Knowledge Management Involves neither Knowledge nor Management


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The title of this column is not one that I invented, though it sums up the way that I feel about knowledge management. It is the title of a very provocative chapter by Marc Effron in a collection of essays edited by Marshall Goldsmith, Howard Morgan, and Alexander Ogg entitled Leading Organizational Learning, which was published earlier this year by Jossey-Bass. My introduction to the concepts of knowledge management date back to 1992 and Tom Peters' book Liberation Management. It was full of case studies of organizations that had recognized the value of the knowledge of their employees. I'm not sure how far we have actually come over the last decade or so in realizing the expectations that knowledge management would transform organizations.

Not for one minute do I think that knowledge is not important, but I just don't think it can be managed along the classical definition of resource management, and it certainly can't be managed by throwing KM technology at the problem. I see the role of an intranet, and other technologies, as supporting knowledge exchange. One of the most perceptive observers of the way in which knowledge is used in organizations is Dave Snowden (www.cynefin.net), and he has set out three rules for knowledge exchange—in itself a term I rather like:

"Knowledge can only be volunteered; it can't be conscripted."
"People always know more than they can tell, and can tell more than they can write."
"People only know what they need to know when they need to know it."

So can we stop using KM and start using KE?

One of the benefits of being a columnist for EContent and Intranets is that I receive a lot of books for review, and the ones that stimulate my thinking most at present are on issues like social network analysis, organizational learning, and supporting virtual teams. From an intranet perspective, the more we understand the dynamics of organizations and people, the better job we will do in building and supporting effective intranet platforms.

For some time now my friend and colleague Howard McQueen and I have been developing a triangle of related issues as the basis for intranet strategy development. We have placed content management and search/findability at the technology point [see EContent May 2002, p. 46 for all three points]. One knowledge management book I recently read included a chapter on content management and another on XML. At first I wondered what these were doing in a book on KM. Then the light dawned and I realized that I could see the triangle in a different way.

The focus on information/content management is the foundation. Without reliable content there is no basis on which to build knowledge. Knowledge does not exist in a vacuum; it is created through a complex blend of information analysis and synthesis and personal experience. So unless we get to the heart of good information/content management we are building on sand. (For a really concise set of information principles, go to www.rdg.ac.uk/evince/testbed.htm.)

Technology is important, but I am not sure that there can be such a thing as KM technology, which seeks to store and categorize knowledge in an abstract sense and without context. It goes back to a rule set forth by Snowden who thinks we need to be looking for technology solutions that provide a seamless interface between structured databases, unstructured text, and the ability to mine both repositories in a way that enables the user to become more knowledgeable. An important use of most intranets is to find documents that lead to people who have knowledge because there is no other way that the organization helps identify expertise and experience among its employees.

Finally comes governance, which is all about people, culture, relationships, and leadership. Only through understanding these can an intranet manager provide information platforms that individuals can use to build their knowledge base. As intranet managers, we need to be skilled in the techniques of organizational learning and social networks.

If you are reading this at KMWorld/Intranets 2004, then you see this triangle before your eyes in the way that almost any session could be in several different tracks. And you are here to exchange knowledge, not manage it. That exchange is built on a trust that you impart knowledge to both friend and stranger on the basis that they will use it wisely, give you due credit, and perhaps one day repay you. The trust element in any exchange of knowledge is crucial.

To end, allow me to quote Effron again: "The laudatory objectives of KM should not be abandoned, despite the significant obstacles to its success…Your challenge is to cut through the consultant's hype, take a hard look at the numbers, and realize that knowledge in an organization can only be derived from people."