posted 1 Jun 2001 in Volume 4 Issue 9
Has the promise of KM been fulfilled?
Most law firms have taken the first step towards implementing a knowledge management initiative but very few have taken stock of how successful their systems actually are and to what extent their KM venture has fulfilled the original aims and objectives. Kim Sbarcea reviews what firms should be doing to develop and strengthen their KM strategy.
The concept of knowledge management as a source of competitive advantage has been the central tenet of KM initiatives over the past few years. The implementation of this concept has taken a number of forms with the first wave of KM implementations being technology-first approaches.
The utopian vision fuelling KM to date has been the hope and promise that a company’s intellectual or knowledge-based assets can be revealed organised and made easily accessible and intuitively browsable through the use of technology. Intellectual or knowledge assets may be defined as processes systems individual knowledge organisational knowledge know-how or relationships. In other words anything without physical dimensions that is embedded in people processes and the repertoire of a firm’s routines and practices.
The underlying assumption has perhaps been that employees will happily tap into the collective corporate knowledge base in their quest to find best practice the solution to a problem lessons learned and shared from transactions or engagements etc. A further assumption has been that people will freely share and collaborate within the corporate environment.
Millions of dollars have been spent on building corporate intranets or ‘knowledge systems’ but as we review this first wave of KM we are facing the questions:
- Has the glittering promise and hope of KM been fulfilled?
- Did we fail to understand or did we ignore some fundamental concepts?
The hype surrounding KM has led us to ask these questions. As Tom Davenport suggests “knowledge management is no longer the next big thing” but the corpse is still stirring. The early stages of KM with its emphasis on lessons learned and central repositories has given way to a focus on the environment within which knowledge is created and evolved. Emerging is an appreciation that knowledge creation is a fragile process subject to the whims of human relationships and interaction.
To gain an understanding of major issues facing contemporary KM we should look at a number of myths and problems pervading the dream of collective memory and knowledge sharing.
The ‘field of dreams’ myth
Implicit in this leading myth is the tendency to view technology as a means of legitimising knowledge. There is an acknowledgement that we are now living in a ‘knowledge economy’ without the accompanying acknowledgement that the status of knowledge is changing. The hegemony of computers has resulted in an acceptance of computer-generated data as ‘real’ knowledge that is performative. In other words data storage retrieval and accessibility while making knowledge visible also leads to the danger of relying on this knowledge in the absence of critical enquiry. A linked assumption is that because knowledge is made visible it can be reduced to performative measures such as database usage user statistics and surveys measurements and so on.
The great promise of technology has been its ability to scale large amounts of data. The unfortunate accompanying belief has been that if a technological ‘field of dreams’ is built people will flock to share and contribute knowledge. The managerial dream has been the mental image of a large centralised repository stuffed full of corporate knowledge.
The production and legitimisation of knowledge which used to take place within public scientific and academic discourse has been replaced by knowledge as a tradeable commodity in its own right. The pursuit and discovery of knowledge for its own sake is no longer a valid pursuit in today’s networked marketplace. It is a mere luxury.
Previously knowledge only became ‘knowledge’ when it had been challenged vigorously in academic journals proposed in theories and successfully run the gauntlet of the test of truth. Knowledge had a public persona that was constructed examined and evaluated.
With the advent of KM and some early thinkers on the idea of knowledge such as Michael Polanyi came the emergence of tacit or personal knowledge. Private knowledge that is gained by experience has come to be prized in the workplace and the workplace has now become the venue for the production of knowledge with a commercial value.
This swing from the public face of knowledge to working knowledge gained in situ has to some extent contributed to the disappointing ‘field of dreams’ myth. Apart from the reliance on computer-generated data as ‘knowledge’ we grapple with how to capture tacit or personal knowledge.
Polanyi describes tacit knowledge as the ability to recognise a human face. This is in contrast to our attempts to describe in words such things as features recognition details and so on. The practical dilemma of course is how do we capture share and transfer tacit knowledge? The ‘field of dreams’ emphasis on technology solutions perhaps more easily captures explicit common knowledge such as word-processing documents graphs spreadsheets and lessons learned. But the dream is a disappointing one when it comes to recognising and capturing the highly personalised tacit domain.
The one size fits all myth
KM literature is replete with the call for a unified KM strategy or methodology in order to leverage corporate knowledge assets. Roadmaps offering a step-by-step implementation process that help us to design and refine the KM infrastructure and strategy are popular examples.
This is not to suggest that roadmaps and methodologies are not useful tools but implicit in this call to unity is the assumption that homogeneity is the goal.
An organisation is a systemic world of living breathing people who have varied professional relationships and goals differing capabilities understandings and worldviews. It is far more than just bricks and mortar. A company occupies a messy complex world in which diversity is dominant.
