a traditional tangible exercise indicates an organization not yet ready for Knowledge Management. Instead of paper, KM measures and benchmarks need to look to corporate tenacity, adaptive capability and speed in effective decision-making and delivery. In an intangible world, be very careful with measures focusing only on tangibility.

Managers need to look to the “knowledge environment” – the built or virtual envelope(s) within which the employee creates and delivers. Managers need to ensure that branches, sectors and individuals understand they are all in the same business. Outcomes are organizational outcomes, and inputs must be ego-free. People own their intellectual capability, but intellectual application belongs to the whole.

In a knowledge enterprise no business branch is an autonomous domain. Some CIO’s speak of “aligning IT goals with those of the business.” But IT has no goals other than those of the business. If the IT sector – or any other – is “unaligned,” it is part of the problem.

We assume organizations are knowledge-based; that corporate values include competence, collective output and intelligent evolution; that mission and activities are linked; and that it is getting better and better at what it does over time. In the knowledge economy, just what tools have we used to come to those conclusions? Have we asked technicians or thinkers, process or people experts? Have we, in fact, had any sort of meaningful conversation with our people, and the people with whom we are paid to relate? In a world where governance, transparency and accountability are not buzz words but survival attributes, senior executives need to ask themselves is: “Just who is going to design and deliver enterprises that look and work this way?”

David G. Jones M.A. has lectured and taught on the subject of Knowledge Management in Canada, the USA and Britain

Interested in the “bible” of Knowledge Management? Yes, the field is 2300 years old. See my book:

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