posted 31 May 2006 in Volume 9 Issue 9
Stop apologising for knowledge management!
By David Gurteen
"I work for IBM but I really must tell you that I do not like the name of my company. In fact IBM is a total misnomer. We do so much more than just manufacture machines for the international business market you know. We also sell software and provide consulting services and much more besides."
Would you expect an IBM employee to start a presentation, article or conversation like this? Of course not! They don’t give the name of their company a second thought. After all it is just a label. It may have been descriptive once, but even then probably not comprehensively so – and certainly not anymore.
So I cringe every time someone who talks or writes about knowledge management (KM) starts by apologising for the name or criticising it in some way:
"I am sorry to have to use the term ‘knowledge management’ but there isn’t a better term. Maybe I would do better calling ‘knowledge sharing’ or something!"
Or, "Let me start by saying that KM is an oxymoron – you cannot manage knowledge."
I wonder if they really think that there could ever be a short two or three word phrase that could adequately described this discipline we call knowledge management.
And yes it’s OK to make the point that we cannot really manage knowledge but do we really need to attack the name by referring to it as an oxymoron?
To my mind, there is no need to apologise for the term. It is just a label. A label does not need to be descriptive. If you really choke on the words ‘knowledge management’ then use the shorter label – just call it ‘kay-em’. It is then so much more obviously just a label and, if needs be, you can go on to describe it.
Some among us really do seem to be embarrassed by the name. They apologise for it. They dismiss it. They try desperately to avoid using the name and in doing so I believe they do great harm.
Recently a participant in a workshop I was running told me that he knew a certain senior manager was anti-KM and therefore, in having a conversation with him, he studiously avoided using the term. It didn’t work. All of a sudden the manager saw through him and responded, "You’re talking about KM aren’t you? Get out of here!" And that was the end of that conversation.
Of course, we should talk to people in their own language and not use terminology that they do not understand. If we are trying to sell KM then we should sell it on the business benefits and talk about it in the language of the business and not confuse people by talking, for example, about tacit and explicit knowledge and the like. But we shouldn’t avoid the term KM.
Yes, the phrase knowledge management is a poor description and because of much of the early hype and failures, it has a bad name in some quarters as a result. But we need to face up to that.
KM is not going away. Indeed, it is becoming more important than ever. The term is an established one. Books, courses, conferences, workshops and university modules and degrees abound on the subject.
So can I suggest we use the name with pride?
David Gurteen can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org