Knowledge Management (KM): Fad or Fabulous?

The other day a colleague and I were invited by a potential client to come and discuss the implementation of knowledge management in their organisation. It was to be an exploratory meeting: there had been no formal request, nor was there a meeting agenda, and it became clear to us quite quickly that the client was looking for, let’s say, direction.

It appeared that a number of employees had been on a knowledge management course, and they were looking for the next logical step.

After a few minutes of beating around the bush, a hesitant statement emerged: “knowledge management is about, well, sharing knowledge” … Not that this statement was inherently wrong, but I was waiting to exhale to hear the rest of it. But, somewhat unsurprisingly, the rest was silence. I tried to save the day by suggesting some techniques, but couldn’t help leaving the meeting with a feeling of dissatisfaction and failure on my part. And I started wondering why it is so difficult to even describe knowledge management?

A quick Google search tells us that Ikujiro Nonaka established knowledge management as a discipline in 1991 with the publication of “The knowledge creating company” in Harvard Business Review 69 (6 Nov-Dec: pp 96–104).

Today, a mere twenty years later, the term “knowledge management” is so overused in business it is in danger of becoming another fad. Again the gap between research (with which I am not familiar but trust to be substantial and valuable) and useful application seems to be unbridgeable. And if we’re not careful other great concepts like the learning organisation may follow suit.

So here’s the real question: Why does so much great academic work get lost in its application in real life?

I guess one could spend a lifetime looking for answers to this question, but I would venture to say that the line that connects theory with practice (an oversimplification, I know) is not a straight one. Theory needs to be internalised, on a personal and organisational level, before it may change behaviour. Only when that happens, the change process can really start. So meaningful progress in an organisation is a lengthy process, often too lengthy for short sighted motives such as profit to hang around and wait.

I also notice that while the academics are grappling with concepts, the business world is quite happy to get along with fuzzy descriptions and a few buzzwords. This often leads to half-hearted efforts headed for abandonment and “flavour-of-the-month” management.

Now the term “Knowledge Management” was off to a bad start, as it is of course an oxymoron: One simply cannot manage knowledge. We can manage people (supposedly so – topic for another blog) to create, capture and disseminate knowledge to the benefit of an organisation.

  • Blog Admin

    This comment is By Helena Smith on LinkedIn:

    Is this company using a KMS? We have one in place, and it does require constant updating as things in the Healthcare Industry change quickly.

    • Luc Bauwmans

      You make a good point. Just as organizations, KM systems are like live organisms. Industry practices change, technology evolves, and companies learn. All of those require the KMS database to be kept up to date.
      Good companies see value in this and invest in systems and people to do so. Unfortunately they seem to be the minority.
      Are you familiar with the Society for Organizational Learning?

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  • Blog Admin

    This comment is By Mark Adams on LinkedIn:

    My experience with KM seminars and the like is they are sales pitches for software.

    My issue and it seems you touch on it is we are not interested in knowledge as such but the effective application of it to work.

    As so much of the areas we seem to be interested in is around knowledge work (e.g., engineers and similar type roles) we overlook that there are well established practices for brining new people into the professions: the use of structured experiences to illustrate and exemplify how to apply theory related policies, standards, etc. to specific tasks. Also for several professions like medical ones, learning to use motor skills is critical too. The key to doing this development and transference of what, when and how is done through carefully increasing difficulty in experiences and working along side “master” of the practice.

    Several years ago I worked with a client who was concerned about developing engineers to a certain proficiency level. He indicated that it took 10 – 12 years to reach the proficiency level he was interested in. My task was to do two things:

    1. map out how he could be sure that any one engineer was getting 1*10 years of experience vs. 10*1 years worth. This was useful to him and his direct reports.

    2. To challenge how we could accelerate the 1-*1 towards 8*1 or even 7*1. For one group, this meant seriously considering moving some of their engineers into another firm that had more opportunities to provide frequent critical experiences.

    Most KM applications that have worked out in my mind are those where activities and related standards and policies are relatively straight forward to codify. This means they meet two conditions: the range of activities is finite and there is no discernible uncertainty or even risk in the work.

    I have heard that others have had better success than I have witnessed.

    Good luck