Tuesday 7 February 2023

3 reasons why "Knowledge Management" is a better term than "Knowledge Sharing"

Can we use the term "knowledge sharing" as better replacement for the term "Knowledge Management? There are three good reasons not to.

image from Wikimedia Commons
The terminology debate continues to rumble on in the KM world, and many people prefer to use the term "knowledge sharing" rather than the term "knowledge management". This is partly due to a distrust of the concept of management, or use of the "management" term especially when used in conjunction with the word Knowledge. After all (people argue) knowledge cannot be directly managed, but it can be shared.

But irrespective of whether you trust or distrust the concept of management, there are still 3 good reasons why you cannot replace "Knowledge Management" with "Knowledge Sharing".

Firstly, sharing is not the end of the process of knowledge transfer and application.

There is a common misconception that sharing is the be-all and end-all; that people should first Capture and then Share their knowledge (and Sharing is often taken as meaning posting a document into a repository), and that this constitutes an effective transfer of knowledge (however see my criticism of this simplistic model).

However KM does not work like that. 

KM is not about one person with knowledge making it available to others; transferring knowledge as if you were transferring a can of beans from one person to another as in the image above. Knowledge is not transferred, it is co-created. Once knowledge is "shared" into the public domain, as a post on a discussion forum, a lesson in a lesson management system or a comment on a wiki, then it can be questioned, tested, combined with knowledge from other sources, and synthesised into new and better knowledge through discussion and dialogue. After sharing comes co-creation or synthesis.

And after synthesis comes application and re-use. Even if knowledge is captured, and shared, and synthesised into up-to-date, valuable reference material, it still adds no value unless someone looks for it, finds it, and re-uses it.

All to often a "knowledge sharing" approach is strong on capture of knowledge, strong on some form of sharing (usually by publishing in a public repository), but weak or absent on synthesis and re-use, and (to be honest) re-use is the toughest part to get right.

Secondly, sharing deals only with supply and not with demand.

The common approached to knowledge sharing, and to the development of a "knowledge sharing culture" tend to focus only on the supply of knowledge. They assume knowledge will be captured and shared, creating a constant supply of new knowledge, and that this is enough.

But it is not enough.

To make any exchange work, you need demand as well as supply.  In parallel with knowledge sharing you need knowledge seeking, and in parallel with a knowledge sharing culture you need an asking and re-using culture. A constant supply of new knowledge is a waste of time unless there is a constant demand for new knowledge.

In fact knowledge seeking is actually a better place to start than knowledge sharing (even though both are needed as part of a Knowledge Management Framework). Seeking stimulates sharing, and as McKinsey found, "direct requests for help between colleagues drive 75 to 90 percent of all the help exchanged within organizations".

You could draw the whole knowledge cycle from a seeking point of view if you want - starting with seeking, then finding, reviewing, synthesising with existing knowledge, and applying, rather than starting with capture and sharing - which can give you a different way to look at KM. See this example. 

Thirdly, Knowledge Management is a management discipline. 

Like risk management, safety management, brand management and reputation management, it is a management discipline focusing on an intangible. Knowledge is not an item that can be managed physically, but neither is safety, or risk, or reputation. That doesn't matter. Knowledge is an aspect (a resource or an asset) that needs to be considered in the way an organisation is managed.  If you manage without attention to knowledge, then you fail, and if you take the term management away from knowledge, then this is the risk you run. Management cannot manage knowledge directly as if it were an object, but it can create the conditions within which knowledge flourishes, and is created, shared, sought, found, combined, synthesised, developed, improved and re-used

Knowledge Management is therefore much more than knowledge sharing.

Knowledge Management includes Knowledge Sharing, as well as Knowledge Creation, Knowledge Capture, Knowledge Synthesis, Knowledge re-use, Knowledge seeking, Knowledge finding, and so on. It also involves management and needs to be considered in the way the organisation is managed. To focus only on Knowledge Sharing is to underestimate the topic, and runs the risk of creating only a partial solution which is not considered n the way the organisation is managed.

Last Word

As Tom Davenport wrote in his article "Does Management mean Command and Control?"

"I have a problem with overly simplistic characterizations of knowledge management, and management more generally. .... The term "management" is apparently a synonym for "command and control," and we "know" that's bad. "Command and control" is top-down, mean and nasty, and headed for extinction; "sharing" is bottom-up, nice and friendly, and the wave of the future. Maybe the Yale School of Management, for example, should become the Yale School of Sharing". (However)...if your organization really cares about creating, distributing (I'm sorry--"sharing"), and applying knowledge, you need to manage it".

Beware of a focus only Knowledge Sharing. Focus on the whole of Knowledge Management instead.

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