Tuesday, 6 January 2015

KM - still enduring, still confusing

In 2011, Kenneth Grant published an article entitled "Knowledge Management, an enduring but confusing fashion."  The analysis within this article is still valid 4 years later.

Figure 3 from Grant's paper

Ken's article is largely an analysis of published material, and looks both  at the number of published articles on "knowledge management" and also at a linguistic analysis of their content.

His conclusions are as follows;

  • (there has been a) latency period in KM publication, followed by a period of rapid growth and continued interest, with no evidence of a fashion decline. KM is therefore not a fad but an enduring fashion. He uses graphs such as the one shown here. Similar graphs for Intellectual Capital, Organisational learning, Communities of Practice, Knowledge Work(ers), KM models, KM process, "KM and IT", and "KM and strategy" also show no signs of fashion decline. 
  • One concern that this review has identified is whether the variety of topics often considered to be “Knowledge Management” really form part of the same field. 
  • Thus the KM discipline appears to have moved into an “enduring fashion” position and has not followed the “fad” pattern evidenced by most of the other management innovations previously studied.
  • The greatest concerns from this review are the increasing divide between practitioner and researcher in this field and the confusing perceptions of what is or is not Knowledge Management.

It is good to be reassured that KM is not a fad, though I think those of us who are active practitioners in the field know that it is not a fad, as it brings a structured management approach to an otherwise unmanaged asset, namely Knowledge.

It is also reassuring to have an analysis of the confusion within KM. Ken illustrates the confusion by looking at a linguistic analysis of 5 major journals, and identifies different use of words and concepts within the Intellectual Capital, Organisational learning, and other fields.  His article is well worth reading to understand these differences.

The main continuing confusion however is one which Grant's analysis does not cover, and that is the confusion between Information Management and Knowledge Management.

To me, Knowledge Management adds value as a unique and individual concept by, as I say above, bringing "a structured management approach to an otherwise unmanaged asset, namely Knowledge". When the term is used to describe management of Information, then it does not add value, as Information Management is a well established discipline. To rebadge IM as KM is to stray into the territory already defined by Tom Wilson as "the Nonsense of Knowledge Management", who describes it as "search and replace" marketing.

Unfortunately we still see KM variously defined as

  • "efficient handling of information and resources within a commercial organization", or as 
  • "the making of the organization's data and information available to the members of the organization through portals and with the use of content management systems", or 
  • "the systematic process of finding, selecting, organizing, distilling and presenting information in a way that improves an employee's comprehension in a specific area of interest".

Surely the finding, distilling and presenting of Information is Information Management?  Surely the making of information available through portals is also Information Management, or that subset of it called content management?

To my mind, this confusion between Information and Knowledge, and the linked confusion (tending towards a mis-identification in some cases) between Information Management and Knowledge Management remains a deeper and a more persistent confusion than that between Knowledge Management and Organisational Learning. Unfortunately I think this confusion will be with us for a long time to come.

3 comments:

Jed Cawthorne said...

ahh the eternal confusion ! I love your closing paragraphs and your misgivings about KM being used as a trendy (still ?) marketing gloss for what are often in reality Information Management concepts and products. I gave a presentation at an AIIM (ECM association) conference some years ago suggesting you cannot achieve the goals of a KM strategy without good Information Management, but the two disciplines maybe related but are not the same. Perhaps the confusion persists as IT or more technical people are drawn to the field via Info Management as opposed to Organizational Learning experts or people with HR related expertise - what do you think ?

Nick Milton said...

I have often suggested, Jed, that this confusion stems from a deficiency in the English language, which uses the same word (Knowledge) for two things - the ability to recall facts, and mastery of a topic or practice. See here for an explanation. http://www.nickmilton.com/2011/07/knowledge-management-term-lost-in.html

Facts can be written as information, hence the overlap between KM and IM. Some simple knowledge can be codified as information. These areas of knowledge are easy to work with, using IM tools. Unfortunately in some areas this has become the WHOLE of KM.

Practice mastery, especially organisational mastery, is far harder to work with, and does not lend itself to simple IT solutions.

Jed Cawthorne said...

Agree entirely ! I don't see an easy way past this lexical log jam, so I guess we have to just keep working at it. At least a common agreement among practitioners that there is overlap with IM, and we might be practitioners and experts in both, but that they are still different disciplines.

Thanks for the discourse :-)

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