Knowledge Management is a term that many people dislike, myself included. Firstly it's a misnomer - you can't "manage", at an organization or corporate level, something as subjective and contextual as knowledge. It's even debatable whether you can manage knowledge at a personal level - because we don't always know what we know.

Secondly, the term 'knowledge management' has become one of those awful IT cliche buzz words - like (my personal favourite) "leverage" and "portal". People who want to sound important in IT business meetings, but actually know little about IT, use buzz words frequently. e.g. "Yes we are addressing that with our new Knowledge Management initiatives, which will leverage off our Web Portal."

But despite these faults, the term 'knowledge management' is widely accepted as the name of a business discipline (alongside 'accounting' and 'marketing' and so forth). So it makes sense to go with the flow and continue to use the term. Indeed I've done so in my own weblog categorisation, which mostly matches the community topic mapping applications I use. It isn't my purpose here to try and change the term 'knowledge management'. I do however want to try and grasp what exactly is knowledge management and how is it done in the real world?

Is KM Nonsense?

I came across an interesting paper that debunks some myths about KM. Written by Professor T.D. Wilson of the University of Sheffield, the paper is provocatively entitled The nonsense of 'knowledge management'. The professor researched journal papers that had the term 'knowledge management' in their titles and he found that the occurance of such papers grew exponentially from 1997 onward. His data takes us to 2002, which was the peak but also showed signs of a slow-down. Professor Wilson discovered the following tendencies among the journals he researched (nb: I've separated the points into a numbered list):

1. A concern with information technology.

2. A tendency to elide the distinction between 'knowledge' (what I know) and 'information' (what I am able to convey about what I know).

3. Confusion of the management of work practices in the organization with the management of knowledge.

The 3 things above aren't the Professor's conclusions, just an excerpt I've selected that covers what I consider to be 3 key points. His actual conclusion later in that paper is that KM is a "management fad, promulgated mainly by certain consultancy companies". That may be so, but I'm more interested in what KM is in practice in the business world.

Work Practices

I want to pick up on the third point from above, "management of work practices in the organization". This is dismissed by Professor Wilson in his conclusion as a "Utopian idea", but I believe it is a practical way forward for KM. The current crop of personal content management and 'social software' tools (weblogs, wikis, etc) go some way to giving individual workers control over their information gathering and sharing. It's by no means a perfect solution - I've written before that I'm skeptical about how many 'normal' people (i.e. non-geeks) will use these technologies. But even so, technologies such as weblogs do emphasize subjectivity and context - which as I mentioned at the beginning of this post are two main tenets of 'knowledge'.

Bottom-up KM

One of the best articles I've seen on KM was written a week or so ago by Dave Pollard. He entitled it Confessions of a CKO: What I should have done. As the title indicates, Dave used to be a "Chief Knowledge Officer" (at Ernst & Young I think? if so, then it's one of the consultancy firms that Professor Wilson picked on in his paper!). In a previous article, Dave had outlined his principles of KM and in this latest article he tackles the processes. They are grounded in the following observation:

"...I realized that we have been looking at it all wrong, from above, from a systems perspective, instead of from ground level, from an activity level."

Which is another of saying that KM should be bottom-up, rather than top-down - a theme that I've written on before (as have many others in the blogging world).

KM Job Description

What really grabbed me about Dave's article was his ideal "job description" for KM - or "Work Effectiveness Improvement" as he re-named it. He outlined 6 bullet points and I've decided to crudely cut out the action points from those, which ironically loses the context somewhat. But generally speaking there are far too few KM action points in the world (as opposed to reams and reams of KM theory). So here goes:

1. Introduce personal content management and social networking tools.

2. Provide personalized training, tools, suggested processes and 'cheat sheets' to workers; plus provide recommendations for more systematic changes.

3. Establish standards, procedures, filters and measurements to reduce unnecessary e-mails, information flows, paperwork, meetings and interruptions.

4. Develop voluntary training programs.

5. Assess the aggregate cost to the organization of information; and objectively evaluate information adequacy, quality, and overload, and recommend changes to tools, repositories, and processes.

6. Develop a set of Work Effectiveness Principles.


The key point I take away from Dave Pollard's article and Professor Wilson's paper is that Knowledge Management isn't just a term to be used and abused in management meetings and journal papers. Knowledge Management - despite being mis-named - is a personal, collaborative, active 'doing word'. It is founded on subjectivity and context.

Let me put it this way: Knowledge Management should be a verb, not (as the word 'management' implies) a noun.

Our jobs as KM researchers or practitioners is to enable that in organizational settings. Now... if only I could get such a job! I'm currently a Web Producer, but I much prefer working at the Analysis and Strategy level. So I'd be interested to know how Dave Pollard worked his way to be a CKO, as that's something I'd like to aim towards. 

Your 2 Cents

I'd be interested in feedback from readers as to how one gets a job in the KM area. Do you work as a KM [something]? What do you do in your job to enable 'knowledge management'?