As we move deeper into the new year, let’s review some of the terms we use when we speak about knowledge sharing. In the corporate environment these days, we’re all pretty much agreed that organizational effectiveness is largely dependent on the quality of knowledge sharing practiced throughout the organization, with the ideal being some level of success in the establishment of an enterprise-wide knowledge culture.
It doesn’t matter much what type of organization we’re affiliated with (although at our company the focus these days seems to be on organizations in the for-profit sector). Any organization must – if it is to achieve its stated mission – deal with knowledge and knowledge sharing. The better the organization manages knowledge and the knowledge-sharing process, the more successful it is going to be.
Which leads to the (by now) somewhat old standby: knowledge management (KM).
Of course I’m being facetious in making that allusion to “old,” but we are starting to hear talk these days about how KM is becoming somewhat “dated” and how some of our original thoughts about KM don’t exactly match what’s required for the modern workplace. So I hear some colleagues speaking about how it’s time to move to the next stage of the KM life cycle, and that might be the case. After all, we started bringing KM into the management arena about a generation ago (or perhaps a little further back), and in organizational management as in everything else, progress is defined by what we take on as well as by what we assign to – in Mr Drucker’s immortal phrase – “planned abandonment.”
While I’m not suggesting (at all!) abandoning our KM principles and successes, I’m very aware that Mr. Drucker warned us about how we all – simply as human beings – have a natural tendency to cling to earlier success and to forget or sublimate the need to throw out what is no longer of any value or use. And with respect to KM, I do hear people wondering if it is not time to move to a second “stage,” if you will, of knowledge management (I’ll have more to say about what we might call “the new KM” in an up-coming post).
For now, though, let’s think a little about the language we use when we speak about knowledge sharing in the larger organization. We begin by defining KM.
Some time ago I began playing with this little task, and I soon discovered that defining KM is an almost impossible task. There are as many definitions of KM, it seems, as there are people attempting to define KM.
Perhaps that’s because for many people the concept itself is just too difficult, just too vague to make sense. And certainly during the first ten years or so of working with KM, as a concept knowledge management just wasn’t being accepted by a lot of people who were supposed to be working in this much-talked-about discipline.
One explanation is pretty clear: For a concept to gain acceptance (especially a concept connected to the workplace), people have to understand what they are doing and what they are talking about when they describe what they are doing. In this case, describing knowledge management turned out to be a very real barrier to organizational acceptance. People just didn’t know what they were talking about, and for many people, the idea of managing knowledge is simply not possible. For some people, KM as a function is simply out of the question. We cannot manage knowledge, as Larry Prusak and Tom Davenport – two of the early leaders of KM – put it, “no more than we can manage love, or honor, or patriotism, or piety.”
What people really needed to do was to figure out how to work with knowledge. Indeed, working with knowledge became a valuable construct for those who wanted to take an organization’s intellectual infrastructure to a higher, more effective level. That was how Prusak and Davenport described knowledge management, and with them we began to think of KM as simply working with knowledge.
Of course. It makes so much sense when we think of it that way, doesn’t it? And when we do that, when we think of KM as working with knowledge, we can then think of KM as a way of working, a function that helps us manage explicit, tacit, and cultural information in ways that enable all stakeholders to re-use information to create new knowledge. Or, put another way, we can think of KM as an established atmosphere or environment in which all of us in the workplace recognized knowledge development and knowledge sharing (KD/KS) recognized as essential for the achievement of the corporate mission, for organizational effectiveness.
When we begin to think about KM this way, it really isn’t such a complicated concept, is it?