Monday 21 March 2016

Why did Knowledge Management start when it did?

Knowledge Management as a management discipline began in the 1980s. But why did it begin when it did?

(By the way, there may be readers of this blog who can fill in some of the gaps in the history below.  If so - please add comments to the blog!)

Although individuals, firms, trades and countries have worked with, and valued, knowledge for millennia, Knowledge Management, as a discrete management approach under this name, began in the late 1980s and early 1900s
  • Jay Liebowitz, in the 1999 edition of "The Knowledge Management handbook"   cites Karl Wiig as introducing the KM concept at a keynote address to the UN in 1986, 
  • Sveiby and Lloyd used the term "know-how management" in their 1987 book "Managing know-how"  
  • The "Initiative for Managing Knowledge Assets" was set up in 1990 by leading firms such as Texas Instruments and Ford Motor Company.
  • Wiig published "Knowledge Management Foundations, Thinking about Thinking" in 1993
  • Knowledge Management was offered as a service by the big consulting firms from the mid 1990s.
(Note that a hypermedia-based computer system called Knowledge Management System had been created in 1981, but the term referred to the IT system rather than to a management discipline).

In many ways, KM was a combination of developing schools of thought with the potential of new technology.
  • The Organisational Learning movement, drawing on work by Argyris, Senge, Leonard and others, was developing new understandings of the way learning actually happened between people and within organisations. Team Learning, for example, was one of Senge's famous "five disciplines".
  • The recognition of the importance of knowledge as a resource in competitive global industry, exemplified by the "Intellectual Capital" movement from Karl Erik Sveiby, Thomas Stewart
  • The developing opportunities offered by emerging technologies for connecting people - internet, email, groupware and search. 
It was those emergent technologies that allowed Organisational Learning to expand beyond face-to-face learning, and allowed the knowledge within an organisation - both the knowledge in the heads of the individuals and the knowledge codified into documents - to be linked up across organisational boundaries.

The timing for the growth of KM as a separate discipline depended on both the pre-existence of sound learning theories and models, and the possibilities provided by new technological connectivity. Probably, without this technological emergence, Knowledge Management would have added nothing that organisational learning did not already offer.

This is not to say that KM is a technology-led discipline, but technology is one of the four legs on the KM table, without which it would fail.

Nor is this to say that there was a "KM 1.0" stage where KM was seen as a technology issue. This is a myth. From the start, KM was recognised as a holistic issue, and many of the first KM initiatives supported communities of practice, and connecting people. 

Knowledge Management development within one organisation

This development of KM as a management discipline is parallelled within British Petroleum, as described by Gorelick, Milton and April in the book "Performance through Learning".   This history is as follows:

  • 1990. Start of a culture-change movement to introduce teamwork, accountability and a performance focus (partly involving some of Senge's ideas). 
  • 1995. Move to a "federal structure" of business units, instead of a rigid hierarchy, resulting in a flatter organisation, and the recognition of the importance of intellectual capital
  • 1996. Virtual technology pilot, experimenting with the use of high-speed connectivity for video conference and knowledge sharing
  • 1996-7. Introduction of a Common Operating Environment, resulting in a single platform for all employees, with MS Exchange on every desktop
  • 1996-7. Development of first Intranet, and company-wide connectivity
  • 1997. Knowledge Management program starts

Again, knowledge management arose through a perfect combination of Means, Motive, and Opportunity.

The Means were provided by the new culture, the Motive was the need for knowledge sharing and re-use across a dispersed federal organisation, and the Opportunity was provided by the connectivity. With these three, Knowledge Management could take hold.

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