Trying to formulate an approach to knowledge management within my organisation, it’s occurred to me (and sorry if this has been blindingly obvious to you for a while!) that the stress is on the second word. KM is a management activity. Or, slightly more fully, it is the set of activities which managers can undertake to ensure that knowledge has and retains value for the organisation.
The first result of taking this perspective is that it shifts the focus. KM projects spend, or historically have spent, a lot of time trying to answer questions like “What do we mean by “knowledge””. But the primary question is: what do we mean by “management”? That isn’t necessarily a simpler question to answer, but it is one that gives context. Management is a role that can be analysed and defined in an organisation – what kinds of things do we expect managers to do? – and hence what kind of knowledge management activities might be appropriate in a particular organisation at a particular time.
Second, rather obviously, you can only manage the things you can manage. That means having the means to measure or at least monitor what effect your KM activities are having. And only managers can answer the question as to what knowledge contributes value to their business.
So what I’m concluding is that “knowledge management” is a particular aspect of management (like “financial management” or “staff management”). And what the KM discipline does is to provide managers with tools that enable them to manage the knowledge activities and processes in their business. That means:
- KM practice operates at whatever level is sensible – team, business unit, corporate – accordingly to where the need is;
- KM may be and usually should be entirely focussed on particular business problems, not on general issues like “how do we retain expertise?”;
- KM isn’t a new thing that an organisation should “do” or “not do”; it’s something all organisations (all managers) do – they just do it well or badly.
This has some implications for what KM isn’t, or rather what KM practitioners don’t need to do. First off, they don’t need to patronise people who know how to do their jobs by calling them “knowledge workers” and telling them that they don’t know how to do their jobs. Second, they don’t need to repeat mantras like “knowledge sharing is good”: it may be, but sometimes it may not be that important – and it’s up to the business to know whether it is or not. Third, they don’t need to pursue the fatuous aim of turning all “tacit” knowledge into “explicit” – which is a little like an accountant arguing that come what may all the company funds should be turned into gold bars as quickly as possible – admittedly pretty, but quite often utterly useless.