posted 2 Jul 2002 in Volume 5 Issue 10
The language of knowledge management
A personal reflection on the evolution of KM
Language is central to the evolution and acceptance of new ideas, and this is particularly true for the rise of KM in becoming an accepted management discipline. Patti Anklam explores the linguistic roots of knowledge management, and charts its development to its current position in business thinking.
I still meet people who have not heard the term ‘knowledge management’ or, if they have heard it, haven’t had the chance to ask a real practitioner what it is all about. I met a woman in the latter category at a networking dinner recently. She was very keen to know more, and asked me for the names of some books she could read. “Well,” I began, putting my hands out as if to emphasise a point on a map. “First, there are the foundations, laid by the likes of Laurence Prusak and Tom Davenport, who described motivations and mechanics in Information Ecology, Working Knowledge and so on. Then,” I continued, moving my hands down, “there is the work that Carla O’Dell and her colleagues have done at the American Productivity and Quality Center. They came to knowledge management through their work in benchmarking and in understanding how to use best practices. O’Dell’s book is If Only We Knew What We Know.” I moved my hands to another spot on the map and said: “Next, there is Tom Stewart, whose book, Intellectual Capital, really laid out a third territory. He amassed simple facts about the importance of human, knowledge assets to companies. He has a new book out now, which is terrific: The Wealth of Knowledge. These are three major themes that come together in the ways that people practice and apply knowledge management.”
My interlocutor was carefully writing down the names of the books and authors I had mentioned when I pulled myself upright and said: “And then there is Dave Snowden,” throwing out my arm and only narrowly missing a glass of wine, a gesture that betrayed my enthusiasm for Snowden’s work on narrative and story techniques, and his current work on complexity as the ‘third generation’ of knowledge management. I paused, then added a final thought: “If you want to get a really good primer by practitioners, read Learning to Fly by Chris Collison and Geoff Parcell, or The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Knowledge Management by Melissie Rumizen. That should get you started.”
Do you remember the first time you came across the term ‘knowledge management’ and what your immediate response was? Sometime in 1996 or 1997, I was working in the technology group for the professional services organisation at Digital Equipment. I was building an intranet repository, facilitating online seminars and group discussions, creating methodologies and templates, and designing an environment for technical consultants world-wide to share their knowledge, experiences and documents. I had a copy of the cover of Richard Saul Wurman’s Information Architects posted on my workspace wall as a sense-making talisman, and I wondered: “Is this what I am?” But I knew I wasn’t working with just information – there was something more to it. I tacked a sticky note that said ‘knowledge management?’ onto the wall. I don’t know where the term came to me from – probably from scanning the web, I’d imagine – but it resonated. It made sense.
Knowledge work: we were already doing it
As the language of knowledge management spread through discussion groups, conferences and the marketing efforts of vendors and consultants, many people in traditional functional roles in organisations discovered that this language resonated with the work they were already doing. Librarians, technical writers, database administrators, project managers and co-ordinators, trainers and learning specialists, organisational effectiveness facilitators – all (and more) were receptive listeners to some of the methods and techniques that emerged from research on this ‘new’ field called knowledge management.
Like Renaissance seafarers ‘discovering’ islands that had always been there, we scouted the territory, settled into villages, cultivated our fields using the tools and the language we brought with us, and began trading ideas, practices and artefacts. Because the natural environments were familiar, we eased into the work from own perspectives, choosing and changing our leaders as we integrated what we learnt.
People engaged in using technology to support access to information were in what many refer to as the first wave of knowledge management. You might have been one of them. Were you moderating and maintaining a web-based discussion forum and document repository for a project team? Were you a technical writer? Were you a consultant who interviewed subject matter experts and wrote white papers, advice packages or methods and procedure documents? Were you the ‘go-to’ person in your organisation for people to find out how to navigate the intranet to find relevant materials to support a new project? Were you building an online library? Did you manage an intranet or document management system? Did people come to you to find out whom to talk to in the organisation when they wanted help finding experts? This is how you came to knowledge management.
Who can’t love this era of information technology? The expansion of the notion of data-to-information-to-knowledge came at the same time that the use of the internet and the world wide web exploded our ideas of how and who could publish and share content. Knowledge management co-evolved with standards and languages (HTML, XML, Java, etc) for web publishing, and inventions and breakthroughs in technologies that enabled the integration of applications and data within and across enterprises.
Employee communications, information services, documentation and training
It seems callous to put so many specialised disciplines into the same category, but I excuse myself on the grounds that since my own roots are in technical documentation and I have long felt that I speak the same language as professionals in communications, information and training. We use, and have evolved the use of, many of the same technologies and methods (usability and information architecture come to mind), and we share a common purpose: ensuring that people have access to the information and expertise they need in order to do their work. These disciplines have been on a path of convergence since the earliest electronic publishing systems and tools became available. In the best knowledge management systems, they are completely converged in a well managed, well designed, and ready-to-hand portal.
