Questions I've always wanted to ask..part 1…

October 16, 2007

There are a number of existential questions to which I have always wanted answers..It’s a failing on my part … I know this…but for many months now I’ve tried and failed to understand what Knowledge Management is. My fantasy is that managing knowledge is akin to herding cats … wayward information systems that need manners putting on them. Like so many disciplines these days it’s the language of the practice that gets in my way trying to understand what I imagine is something very simple.
I’ve asked the question before and one commenter described KM as:

Knowledge management belongs to the management discipline. It is a comprehensive organisational routine, in which the organisation integrates Organisational culture of continuous learning, business processes, and supporting infrastructures such as technology – to maximize the organisational capability to use existing knowledge as well as creating new knowledge that will support the organisational vision and mission.

Another described it as:

KM is all about not losing the older worker’s wisdom when they retire (which for our companies is a rapidly approaching, tsunami-like event). While you might call that knowledge transfer, loosely put we are seeing companies scramble to find ways to core dump the older worker’s experiences, whether formally through some documented path or by mentoring. There seems to be more focus (panic?) on capturing backwards rather than plans to go forward with some sort of program that captures the collective knowledge ahead.

so it sounded like a new technology to manage succession planning? and after our recent podcast about the shadow in organisations where Mr Rant and myself got to work on Mr Moore I felt it was about time to get some answers – so to I consulted Knowledge Manger and trapeze artist Matt Moore;
Annette Matt – what’s a Knowledge Manager?

Matt I stand by my definition of knowledge management: People communicating about what they do so they can do it better. If people need to know stuff to do their jobs then KM is all about making sure they have this stuff available to them. So being a knowledge manager is all about helping that communication – which may involve technology, talking face-to-face, writing methods, creating taxonomies, lots of different stuff. Some people have created elaborate theoretical structures around these simple concepts – avoid them.
Annette Interesting so why do you think it has been necessary to create elaborate theoretical structures around something that seems very logical as you describe it (the most logical description I’ve found so far)..
Matt There is a long tradition of trying to describe how human beings know stuff because it seems to be pretty critical as to how we operate in the world – philosophy and now neuroscience, sociology, psychology, organisational studies. All of these disciplines have their own jargons. So one reason for the language around KM is the intellectual baggage involved.
Another is that despite the centuries of effort expended, we still don’t understand (and can’t yet agree on) how human beings learn and how they then apply that learning in real world situations. So we create lots of words to disguise this issue. The cynical side of me also notes that in any field, if we want to increase our status, we create a jargon. And the status of KM in the corporate world is variable and vulnerable. This is true of other fields that deal with intangibles as well. Finally I would state that i. there are plenty of plain-speaking KM writers out there. Patrick Lambe & Larry Prusak come to mind but there are many others and ii. some jargon can be useful among those who work in the area. But jargon should be kept to consenting adults in private and not inflicted on others.
Annette What has happened that we need knowledge managers?
Matt Societies have always had those who have encouraged interaction and those bringing order to learning. What’s happened is that the work the majority of people do is no longer in the field or the factory. Automation has removed a whole bunch of jobs from Western societies – and created a whole bunch of new ones – which often require new skills. And communications technologies have given us a whole new bunch of people to collaborate with. These changes have taken (& will continue to take) decades but organisations (& individuals) are not always well-equipped to deal with them. So something like knowledge management is needed.
Annette When did they/you become a profession if you will?
Matt I am not convinced they/we are yet. There are qualifications & professional bodies but there is still little agreement on what constitutes a common foundation for KM practice. There will be people still doing KM work in 10 years time. I doubt they will call it “KM” and I suspect there will be distinct approaches.

Is it possible to manage knowledge if it’s emerging and emergent? And what would managed knowledge look like?
Matt Depends what you mean by “manage”. Control? No. But we talk about managing people (who also have emerging & emergent properties) and managing lots of things that we can only influence rather than control. So we can control documents. And we can work with people to build their skills and improve their interactions with each other.
As for what managed knowledge would look like: You wouldn’t see or hear it. You might see people getting on with their jobs, collaborating with each other using straight-forward tools & resources. You might hear animated & easy conversations. An equally valid question is: what does it feel like to have a good handle on the knowledge needed to do your job?
When people start talking about “managing our knowledge” they seem to assume that this just involves documents. Now if this was true, we could fire all our experienced staff and replace them with school leavers carrying procedures manuals. And this has happened for some jobs but not all. Document management is a fine thing, an important thing. But it is not knowledge management.
So types of knowledge might include:
• How to sell a product to a particular customer – esp. if that product is new or that particular customer is in a new industry.
• Emerging trends in a niche financial services market that no one is really sure of yet.
These are things that are hard to document. And that emerge in conversations between professionals.
Some simple strategies:
• Give people who share common challenges (but don’t work together formally) a forum to discuss those challenges.
• Create simple tools that allow people to find people with expertise in an area (they may be authors of documents in the system)
• Use tools like social network analysis to see who is in the loop and who is out of it.
• If you are a senior manager, role modelling this behaviour is crucial.
• And let’s not forget document management as well.
Annette Isn’t this what managers should/could be doing anyway? Why a new role?
Matt There are lots of things that managers should/could be doing – staff performance management, financial & budgetary management. Yet most managers need someone to help them with these. Hence the reason for HR & Finance functions. Ultimately, a knowledge manager should be looking to do herself out of a job in the long term – by working with people to create a collaborative, learning culture with processes, tools, etc. But that assumes fully functional organisations, and there aren’t as many of those about as you might believe.