Knowledge Management in the Real World

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.

Summary

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’?

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