In this village are the taxonomists, organisers, categorisers, codifiers and content managers of knowledge of all types needed in an organisation, and the work of these professionals has enabled breakthroughs in how companies are able to harvest and collect, re-use and re-combine, and (one of my favourite new words) re-purpose assets to support knowledge workers. The professionals in these disciplines moved extremely quickly to adopt knowledge management practices and values in their work – in concert with the IT enthusiasts.
Organisational learning and computer-supported collaborative work
People at work in the fields of organisational development and computer/human interaction found common ground in the understanding that organisations learn through the use of the accumulated knowledge and experience of the people in the enterprise, and that tools and technologies – appropriately developed and applied – could aid in the transformation of knowledge for innovation, effectiveness and efficiency. These communities in particular provided the learning necessary for communities to arise, primarily through their own use of KM’s earliest community-enabling technology: internet mailing lists.
Is it coincidental, or does the alignment of the terms facilitation – a core competence for an organisational development professional – and moderation – a critical success factor for online communities – represent this convergence of disciplines needed for successful communities of practice? Further, working across communities – networking, developing social capital and so on – brings practitioners and organisations to the point of highest leverage for implementing knowledge management. Communities enable the connections that are necessary to ensure that tacit knowledge will be exchanged. They also act as the lever for change management and the source of the greatest number of success stories in KM. Snowden suggests that the shift from a focus on information technology to tacit knowledge distinguishes the first age of knowledge management from the second.
In my top-of-the-head bibliography-cum-map for my new acquaintance, I perhaps overlooked the migration of research and practice in collaboration and communities to knowledge management as a fourth key domain in the territory of knowledge. Had I read Cultivating Communities of Practice by Wenger, McDermott and Snyder by then, I would almost certainly have included it.
The term ‘human resources’ takes on its original meaning when it appears in a paragraph about knowledge management. Although few knowledge management programmes have been initiated from human resource departments, the critical functions of systemic human resource management include many topics that arise in the literature of knowledge management: retention (of key knowledge and experience), core competencies (consider knowledge maps, for example), change management, the reward system, organisational effectiveness, employee orientation (though KM-ers seem to prefer the term ‘on boarding’).
Surely the HR managers who first heard the term ‘intellectual capital’ must have found that it resonated with their own beliefs and values, whether or not these were shared by the executive teams. Certainly in my experience, I have found early and deep partnerships with HR organisations to be essential in setting and achieving KM programme goals. Those who ‘get it’ take their companies a long way to success. Stewart, for instance, references a study by Theresa Welbourne and Alice Andrews: new ventures that discussed “human resources policies in their published IPO documents (such as prospectuses) and who cited their employees as part of their competitive advantage were 20 per cent more likely to survive than companies that made no mention of people, [and] companies [that gave] employees equity through stock or stock options were nearly twice as likely to survive.”
Process design management: quality and benchmarking
The roots of knowledge management are in process design – re-engineering – applied with zealous haste. The need for, and application of, knowledge in a business environment is tied to the essential processes of the business: what do we do? What knowledge do we need to do it? What knowledge do we create? Who needs this knowledge? And so on. Before we thought specifically about the knowledge in these processes, we thought about the processes themselves – with an intense focus on quality and continuous improvement. O’Dell describes how she arrived in the territory of knowledge management from the land of benchmarking, in much the same way that Davenport and Prusak arrived from the land of business process re-engineering.
From the language of process and quality, knowledge management has adopted methods for benchmarking and managing best practices, and for measuring and valuing the impact of programmes and expenditure on knowledge management.
The language of business
The uptake of business language into knowledge management and vice versa has not always been smooth. I would suggest that for many senior, experienced managers, it is not a question of whether they value knowledge in their companies, nor how they would envision how it is leveraged, but that for some reason it didn’t sound like anything new. They, too, were ‘already doing it’, but at a strategic and intuitive level rather than with explicit knowledge management programme buckets or budgets. They were awash in the language of ‘business intelligence’ and ‘customer relationship management’, of ‘supply chain management’ and ‘enterprise resource planning’. We – KM practitioners – understand that all such business initiatives have an important knowledge component, but knowledge rarely emerges from these data and information-focused programmes.
‘Knowledge management’ may not have resonated for them, but ‘intellectual capital’ really hit home. The word ‘capital’, coming from the language of business, moved the conversation about KM from the background in subsidiary initiatives into a foreground context that managers could understand.
The practical knowledge management of today
I have omitted a number of professional disciplines that have made significant contributions to the body of work that is now called knowledge management, but I am talking only of my story and that of the people around me, and of my personal perspective. However, I cannot leave this recitation of language sources without acknowledging the theoretical work that gives credence and weight to the discipline. Most significant is the Nonaka/Takeuchi work, the intellectual capital foundations of Edvinsson, Sveiby, and St Onge, and Snowden’s work that began with the theory of organic knowledge management and is taking us into the realm of knowledge context, complexity and learning.