A single epistemology of KM is not the answer. The attempt at a single epistemology and ontology suggests knowledge as product/object and as a commodity. It also implies ‘expert’ knowledge in the hands of the ‘knowing few’. It fails to see knowledge as practice or curriculum.
Since we are dealing with both tacit and explicit knowledge different creation and transfer processes are needed. They require a number of key questions to be asked:
- Who are the intended recipients of the knowledge?
- What type of knowledge do they need to do their work?
- How will different capabilities and understandings affect their view of the utility of the knowledge?
- What is the task the recipients will be performing and how will they know what knowledge they need in order to act?
- What common knowledge is likely to be the outcome of the task?
- How will the knowledge be legitimated? (Will the claim to ‘knowledge’ be tested by the work process itself or is this just one way of validating what is ‘knowledge’?.)
A ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach is in danger of ignoring diversity and variety in its quest to reach consistency of approach. Flexibility and adaptability of strategy and approach are needed so that KM appeals to and seduces a wide variety of people and their learning and knowledge behaviours.
The ‘is it information or knowledge?’ problem
Despite attempts to clearly delineate the differences between information and knowledge it is suggested that an underlying tension still permeates the KM discipline.
KM thinkers distinguish information from knowledge largely by stating that information is self-sufficient or independent whereas knowledge is associated with a person and their experience. Another distinction is to say that knowledge is the capacity to act effectively or make a decision.
In practice the terms knowledge and information have become interchangeable. Information managers have re-titled themselves as knowledge managers libraries as knowledge centres.
Databases hold data and information not knowledge because the personal attributes of knowledge as we have seen would suggest that the focus should be on people. Knowledge is carried flows transfers and is digested by personal relationships over time. It has an active social life which means that knowledge is always changing and in a state of flux. Information on the other hand is static prone to decay and does not have ‘contextual wrap around’. I refer here to the context in which it was created critiqued validated and used within a community of practice. Knowledge is steeped in context and richness.
A fundamental flaw of KM when theory is translated into practice is to mistake information for knowledge. Knowledge is not stored in information technology; it walks out the door when the employee does. As pointed out in a recent text “if knowledge equals information much of contemporary knowledge management makes sense”.
The ‘machine’ and ‘organic’ metaphors
20th century management techniques can be traced to the father of scientific management Frederick W. Taylor. ‘Taylorism’ as it has become known reduced the management of a factory farm or office to component parts that were organised along hierarchical lines for maximum efficiency and productivity. This resulted in the ‘machine’ metaphor which viewed a company as a machine made up of parts that could be analysed and replaced. The time and motion study was also a direct result of Taylorism.
Of course this approach failed to take into account the dynamics of a social group working together and that human beings are social animals subject to all the vagaries and strengths this entails.
Taylor’s management theories which still inform the modern organisation are representative of the modernist paradigm with its emphasis on standardisation specialisation uniformity and the enslavement of the individual to bureaucratic routines and processes. KM techniques carry the marks of modernity in that we are trying to ‘manage’ knowledge using command and control language and methodologies. We speak of ‘capturing’ knowledge; we obsess about measuring its effectiveness and watch for the bottom line impact of KM initiatives. We cast KM in modernist terms when we commodify knowledge and relay it in the form of technology.
It is interesting that technology (and KM technology applications are no different) employs mechanistic almost military command and control language viz ‘abort’ ‘escape’ ‘pilot’ ‘control’ ‘delete’ etc.
However KM aims to embrace the organic metaphor and occupy the space where multiple paradigms co-exist and where ambiguity is an existing condition (which is the post-modern condition).
The organic metaphor as we have seen recognises the organisation as a living entity that cannot be controlled and commanded according to Taylorism. Individual members of an organisation are autonomous and must be allowed to act as such so that they will be self-motivated to create knowledge. Nonaka and Takeuchi refer to “creative chaos” within this organic metaphor and believe that purposely creating a sense of crisis will focus the attention of employees on finding creative solutions and will help to construct these solutions from available knowledge.
Contemporary KM with its emphasis on communities of practice and encouraging conversations and human relationships is seeking to define itself as organic and post-modern albeit with some lapses along the way such as trying to reach an all-embracing KM theory (a modernist project).
Language as metaphor
To some extent it is almost as though KM in its early stages was falling into the trap of dehumanising the organisation.
Metaphor has a role in the re-humanising process – our conceptual systems are constantly being built and rebuilt in social interaction and metaphors are central to this process. Metaphors are pervasive in our everyday life and functions. Metaphor is characteristic of language and so words evidence what our conceptual system looks like.
