Anyone who is reading this probably already knows something about knowledge management, so I’ll ask you something that’s nagging at me. Why, after nearly 15 years of more or less organized thinking, debate and studying of KM, haven’t we collectively been able to:
Define what knowledge management is Create an unassailable model of how it works
and perhaps more importantly,
Sell the KM value proposition to organizations that clearly need it?
It seems fundamental to further productive discourse, and yet, we can’t seem to resolve these basic questions. Why? There are many bright, educated, intelligent, capable, interested, articulate, clear-thinking people involved with this work. Some amazing insights and results and benefits have been captured and tested and reported. Why after all this time and effort and energy have we been unable to unify all our experience and insight and results into a singleminded understanding? Why are we still seeing the legs and trunk and tail of the elephant and not the elephant? This profession (if that is what we allow ourselves to be called) is churning. The tires are spinning and the steering wheel is being turned this way and that, but we can’t seem to get the traction that will break our inertia and send us moving down a road. I’m not sure any of my questions below will help to find an answer, but over years I have learned that when I want to understand where a blockage is or why something is stalled, I have to challenge all the basic assumptions about it to be sure they are true. Here is how I am puzzling out possible reasons for the wheel spinning.
Is it because KM is truly a new approach to how people work and this is part of the normal slow startup curve? If that is so, there must be parallels in nature. Nature has a model for everything we do. The human race is working out a new way of interacting. Perhaps this is a pre-Cambrian-like KM explosion period teeming with possibilities, a time of immense creativity and variety that will eventually resolve into a few versions that are viable. Can we borrow a model from nature to accelerate our thinking?
Is KM only a fad, as some have said? We don’t want it to be a fad. We are putting energy and thought into figuring it out, and we believe something is in there, but are we wishing something into existence that doesn’t really exist? Is KM just a tactical step on the path of CRM or collaboration or some other interactive process that we have attempted to elevate to more than it is?
Are we assuming incorrectly that all organizations need KM? Perhaps we should refocus our efforts toward defining and prioritizing who really needs it and will benefit from it, and what value they can expect from it. Most organizations that are interested still consider it a “nice to have” and not a business necessity. We need to focus on the ones that know they need it. Perhaps we could focus on creating a tiered approach, a way of defining organizations on the basis of the types or amount of value KM could bring to them — a Mazlow-like pyramid of organizations with criteria around it.
Are we putting a lot of thought and effort into KM when it is only a subset of a larger concept no one has yet defined? Before Chaos Theory was formulated in physics, scientists dealt with a lot of subsets of “something”, but they couldn’t quite understand what the “something” was that would make it all hang together. The same was true with the discovery of gravity. And the Theory of Relativity. Until then, a lot of observations were made about results, but no one knew how to make all the results make sense in a bigger framework. Maybe we are in a similar situation with KM, and we are churning on the subsets and missing the bigger picture.
Are we preaching to the choir too much, and excluding new or different voices? The maxim goes “the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know.” It’s comfortable to be a big fish in a small pond. It’s easy to become complacent and stop questioning. Some of the leaders of the KM community have been around since the earliest days, and, while they have many good insights and much wisdom to offer, some seem more interested in being acknowledged by their peers than making new contributions to the KM discussion. Perhaps we are all coasting a bit, and poo-pooing the new ideas and contradictory views offered by new and different voices. After all, it’s human nature to resist change. It just doesn’t advance the field.
Is KM a product or a process? There is a lot of debate that goes on in KM circles about what constitutes KM. Some experts talk about it as if it is a product…as the result or outcome of some processes that occur in an organization. Some talk about it as if the processes themselves, a particular collection of steps or actions, comprise KM. It’s interesting to hear the debates, because it’s like the blind men and the elephant. Both views are correct, and neither is the whole picture. We can’t get our hands around KM because none of the prevailing theories can encompass both points of view, and the correct understanding of KM must include both concepts.
Is the concept of KM being hijacked by a small group of consultants? Each person or group with an idea (trademarked, of course) throws it out to the world as KM and tries to advance it against the others. Some of these are untested hypotheses, and some are tactical methodologies. It’s a kind of “capture the flag” game, where one consultant raises a flag and then another one steals it away and carries it to their home base, only to have it snatched away a few months later by someone else. Even the software vendors get into this game. They have gone so far as to hijack the term “knowledge management” and equate it so successfully with technology, that we may need an entirely new name for what we really do (which is only supported by technology). KM is either universal or it’s a subset of something that is. We have no governing body that represents what KM is or should be, how it works, and who is qualified to consult on it.
Is the factionalization of competing KM theories and methodologies confusing both customers and ourselves? We have vertical silos in KM, like portals or repositories or just in time learning or creating capabilities or intellectual capital or knowledge markets. And we have horizontal approaches, like communities of practice, social networking, collaboration or organizational storytelling to cut across silos. They are floating in a fuzzy sea of “improving decision making” and “empowering the knowledge worker”, cultural change, knowledge transfer, “the new KM” and the KM of complexity. They can’t all be right, yet they are partially right. How can we assess which are true? It’s confusing, and it sets off interesting and heated debates, most of which occur among the very people who stand to profit from having their own approach accepted as the authoritative one! KM is confusing to KM scholars and practitioners, and it’s even more confusing to business people…who don’t have time to make heads or tails of it. They just table the conversation!
Do our non-scientific or non-financial backgrounds make it difficult to produce results that can be accepted critically? At this point in time, KM is largely learned by doing. If we are lucky, we have a customer and a budget and learn under optimum conditions. KM is still new enough that only a few academic programs offer a KM curriculum track (and even fewer organizations want to hire them!). This means that most of us came to KM from other careers, and most of us were trained in the “soft skills,” not in hard analytical skills like math and science. The scientific evidence to support the claims of KM simply isn’t there yet because so few of us know how to apply scientific rigor to our work. Unfortunately, the people we need to convince tend to be analytical people, and that is what they want to see.
Each of these topics is worth separate discussion and debate, and because I haven’t read everything published, perhaps some good work I have missed has already been done. Speaking for myself, I’m bored with so-called KM conferences on content management and search capabilities and taxonomies and portals, and I’m even getting bored with seminars defining communities and valuing intellectual property and identifying incentives to share knowledge and hype cycles and KM infrastructure and causal maps and social networks and knowledge transfer. Where is the big picture? We need to pull ourselves up out of the weeds and find the grand unifying theory of KM.