Home > ECM, history > It’s Knowledge Management, Jim, but not as you know it

It’s Knowledge Management, Jim, but not as you know it

LibraryA recent conversation with a colleague sent me searching back to my archives for a conference presentation I did nearly 16 years ago. The subject of the conference was on the impact of Document Management as an enabler for Knowledge sharing in the enterprise.

Driven by three different technology sectors at the time, Document Management, Search and Portals, Knowledge Management was all the rage back then. No good deed goes unpunished, however, and after several massive project failures and even more non-starter projects, Knowledge Management lost its shine and became a dirty phrase that no self-respecting consultant wanted to be associated with.

Why did Knowledge Management fail in the ‘90s?

They say 20:20 hindsight is a wonderful thing… Reading again through my slides and my notes, made me realise how different this market has become since the late ‘90s. There were a number of factors at the time that made sure that Knowledge Management never took off as a viable approach but, in my view, two were the most dominant:

The first one was the much used phrase of “Knowledge is power”. Leaving aside the fact that knowledge in and by itself very rarely has intrinsic value – it’s the application of knowledge that creates the power – the phrase was quickly misconstrued by the users to mean: “I have knowledge, therefore I have power”. Guess what? Who wants to dilute their power by selflessly sharing out knowledge? Not many users felt altruistic enough to share their prized knowledge possessions, their crown jewels, for the greater good of the organisation. “As long as I hold onto the knowledge, I hold on to the power and therefore I am important, valuable and irreplaceable”. Nobody said so, of course, but everyone was thinking it.

The second one was the incessant focus on the information itself as the knowledge asset. Technology was focused almost exclusively on extracting tacit knowledge from individuals, encapsulating it in explicit documents, categorising it, classifying it, archiving it and making it available to anyone who could possibly need it. There were two problems with this approach: The moment tacit information became explicit, it lost its owner and curator; it also started aging and becoming obsolete. Quite often, it also lost its context too, making it not only irrelevant but often dangerous.

Why are we talking again about Knowledge Management in 2015?

The last decade has brought a silent cultural revolution on knowledge sharing. We have all learned to actively share! Not only did we become a lot less paranoid about sharing our “crown jewels”, but we are all actively enjoying doing so, inside and outside the work environment: Wikipedia, blogs, Twitter, self-publishing, Facebook, Pinterest, LinkedIn, SlideShare, Open-source, crowdsourcing, etc., all technologies that the millennium (and the millennials) have brought to the fore. All these technologies are platforms for sharing information and knowledge. The stigma and the paranoia of “Knowledge is Power” has actually transformed into “Sharing is Power”. The more we share the more are valued by our networks, and the bigger the network grows the more power we yield as individuals. And, surprise-surprise, it’s reciprocal! The bigger the network we create the bigger the pool of knowledge we can draw upon.

What couldn’t have been envisioned in the late ‘90s, or early ‘00s, is that by 2015 the knowledge power would be contained in the relationships and the connections, not in the information assets. Not just connections between knowledge gurus inside an enterprise, but amongst individuals in a social environment, between companies and consumers and amongst professional organisations.

Social Media and Collaboration environments have proven to us that the value of sharing knowledge is significantly higher than the value of holding on to it. We may or may not see the term “Knowledge Management” resurrected as an IT concept, but the reality is that knowledge sharing has now become an integral part of our daily life, professional and personal, and it’s not likely to change any time soon.

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  1. April 9, 2015 at 5:18 pm

    I liked this one, George. I remember a few KM folks suggesting doing video interviews to attempt to capture all of that tacit knowledge as an artifact somehow. I also vaguely recall mentoring as an element of that, but that’s so soft and fuzzy it died a quick death.

    It’s not really a perfect 1 to 1, but some of what KM was attempting has become wrapped up in community management today. I’m not as close to the community stuff as I was a few years ago, but I kept getting whiffs of KM all the time.

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