This body of work in the theoretical and abstract has mixed wonderfully with practical, business-focused work to give KM practitioners our own wealth of knowledge: seven years of hands-on experience with knowledge management. Well, actually, seven years of working with knowledge management principles that have provided insights into new ways of thinking about the processes and tools that we had already encountered. Most of the basic tasks of KM teams – setting up and managing discussion groups, capturing lessons learnt after a project, designing a website for a project team, putting together contact lists for new projects, facilitating cross-functional and virtual teams, debriefing subject matter experts, and so on – are neither new nor revolutionary. However, we think about them in a very different way because our language has changed.
Words that have changed our world-view
‘Language creates reality’ is one of my verbal talismans. I believe that new terms and new language can change the way we are in the world. The multidisciplinary villages of knowledge management adopted, transformed and popularised terminology from each of the disciplines, giving each term a fresh perspective. Consider the following words: taxonomy, metadata, artefact, practice, tacit, story, context and even content. These were not always an easy sell to our constituents. Am I the only one who had multiple dialogues about why ‘artefact’ was the correct term for the realisations of human work and knowledge? “Why can’t you just say documents?” I was asked. I stayed with my purpose: without changing the language for others, I could not move the culture or alter their world-view to make room for the changes needed to operate in the knowledge economy.
Knowledge economy? That’s right. We have not only absorbed and re-purposed many terms from our various professional disciplines; we also acquired more terms by tacking knowledge in front of well-known words to get such distinguishing noun phrases as ‘knowledge map’, ‘knowledge process’, ‘knowledge steward’ and ‘knowledge broker’. But how much of this new language really represents tasks we did not do before? How much represents tasks that we really are doing differently? Or tasks we have always done, but think about differently?
A world-view is a perspective from which we see and interpret the world, and is largely comprised of our beliefs and values. KM practitioners shifted easily to the knowledge management world-view when we first heard the language and understood that it applied to us. (I suppose we could also say that, since we have not invented any new words, we speak our professional languages with a KM accent.) Once in this new world, we were ready to listen to the insights and experiences of others who came from different places. In this new place, we created a language and a body of knowledge using those tools and methods we brought to our individual workplaces and to our clients. From the beginning, our challenge has been to create for others the possibility of developing a knowledge perspective, to use language to shift their world-view in a way that enables them to listen, learn and apply.
Where are we now?
Many knowledge workers have navigated their way across seas from the old worlds to the new. I suspect it is only a small few who do not know that there is territory there to be explored. Contact is the first stage in the adoption of change – a new technology, a new business practice or process, a new reward system, or whatever form that change comes in – and this stage leads to awareness of the change in its organisational context. There are many versions of the change management adoption curve, which many of you have probably used in your own programme planning. Figure 1 shows just one.
Figure 1 - the change management adoption curve
This model is useful for analysing a single organisation’s path to knowledge management, or to trace the progress of multiple KM initiatives. ‘Internalisation’ is the point at which we have either thoroughly integrated knowledge management roles in the organisation (steward, architect, manager and so on), or at which the knowledge perspective is so thoroughly integrated into job descriptions that it doesn’t need to be distinguished by language any more.
I see knowledge management as the confluence of key ideas – and professional disciplines – that have entered the business mainstream and been carried along by practitioners from a range of disciplines. So the question is, what are the next big ideas and how will we incorporate them into our language? On a personal level, the evolution of KM takes each of us to paths that resonate most fully with our journeys of the past seven years. To be successful, we need to attune our ears to the languages of the organisations and business leaders we work with as we introduce them to the villages of our polyglot knowledge nation.
Patti Anklam was formerly director of knowledge management at Nortel Networks, Global Professional Services. She can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org
1. Patti Anklam review The Wealth of Knowledge on page 38
2. Learning to Fly was reviewed in Knowledge Management (Vol. 4, Iss. 10, July/August 2001)
3. For those readers who have not seen this book, the cover contains Wurman’s definition of an information architect: the individual who organises the patterns inherent in data, making the complex clear; a person who creates the structure or map of information that allows others to find their personal path to knowledge; the emerging 21st century professional occupation addressing the needs of the age focused upon clarity, human understanding and the science of the organisation of information
4. The third age uses complex adaptive systems theory to provide sense-making models about the uses and flow of knowledge creation, disruption, and use in organisations
5. O’Dell, C., If Only We Knew What We Know (Simon & Schuster, 1999)
6. I’ve also omitted a number of the pioneers in knowledge management, including Verna Allee and Debra Amidon, as well as business futurists Charles Handy and Doug Englebart, all of whom contributed to my personal journey of understanding
8. The similarity of this model to the technology adoption life cycle model (see Moore, G. & McKenna, R., Crossing the Chasm, Harper Collins, 1991). The horizontal access in this model is market acceptance of new technology; companies are characterised as “enthusiasts, visionaries, early majority, late majority and laggards”.