The knowledge that Knowledge Management forgot

Traditionally, the benefits of corporate Knowledge Management have had something in common with the Snark of Lewis Carroll. They have been evasive and difficult to describe.

There have been endless repositories, taxonomies and similar initiatives undertaken, but something seems always to have been missing. I think it boils down to the concept itself being wrong.

Typically, Knowledge Management initiatives spend lots of energy in attempting to identify which knowledge is needed and available, in categorizing it in some kind of taxonomy and in trying to motivate, nag or coerce those who have the knowledge to contribute it. Next comes “knowledge marketing” in trying to make others aware of the knowledge that is available and training or supporting them in how to find it.

Wrong, wrong, wrong.

This is why:

  • The need for knowledge is dynamic, unpredictable and largely dependent on context. In the rapidly changing world of today, it’s close to impossible to predict which knowledge you will need. You’ll know first when you realize that you lack it. Any list of knowledge needed will end up largely incomplete because of difficulties in predicting the needs of yourself or others.
  • As we all think differently, even the best taxonomy will inevitably not reflect the way all users think about the knowledge needs they have. Therefore, there will always be complaints about the knowledge being difficult to find.
  • To top that, the taxonomy is doomed to better reflect yesterday’s needs than today’s. The process of defining  and updating a taxonomy will inevitably be slower than the development of new needs.
  • Finally, due to the combination of the efforts needed to collect and redistribute knowledge and the limited resources of all organizations, the focus will be to manage what I call prescriptive knowledge: blueprints, best practices, frameworks et cetera, i.e. knowledge from formally recognized experts describing how things should be done, often of a rather general nature.

A truly social intranet based on a comprehensive collaboration platform changes all that. For example IBM Connections that forms my everyday digital workplace.

Without preventing the spreading of the kind of prescriptive knowledge traditionally available in KM systems, a social intranet overcomes the shortcomings listed above.

  • Networking, board statuses, forums and communities enable you to reach out to colleagues for the knowledge you need when you realize that you need it. By reaching out directly to people we are able to access the knowledge they never shared in the KM systems.
  • As a truly collaborative environment allows us to tag content, documents and people as we see fit, the sum of all tags is more likely to better reflect the way people really think than any taxonomy created by a group of people ever can do for others. The result may not give an equally organized impression, but the probability is increased of someone having used a tag that suits your way of thinking, thereby making it easier for you to find what you’re looking for. A “suggested taxonomy” can still be implemented, but as a default that can be expanded, not as a prescriptive taxonomy.
  • Finally, and most importantly, making it easy to share your knowledge exposes all the additional descriptive knowledge, to supplement the prescriptive knowledge that usually is distributed in KM systems. Instead of only “This is how you should do” from acknowledged experts, there is suddenly an abundance of “This is how we did it” kind of knowledge. More of a flavour of experience, rather than expertise. The blueprints and frameworks, often generalized and open to interpretation, get supplemented by results and examples of how interpretation. By making it easier to share, a complete new category of knowledge surfaces – grass-root experience.

In short, moving from knowledge management systems into collaboration systems increases the availability of knowledge, makes it easier to find and supplements the official, prescriptive knowledge with inspiring examples “from the front line”, helping people interpret and understand how to best use the blueprints and frameworks as well as making the benefits more tangible of using them, thereby encouraging their use.

A positive side effect is the visualization of many additional employees with specific experience, if not expertise. A talent pool to tap, reuse and invigourate the cadre of existing experts.

Putting it in even shorter words:

It’s not about managing knowledge, but about releasing it!

Author: TheSocialSwede

Enabling People-Powered Businesses by developing leadership, motivation and collaboration for employee engagement. Now as independent, previously at IBM.

One thought on “The knowledge that Knowledge Management forgot”

  1. Great post and thoughts, Peter. Made me realize that yes, the more we collaborate, the more we share knowledge and “let it loose!”

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