A recent comment from a colleague stimulated some thinking:
I’ve noticed that you avoid using the term KM and instead you use the combination of KD/KS. Am I right? Can you explain the reasoning for that?
Well, I don’t think I “avoid” using the term KM. I do use it, but I use it selectively, as you’ll see (read on).
It is a useful observation, though, and I’m very pleased to have this opportunity to share a few (more) thoughts about this new discipline we work in, and this knowledge domain that utilizes KM, knowledge services, and knowledge strategy to ensure successful knowledge development and knowledge sharing (KD/KS).
It’s not a difficult question to answer. And, with all due respect to the profession of management consulting – my line of work for many years – the response to my colleague’s question imitates that classical response we consultants give when asked if the client should do this or do that.
Our response? “It depends.”
How we speak about knowledge management (usually with the acronym “KM”), knowledge services, and knowledge strategy depends on the environment in the organization or company we’re describing. It also depends on the expectations of management and all other stakeholders about how knowledge is to be considered in that organization. Additionally, the organizational culture defining the organization and its definition of success, of how it succeeds in achieving what it exists to achieve, comes into the picture.
See what I mean when I say “It depends”?
So to respond to my colleague, I begin with background. We all know the data/information/knowledge/(-wisdom?) continuum, and for most of us working in what we call the knowledge domain – those functions and activities relating directly to how well KM, knowledge services, and knowledge strategy succeed in the organization – our focus is on the knowledge.
We also know – because we’ve observed this often – that the concept of “managing” knowledge doesn’t always work. Some people are uncomfortable with the concept. You can’t “manage” knowledge. You can only (as Larry Prusak and Tom Davenport described what we do) “work with knowledge.” For them – and for many people – that’s what KM is: “working with knowledge.”
And it’s that “working with knowledge” that got some of us – about fifteen years ago – to thinking about how we might go beyond KM and the working-with-knowledge construct. We could see that connecting the electronic capture of KM elements with knowledge sharing, performance, and strategic learning was an advantage that was beginning to fall into place (and, importantly, we were able to get some of these advantages recognized as corporate advantages, as we sought to build the business case for giving enterprise-wide attention to KM, knowledge services, and knowledge strategy).
But we still had to get away from that “you-can’t-manage-knowledge” idea that many in the management community were holding on to. To “manage knowledge” – even when we referred to corporate or organizational knowledge as “intellectual capital” – was an idea they just couldn’t get their arms around. We needed to provide them with a practical approach to managing information, knowledge, and strategic learning across the enterprise.
Enter knowledge services.
By the late 1990s, we were describing this new approach to working with knowledge, an approach that incorporated KM but added two other elements. With knowledge services we were talking about how we could converge information management, KM, and strategic learning (sometimes referred to as “organizational learning”) into a single, over-arching management and service-delivery function.
It was a new way of thinking about KM – “the practical side of KM,” some of us called it, a way for “putting KM to work” – and we learned to describe knowledge services in terms of its tangible and measurable results: better research, user-focused knowledge asset management, strengthened contextual decision-making, and accelerated innovation, all critical requirements for successful KD/KS throughout the larger organization. And that – when you get right down to it – is the goal or objective of any work we do in the knowledge domain: our job is to establish the framework for ensuring that within the enterprise knowledge is developed and knowledge is shared – KD/KS – for success, for the benefit of the whole enterprise.
Over those early years of thinking about KM, knowledge services, and knowledge strategy, we began to experience success with our new phrase, an acceptance of what we were proposing, and we started using the term more often. Sometimes we said “knowledge services” in place of “KM” or “knowledge management.” Other times we used the term together with one or another of those terms (as in “KM/knowledge services”). And all along the way, we saw – and were able to describe to enterprise leaders – that moving to knowledge services as an organizational function provides the organization with the tools its people require so that organizational intellectual assets are captured, organized, analyzed, interpreted, and customized for maximum return to the organization or company. In the process, we discovered that we had come up with a way of describing a concept – managing knowledge – that would no longer be off-putting.
As it turned out, the more we spoke about knowledge services the more we found – to our delight and satisfaction – that enterprise leadership can, indeed, “get their arms around” the idea of supporting and allocating resources for knowledge services. They understand the concept of buying and selling “services” to support their larger goals and objectives, and if dealing with organizational or corporate knowledge – its intellectual capital – can be understood as a “service,” they are willing to hear the business case for supporting such services.
Not all managers, of course. Not all enterprise leaders or even, in many organizations and companies, not even knowledge workers themselves. Which brings us back to “it depends.”
For those of us engaged as knowledge professionals, working as knowledge strategists in our employing organization’s knowledge domain, we are by definition required to use the language that works in the organization itself. If “KM” is the term accepted and used in this organization, we should use it. If we find that “knowledge services” as a phrase is understood and accepted in the organization, we go that route. And in other organizations, there might be a third, or fourth, or fifth way to describe what we are seeking to do. It doesn’t matter how it is expressed. Whatever the phraseology, the goal is the same: to get to successful KD/KS.
And while there might be some satisfaction in “coming to consensus” about KM – as one group of knowledge practitioners puts it, seeking to standardize how knowledge professionals think and talk about knowledge management – the final decision is not ours. We knowledge strategists are of course managers and leaders in our specialty (and particularly in how we manage and lead the larger organization as it structures itself as a knowledge culture). Yet we are also, it must also be recognized, but one “set” of managers and leaders, specialists, and strategists who support the organization’s quest for success.
And that, in the final analysis, is why we choose different phraseologies and varying descriptions about our work in the knowledge domain. What we say and do must match what is said in the larger organization. I stand firmly behind the statement that “well-managed knowledge services leads to successful KD/KS.” That is the phraseology used in many organizations with which I’ve worked over the years, and I’m comfortable with it. When I am advising an organization in which KM is the byword for describing the management of intellectual capital, and if the result is what that organization refers to as “better information management” and “collaboration” instead of “knowledge services” and “KD/KS,” I’ll use that language.
So to my colleague I say, indeed it does depend. It depends because – while we work very hard to ensure that we and our clients and our co-workers recognize the value of knowing and being able to apply the principles of management, leadership, and strategy development in the workplace where we are employed – we are also required to understand that each workplace is unique, and the language of one workplace or community might not necessarily be the same as that used in another.
Our bottom line? We listen, we think, and we learn to recognize and attempt to understand the culture of the larger enterprise. And we match – even while we’re managing and leading and strategizing – our thinking and our language to that used in the larger organization.
[Note: And since this post is offered as a discussion, I solicit your comments and further discussion about this topic.]