It is important for KM that metaphors can identify how we perceive think and understand. It follows that metaphors that can be commonly understood and translated will be easier to integrate into a person’s own way of thinking and reflecting. If metaphors are used as an aid to introducing people to new concepts ideas and knowledge then a connection can be made between an individual’s mental picture and meaning.
Metaphors have explanatory power both low and high. The possibility suggested here is that the ‘language’ of KM fails to use metaphor sufficiently if at all and this results in a loss of translation between KM theory and practice. An understanding of metaphor is critical to an understanding of our world and of ourselves – and therefore to how we construct meaning. Metaphor has the potential to unite the objective and the subjective (namely reason and imagination; tacit and explicit; tangible and intangible). Since KM most likely cannot be comprehended in its totality metaphor is an essential tool for gaining understanding and constructing meaning.
Many KM theorists would say that practice is the process by which engagement between people and within corporate communities is found to be meaningful but there is a missing link here. The challenge is to conceive of a metaphor within the KM discipline that would make sense of communities of practice and knowledge workers and to illuminate processes by which we create meaning and understanding.
In turn language and metaphor are an invaluable source of evidence for revealing the edifice of KM and its associated assumptions. In order to make sense of the KM enterprise we will need to create appropriate metaphors (and their associated epistemological and ontological assumptions) to ‘contain’ an understanding of knowledge in all its dimensions. This will help provide a ‘vehicle’ for the conceptualising and practice of KM; understanding presupposes a metaphor that is common to the culture.
We need to employ metaphors that are culturally recognised or that have a cultural basis and an experiential grounding so that people in organisations can relate to them.
Did we get it all wrong?
Having reviewed some of the fundamental flaws and tensions within KM to date the question is: did we get it all wrong in the first place?
Knowledge is an elusive animal – it emerges over time it disappears it lives within organisational stories and in between an organisation’s many spaces. It flows between and across organisational boundaries. Knowledge requires space in which dialogue can take place; where shared meaning and metaphorical frameworks can be constructed; and above all it needs the support and encouragement of human relationships and contextual richness.
If organisations continue to live out the myths and problems of KM then only disenchantment and disappointed dreams can follow and this to a great extent has already been witnessed by many companies that enthusiastically started the KM journey. It is suggested that a re-enchantment and re-casting of KM within the organisation is necessary for it to survive in the long term.
Kim Sbarcea is chief knowledge officer at Ernst & Young Australia. She can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org
1. Bukowitz W.R. & Williams R.L. The Knowledge Management Fieldbook (Pearson Education Limited 1999 p.2)
2. Tom Davenport ‘The last big thing’ in CIO (December 2000 p.18)
3. For example see Georg von Krogh Kazuo Ichijo & Ikujiro Nonaka Enabling Knowledge Creation: How to Unlock the Mystery of Tacit Knowledge & Release the Power of Innovation (Oxford University Press 2000)
4. Ibid p.18
5. Jean-Francois Lyotard The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (University of Minnesota Press/ University of Manchester Press 1984 pp.3 4 7)
6. Christine Ewan & Dennis Calvert ‘The crisis of scientific research’ in John Garrick & Carl Rhodes (eds) Research and Knowledge at Work: Perspectives Case Studies and Innovative Strategies (Routledge 2000 pp.52-53)
7. Ronald Barnett ‘Working knowledge’ in Garrick and Rhodes (eds) op cit p.17
8. Michael Polanyi The Tacit Dimension (Doubleday 1968)
9. Nancy M. Dixon Common Knowledge: How Companies Thrive by Sharing What They Know (Harvard Business School Press 2000 p.27)
10. See for example ‘The 10-step knowledge management road map’ in Amrit Tiwana The Knowledge Management Toolkit: Practical Techniques for Building a Knowledge Management System (Prentice-Hall Inc. 2000 pp.100ff)
11. Dixon op cit pp.21ff
12. Ross Dawson Developing Knowledge-Based Client Relationships: The Future of Professional Services (Butterworth-Heinemann 2000 pp.11-12); John Seely Brown & Paul Duguid The Social Life of Information (Harvard Business School Press 2000 pp.119-120)
13. Georg von Krogh Kazuo Ichijo & Ikujiro Nonaka op cit p.26
14. Ikujiro Nonaka & Hirotaka Takeuchi The Knowledge-Creating Company: How Japanese Companies Create the Dynamics of Innovation (Oxford University Press 1995 pp.35-36)
15. David Lyon Postmodernity (2nd ed. Open University Press 1999 chapter 3)
16. Ibid pp.6-24
17. Ikujiro Nonaka & Hirotaka Takeuchi op cit pp.75-79
18. See for example Etienne Wenger Communities of Practice: Learning Meaning & Identity (Cambridge University Press 1998)
19. George Lakoff & Mark Johnson Metaphors We Live By (University of Chicago Press 1980 p.3)
20. Ibid p.4