The technology end of knowledge management has, it seems, created muddied distinction between information and knowledge. What’s the difference? In nutshell: business’ information system stays at work, while its knowledge base goes home. And understanding this distinction makes all the difference
As raft of companies banking on the knowledge management (KM) concept as competitive advantage seem to hit the wall – see the technology heavy Nasdaq index for confirmation – the entire KM edifice has been left scratching its head, to mix muddled metaphor. Why has it largely failed to deliver on its promise of increased efficiency and returns? To date, the implementation of the concept has taken many forms, with the ‘first wave’ of KM implementations being technology-first driven.
The utopian vision fuelling knowledge management has been the hope and promise that company’s intellectual or knowledge-based assets can be revealed, organised and made easily accessible through the use of technology. These intellectual or knowledge assets include all the processes, systems, individual knowledge, organisational knowledge, know-how, or relationships embedded in an organisation.
The underlying assumption is that employees will happily tap into the collective corporate knowledge base in their quest to find best practice, the solution to problem, lessons learned and shared from transactions or engagements etc. further assumption is that people will freely share and collaborate within the corporate environment.
Millions of dollars are spent on building corporate intranets or ‘knowledge systems’ but there are two key questions still unanswered following the first wave of knowledge management. These are:
* Is the glittering promise and hope of KM been fulfilled? and
* Are we failing to understand, or are we ignoring, some fundamental concepts?
The hype surrounding knowledge management is forcing sorting of fact from fiction. As author 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, is now giving way to focus on the environment within which knowledge is created and evolved. Emerging is an appreciation that knowledge creation is fragile process, subject to the whims of human relationships and interaction.
To gain an understanding of major issues facing contemporary knowledge management, it is necessary to debunk and analyse some of the central 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 means of legitimising knowledge. There is an acknowledgement that we are now living in ‘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 which is performative. In other words, data storage, retrieval and accessibility, whilst it can make knowledge visible, isn’t criticised. Another assumption is that because knowledge is made visible, it can be reduced to performative measures such as database usage, user statistics and surveys, measurements etc.
The great promise of technology is its ability to scale large amounts of data. An unfortunate accompanying belief is that if technological ‘field of dreams’ is built, people will flock to share and contribute knowledge. The managerial dream is the mental image of 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, is being replaced by knowledge as tradeable commodity in its own right. The pursuit and discovery of knowledge for its own sake is rarely afforded luxury in today’s networked marketplace.
In the past, 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.
With the advent of knowledge management came the emergence of tacit or personal knowledge. It’s this private knowledge that is gained by experience which is increasingly prized in the workplace and in turn the workplace has now become the site for the production of knowledge with commercial value.
This swing from the public face of knowledge to working knowledge gained ‘at the work coal face’ 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.
Knowledge thinker Michael Polanyi describes tacit knowledge as the ability to recognise human face. Contrast that inherent knowledge with our attempts to describe in words such things as features, recognition details etc. The practical dilemma of course is how do we capture, share and transfer tacit knowledge. The ‘field of dreams’ emphasis on technology solutions captures explicit, common knowledge such as word-processing documents, graphs, spreadsheets, lessons learned etc very effectively. But the dream has largely failed to awake the recognising and capturing faculties of the highly personalised tacit domain.
The one-size-fits-all myth
Knowledge management literature is replete with the call for unified KM strategy or methodology in order to leverage corporate knowledge assets. Roadmaps offering step-by-step implementation process which helps us to design and refine the KM infrastructure and strategy are popular examples. It’s not that roadmaps and methodologies aren’t useful, but implicit in this call to unity is the assumption that homogeneity is the goal.
An organisation is systemic world of living, breathing people who have varied professional relationships and goals, differing capabilities, understandings and world views. This is far more than just bricks and mortar; company personnel is messy, complex world in which diversity is dominant.
A single study of the theory of knowledge management is not the answer. The attempt at single study and its composite entities suggests knowledge as product/object and knowledge as 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 number of key questions to be asked:
• Who is the intended recipient or 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 usefulness 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? ie 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, wide variety of people and their learning and knowledge behaviours.
Despite attempts to clearly delineate the differences between information and knowledge, 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 person and their experience. Another distinction is to say that knowledge is the capacity to act effectively or make decision.
However in practice, the terms knowledge and information h