Complexity and Knowledge Management Navigators…
Three years ago I started looking for what exactly people were talking about when they spoke of Knowledge Management – my findings and the KM continuum will be part of another blog. It soon became clear that the vast majority of literature positions KM as a ‘new’ concept that emerged in the dawn of the 1980s. It seems that the predilection towards situated views of KM, and the subsequent proliferation of models that ensues, are perhaps part of the problem in the field – where KM is currently seen as underperforming (finishing 24 of 25 in satisfaction related to strategic management tools in a survey of over 1400 global executives in 2009)
Various people are credited with the birth of KM (Sveiby, Drucker, Buckman), but something just didn’t sit well with me. Surely the concept of knowledge as a resource didn’t arrive with the onset of the modern knowledge economy and the evolution of the knowledge based view of organisations? I know people throw in Drucker in the late 1950’s, but it seems to be a token gesture towards a father who didn’t birth a child for another 30 years or so in his seminal work ‘The coming of the new organisation’.
And so began a 3 month archeological dig through literature scattered across several search engines…
Initial research was fairly simple and led to Mokyr’s ‘Gifts of Athena’, an acclaimed work into the links between knowledge and technology, which delivers an insight into the development of knowledge economies, the impact of which can be observed through surges in technological achievements, such as during the first and second industrial revolution.
‘The Industrial revolution…constitutes a stage in which the weight of the knowledge-induced component of economic growth increased markedly’ (p. 30)
He also alludes to the fact that knowledge-induced technological gains are available to ‘any society that invests in institutions to encourage invention and enterprise’ (p.17). The first industrial revolution is commonly understood as starting around 1760-1780 and lasting until 1830-1850. During this time the United Kingdom experienced technological surges that marked the empire as an industrial leader.
A detour to look at what Mokyr suggested…
A cursory search into United Kingdom universities, synthesising data from multiple academic websites , demonstrates that at the beginning of this period there were five Scottish universities and 2 English universities in existence. During the latter stages of this period six new universities were founded along with three civic or ‘red brick’ universities, that focused on civic science and engineering. What is interesting is it appears that that technological innovation spurred the need for educational institutions. This could be seen as spurring the onset of the second industrial revolution, which is seen as blending with the end of the first industrial revolution and lasting until the onset of The First World War.
The timing of the foundation of United Kingdom universities is interesting as the United Kingdom fell behind the rest of the world, particularly to the United States, during the second industrial revolution. The emerging United Kingdom universities were founded in the latter part of the first industrial revolution, between 1810 and 1837 with one exception being 1796. A further synthesis of dates demonstrates that during the same period the United States founded approximately 40 universities with the majority being prior to 1800. This would appear to support Mokyr’s assertion that the investment in institutions will bear fruit and appears to link technological advancement to a knowledge economy, which in turn elevates the importance of human knowledge and learning. Mokyr isn’t the only one who says this with others, such as Adler, saying that ‘Increasing knowledge intensity takes two forms: the rising education level of the workforce…and the growing scientific and technical knowledge materialised in new equipment and new products’ (p. 216).
Back to the story… So, what does historic literature say…?
The perceived value of knowledge to an organisation or sector becomes visible in this search over one hundred years ago, with The Lancet publishing an article, ‘The Diffusion of Medical Kowledge’ extolling the virtues of knowledge sharing within the discipline of Medicine & Health.
Knowledge has been discussed as a value driver for organisations, predominantly in North America, since 1918 with authors saying:
‘The greatest problem for any nation is that of developing its resources to the utmost. The solution of this problem involves a thorough knowledge of all resources – natural, intellectual, manual and financial – and thorough knowledge of all means of making the most of them’ (Nutting, p. 406).
This sentiment is progressed through the 1930s by authors such as Fisher, who recognised industry to be moving toward a tertiary stage, with an emphasis on knowledge based goods and services instead of traditional manufacturing and production. This was also recognised by Barnard in his book ‘The Functions of the executive’ where he positioned the need for organisations to create and disseminate knowledge. It was also being discussed in the social sciences, with authors recognising the value of knowledge collection and creation through problem solving in higher education. It should be pointed out that this sentiment can be traced back further to the turn of the 20th century century where James states that knowledge and organisation contribute to capital value and are a significant engine for output.
It would seem that issues of competitiveness ultimately brought focus to knowledge as a resource. This can be evidenced in literature from World War II, with The Science Newsletter calling for knowledge to be organised and implemented for national advantage.
‘Primarily we need proved weapons, men, planes and ships to make America safe from attack….Back of these defense lines lies knowledge, organised and implemented by the searchings of human minds and hands’ (p. 47)
Literature from the period also offers us a glimpse of an early incarnation of the modern Knowledge Manager, in the form of Industrial Efficiency Engineers. These Industrial Efficiency Engineers were seen by Lusty as specialists who could critically manage knowledge, brought about by what he described as:
‘…An organisation, so arranged that the results of all its efforts are recorded and analysed. The lessons to be learned and the experience to be gained are thus made as much as a company’s asset as more tangible things, and can be used in the direction of future undertakings’ (p. 201).
Subsequent to this period there appears to have been what has been described as a knowledge explosion. This is evident in literature such as ASLIB , the latter acknowledging the value of knowledge in the post war recover of Britain. This appears to have brought a second incarnation of the Knowledge Manager in the 1960s through the advent of the ‘science of knowledge utilisation’ where there was discussion of the need to coordinate such knowledge that was deemed useful to man. And in 1959 Drucker stated, ‘Productive work in today’s society and economy is work that applies vision, knowledge and concepts – Work that is based on the mind rather than the hand’ (p. 120).
In the 1960’s the economic aspect of knowledge was being discussed as a national asset in literature such as ‘The production and distribution of knowledge in the US’ (Machlup). A position championed by Carter (1968) as ‘something with which the Federal Government must be vitally concerned…[as] it needs to guide the overall development and conservation of such an asset [knowledge]’ (p. 13). The importance of technology for Information Storage and Retrieval was also being progressed in the United Kingdom at this time by Robert Maxwell. Duncan in the early 1970’s progresses this through discussion on knowledge flow in organisations ‘The knowledge flow system in management and organisation includes all resource and user subsystems involved in development and application of meaningful management knowledge’ (p. 274).
It is during the 1970’s that KM first appears in literature discussing Public Administration: ‘By Knowledge Management, I mean public policy for the production, dissemination, and use of information as it applies to public policy formulation’ (Henry, p.189). The discussion of knowledge was also ongoing in education at this time through authors such as Farradane. It was during this time that authors such as Bell recognised that knowledge was usurping capital in the battle for power within organisations. Freeman demonstrates the visibility of KM within marine and environmental science and Hillman positions KM as part of computer science, which aligns with the vision of Robert Maxwell in the 1960’s.
It would therefore seem possible to trace the concept of managing knowledge resources to beyond the turn of the twentieth century. If this can be accepted as true then theorists and practitioners have been relating the economic value of knowledge over a period extending well over 250 years.
So, what am I saying…?
This search would seem to remove any potential argument for KM being an adolescent field, which if accepted would seem to change the perspective of the field. Organisations have been carrying out knowledge work for centuries. With that being the case then perhaps we need to stop scratching the surface and dig deeper to find what really makes KM tick?
And that’s where the story really starts for me… what came next was a synthesis of over 300 pieces of KM literature to find what people have been saying for the last 100 years.