Earlier this week Paul Hanyeli Okolo posted a question for discussion: What comes after Knowledge management? What was before?
It started my wheels spinning. Even though Joe Firestone, David Snowden, Matt Moore and I, and numerous others in the Act-KM group, have wrestled for several years now to define KM, and KM’s relationship with learning, there still is no single, agreed answer that one might use, for example, to define it in an understandable way to one’s elderly mother or new boss. That, to me, means we still haven’t got a clear understanding of the elephant. We are still talking about parts.
Ian Fry responded to the question by asserting that KM always was and always will be, adding, “across many nations every day millions of people transfer their tacit knowledge to others (many of whom cannot read nor write) – they are called Primary School Teachers.” I hadn’t really thought about teachers in relation to what I normally consider KM, but I have to agree with him. My less philosophical answer was going to be that before KM there were librarians, phone directories and stories around the cooking fire (or water cooler). I was thinking to argue that teaching is “knowledge transfer”, not “knowledge management.” But wait! Teaching may actually be KM, since teachers determine the curriculum, how it’s taught and what is taught. They are managing knowledge in one sense.
Most of what business and professional people call KM, though, is actually facilitated knowledge transfer. I suggest that knowledge “management” consists of both making information available for person:information search (asynchronous) AND transferring information by story telling or narratives about personal experience in person:person search (synchronous). In all cases there is a “seeker” and a “source”. (There may not always be an answer.) There may have been a process or attempt to consolidate information into one place to make it easier to find (a library, a directory or database). There may have been rituals established for how one person shares what he/she knows with others or the organization (after action reviews, templates, audio descriptions). There may be formal knowledge transfer processes (classroom teaching, exit interviews, new hire training, procedure documentation). Knowledge management is always the means of chasing an elusive target and attempting to make it visible to others who need it. That’s part of the fun of KM as a profession, to me. The knowledge learned, captured or shared is never fully learned, captured or shared.
Knowledge is at heart experiential. And that is why, to use Ian’s example, a mother chimp takes a stick and pokes it into the termite hole in front of her baby. Pretty soon the baby has a stick and is trying to put it into a hole, too. Knowledge transfer will always occur, but I’m not so sure that KM has always existed or will always exist. Some components of it will always exist…there will always need to be someone whose job it is to manage the databases. But one can envision a day when most human knowledge and experience is somehow codified and accessible on demand, and knowledge management as we call it today is no longer necessary. Maybe we will each have our own personal “Hal” or embedded microchip. But that’s a topic for another day. :)