posted 28 Jan 2008 in Volume 11 Issue 5
The last word - Dubious divorce
One of the strengths of case-based magazines like IK is that they are immune from infection by theory. Theory, where knowledge management (KM) is concerned, has generated more blind alleys than exist in the catacombs of
An uncritical account of the evolution of IM and KM over the past 15 years would appear to indicate that they have quite separate origins. And it is true that the first computer-based applications for managing corporate information appeared in the mid-1990s as early document management (DM) systems, at a time when the concept of KM had made little impact on the corporate consciousness. Since the management of information in any form other than the financial bottom-line had always struggled to achieve corporate respectability, it was inevitiable that these early IM applications were regarded as mere extensions of the IT function.
IM indeed thrived under the banner of IT, but in the absence of any coherent picture of the strategic and complementary roles of information and knowledge, insular applications evolved not only within the main corporate functions (financial management, ERP, HR, production management, and so on) but also within IM itself. IT departments, keen to expand their empires, became easy prey to the IM software application vendors, whose opportunistic instincts gave scant thought to the customer’s wider needs.
Vendors’ continual re-invention of labels to make their products sound more strategically attractive still causes many to struggle to understand the differences (and similarities) among DM, web-content management, content management, enterprise-content management and KM; let alone the links with related disciplines and techniques such as information lifecycle management, digital asset management, document imaging, workflow and records management.
However, there is a growing consensus that information and knowledge, while distinguishable, are inseparable. Where is the value of a specification before it becomes manifest in an artefact? And where is the value of the know-how for fashioning an artefact from its raw materials without the specification? Neither specification nor know-how, alone, can produce the desired artefact; both together can. Whichever side you take in the divide between the ‘wisdom of crowds’ and ‘authoritative sources’, it is interesting to note that both the British Standards Institution publication PAS 2001 Knowledge Management: A Guide to Good Practice, and the Wikipedia article on knowledge management both agree, as the latter puts it, that “knowledge and information are intertwined”.
This consensus is in process of being born from an increasingly holistic and systems view of the organisation, which most likely had its origins in the quality-management movement of the 1990s. However, the systems view is itself in process of being transformed radically by the new understanding of social and organisational dynamics emerging from the realisation that organisations are neither machines nor plain social systems. Instead, they exhibit characteristics more like those of complex adaptive systems as described by complexity theory. Alongside such macro-perspectives, new insights at the interpersonal level drawn from studies of cognitive linguistics, motivational theory and organisational dynamics, indicate that concepts such as collective consciousness and organisational memory play an important part, but that these are mediated inevitably by the role of the individual, with all that entails in terms of individual competence, belief systems and personal agenda.
What IM/KM practitioners lack is a clear model of how information and knowledge underpin productive capacity and may be managed for future innovation and sustainability: a model of how the key entities in the organisation interact in the generation and exchange of tangible and intangible value; how the key drivers of creativity and initiative might be reconciled with corporate ambition; and, how technologies of various kinds might be employed most effectively. In other words, they lack a knowledge-based ontology of organisational dasein.
Any such ontology is likely to be complex, needing as it does to integrate three intertwined domains: organisational structure, business process and human activity. But we have many of the components already; we just need to connect them up. And yes, a full and unambiguous picture is likely to prove a pipe-dream. But isn’t a partial picture better than none?
Bob Bater is Vice-Chair of the International Society for Knowledge Organization,