Thursday, 8 July 2010


Definitions matter in KM





Those of you who are subscribed to Linked In may be able to see this set of KM definitions from a recent survey, posted by Steven Oesterreich in the KM Edge group.

There are 130 responses to the survey. Many of them are not definitions, and are people saying "we have no definition", or defining knowledge management as "not important".

However the three words that appear most frequently as key components of the definitions that really are definitions and not commentary, are "Knowledge", "Information" and "Experience"

The Venn diagram, to the right, shows how many of the definitions are based on these words, either alone or in combination.

42 of these definitions define KM solely in terms of knowledge. For example "creation of a knowledge culture intent on innovation and driven by passion", or "Strategic approach and systematic process to capture, create, use, reuse and share knowledge across the enterprise to improve individual and organisation performance"

24 of these definitions define KM solely in terms of information. For example, "The efficient collection and dissemination of information across the organisation, and between the organisation and its customers", or "the right information to the right people at the right time".

10 of these definitions refer to both words, eg "KM provides an organisation with the opportunity to use its knowledge and information resources to greatest effect".

Then we have quite a few that refer to experience, either alone (including "the ability to share and manage experiences gained over time for the sustainability of the business"), or in combination with one of the other words ("....the transfer of knowledge and experiences from people to people...", "... the effective management of human intuition and experience augmented by the provision of information....", "sharing and reusing knowledge, information and experiences to improve our individual team and organisational performance".

Now I know there is a school of thought that says this diversity of definition is not a problem, and in fact reflects a refreshing diversity in the knowledge management field.

But I think there is a problem hidden in there, and the problem is the confusion between knowledge management and information management.

I dont know if you recall that excellent document "the nonsense of knowledge management"? The author of this document takes a good look at a number of KM articles and concludes that

"The review of journal papers, the review of consultancy Web sites and those of
the business schools, suggest that, in many cases, 'knowledge management' is
being used simply as a synonym for 'information management'. This has been
referred to by David Weinberger, citing Adina Levin as the originator, as
'search and replace marketing'"

I think we have a certain number of search and replace definitions in our list. Take, for example, "Knowledge Management is the efficient collection and dissemination of information across the organisation, and between the organisation and its customers". What if we replaced "Knowledge management" with "information management"? Would the definition make sense if it said "Information Management is the efficient collection and dissemination of information across the organisation, and between the organisation and its customers".

Personally, I think it makes a lot more sense that way!

So we have some search and replace definitions (what I call cat and dog definitions), and we have some definitions of information management in there, probably 24 of them, mixed up with our definitions of knowledge management.

Does this matter? I think it does matter. Knowledge management and information management are different. If somebody is working with information alone, and thinks they are doing knowledge management, then they are missing a huge opportunity. You cannot match the performance improvement benchmarks set by KM, from working only with information.

In the Nonsense paper, the author looks at this rebadging of information management as knowledge management and concludes that "The inescapable conclusion of this analysis of the 'knowledge management' idea is that it is, in large part, a management fad, promulgated mainly by certain consultancy companies, and the probability is that it will fade away like previous fads".

That's another disappointing and dismaying side effect of this confusion - it devalues the whole KM field.

Definitions do matter. I have no problem with the diversity of definitions of knowledge management - the ones that refer to knowledge, know-how, experience etc - but what I think can cause real problems is when you find definitions of information management masquerading as knowledge management definitions. Thats when the problems start, and people start to see KM as IM rebadged, and consequently only a fad.

(PS - find our Knoco definitions here)

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