On knowledge management’s crisis of confidence

I read a lot of blogs on knowledge management. I also read articles and I try to read books (although I am doing so at a much slower rate these days). I attend knowledge management conferences and discuss issues with attendees. I talk knowledge management at forums and with friends and colleagues.

What I find is that there is a seeming lack of confidence about “knowledge management” and why it is important. It seems to me that there is much to discuss, plenty of good KM work being done, numerous relevant multidisciplinary approaches, and plenty of opportunities for KM initiatives across organisational boundaries to enhance personal and organisational effectiveness. Yet it is all undone because we can’t define KM in a single sentence, and knowledge management is not “recognised” as a “discipline” unto itself.

In other words, knowledge management is complex and multidimensional, and there is no “authority” to give knowledge management the seriousness it deserves. 

So it is interesting to read yet again – actKM has had a long discussion about what constitutes KM – that there is still conjecture as to what knowledge management is, whether it can become a “discipline”, and whether knowledge management is really something separate from everyday work practices within an organisation.

Some relevant blog posts on the topic have come from Annette and Matt, James Dellow, Gladur, David Gurteen, Lucas McDonnell, Dave Snowden, and Jack Vinson. There are many, many more out there in blogland.

I almost forgot to add the notorious (?) Tom Wilson article: The nonsense of knowledge management in which knowledge management is derided as being just a mere fad – a fad that shows no sign of abating despite it’s lack of clarity.

My definition of knowledge management from my 2003 journal article said this:

“Knowledge management is a collective term for the facilitation of improvements to an organisation’s capabilities, efficiencies and competitive advantage through the better use of its individual and collective knowledge and information resources”.

I still think of knowledge management the same way today in terms of facilitation. And facilitation can be technical by providing tools and it can be behavioural, in terms of embedding work processes that enhance positive knowledge and organisational outcomes.

In fact, knowledge management is likely to continue its amorphous definitional context for the very reason that more and more knowledge management practices are becoming embedded within ordinary day-to-day work.

And this is a good thing…….


15 responses to “On knowledge management’s crisis of confidence

  1. Glad you mentioned Wilson’s article – even if we can’t agree on KM, I’ve always thought it at least makes a great “anti-pattern” for KM (unfortunately its probably not what he intended). BTW Kim Sbarcea also has a good post on why KM isn’t a fad: http://thinkingshift.wordpress.com/2007/10/08/am-i-following-a-fad/

  2. I’m not so sure that one definition (or a strap line) is required what has really confused me is the density of the language (and variety of it) that seeks to make Knowledge Management so complex to the ‘lay’ eye…my motivation for interviewing Matt was to try and understand in an accessible way what KM is about and I had a better idea of it after that interview.

  3. Annette,

    I am not sure that a strap line wouldn’t help. Having to conduct an interview in order to understand knowledge management is fine in some circumstances but I think a succinct one-liner is what people in the first instance are looking for.

    As to the desnity of the language, that doesn’t always help either!


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  5. Good point brad – but what’s your analysis of why KM has a need for such dense language? Is it suffering from an identity crisis and hiding behind language (like so many disciplines do)? afraid that it will perceived as too ‘simple’ if it is accessible in simple English?

  6. Annette,

    Perhaps – dense language seems to be popular in intellectual domains in giving itself authority – exclusionary elitism. That won’t work in KM, it’s not exclusionary and it’s not intellectual. However, I don’t see dense language as the issue – I see finding a simple, meaningful sentence as the real issue – the elevator pitch scenario.

  7. You might want to take a position that the absence of a precise definition is one of the reasons for the longevity of KM. KM had multiple origins (ICM, DSS, IM, CoP) just to scatter a few buzz phrases.

    What is clear is that social computing people avoid the term as it is now more or less linked to Nonaka’s SECI model and the IT Department. As I said in the blog post you referenced, its going to carry on for a bit as a “name” and for ever as a subject under other “names”.

    By the way, in your response to Annette. I would agree that KM is not exclusionary in practice. However there is a place in any developed discipline for the development of abstracted language, without it communication gets difficult. Avoiding anti-intellectualism is as important as creating simple ways to communicate. Its not an either/or but a both/and.

  8. Dave,

    Yes, there certainly has been a plethora of articles and books about KM. The absence of strict definition hasn’t curtailed authorship, just given plenty of people something to say.

    In previous posts I have referred to knowledge management as an umbrella of activities, a rather wide one some might say. However, I have the impression that those in KM would like an easy-to-explain definition for clarity and understanding. Also, to act as a rallying point for the “discipline”. Perhaps we could just use knowledge management as a collective noun or a “collective verb”?

    As to the intellectual side of things, I most certainly agree that there is a place for intellectual thought and communication but that this type of discussion needs to be in the right context. And talking of context, there will be times when practitioners “do knowledge management” without knowing it and this is what I mean when I talk about being embedded in day-to-day work practices.

  9. Agreed bad, but understanding of theory allows for scalability

  10. sorry for “bad” read “Brad” 😦

  11. I know we know what it means, but I think the crisis is often that many people just can’t get past the ‘management’ bit of knowledge management and plop it along side information management.

    They might just be words, but there’s a lot of culture and history in these terms. Recently, a friend mentioned to me a new title starting to pop up — “knowledge architect”.

    Much of what I do as a consultant is called “information architecture”, defining ways in which information is best organised, categorised and often displayed/interacted with through websites. Often “user-centred design” is mentioned in the same sentence.

    After giving it some thought, I think it’s an attractive title, and much more descriptive when put side-by-side with other disciplines like information architecture.


  12. Matt,

    I like the notion of architect in knowledge management. I first heard the expression at a SOLA breakfast a couple of years ago and thought that it had potential.

    Good for a laugh (but taken seriously by a friend of mine) is the title, knowledge capitalist!

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