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.