Wednesday 5 August 2015

Why KM definitions matter

Definitions of Knowledge Management are many and varied, and to date there is no single accepted definition.  However the definition you use is important, as it sets the tone for your entire Knowledge Management program.

In 2010 Steven Oesterreich conducted a survey of KM definitions. You can find the result here, and they make for interesting analysis.

There are 130 KM definitions provided in response 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".

The problem

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 ongoing confusion between knowledge management and information management.

I have already blogged about the "KM Nonsense" index, which allows you to measure whether an article is talking about KM, or rebadging IM as KM.  If the definition of the topic also uses the word "information" and not "knowledge" - then surely the entire topic is confused?

If KM is defined as "the right information to the right people at the right time" then how does this differ from information management? AIM, for example, suggest that "the focus of IM is the ability of organizations to capture, manage, preserve, store and deliver the right information to the right people at the right time."  So how can this definition apply to both KM and IM?  Answer - it can't, unless you think KM is a new word for IM, and that is what 24 of the definitions in Steve's survey imply.

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.  Personally I do not like any definition of Knowledge Management which contains the word "information."

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.


ADM_1983 said...

Thank you for this article! I do have a question. If you say you do not like any definition of KM with the word 'information' in it, then what definition do you like? Also, what would you define at Information Management?

Nick Milton said...


My favourite definition is this one

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