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Stop the nonsense! Knowledge Management doesn’t exist, we are Knowledge Developers

Wilson in 2002 wrote what for me is a brilliant article, ‘The nonsense of Knowledge Management’.  It made me question what exactly it is meant by KM and more than that it made me question practice. 

 In previous blog posts I’ve already tried to dispel the myth that KM is a ‘new’ field and I’ve offered a definition of knowledge from an organisational perspective…now I want to talk about management.  After all, this is Knowledge Management that we’re interested in.

Whilst practitioners and academics support the view of knowledge as a form of competitive advantage within the Knowledge or Resource Based View of the firm, the ‘management’ of this resource is steeped in debate.

Theorists such as Gibson suggest that it is not feasible to manage knowledge as a commodifiable resource. This view is damningly reinforced by key modern KM theorists such as Sveiby, who states ‘I don’t believe knowledge can be managed’ (p. 15) and Drucker (p. 3) who is quoted as ‘[scoffing] at the notion of Knowledge Management. ‘You can’t manage knowledge,’ he says’. Popular KM writers such as Prusak suggest that ‘you cannot manage knowledge like you cannot manage love, patriotism or your children, but you can set up an environment where knowledge evolves’ (p. 45). This argument regarding the manageability of knowledge appears to be at the heart of disagreements within the field with authors such as Bouthillier & Shearer stating that knowledge itself cannot be managed, it is only the representations of knowledge that can be subjected to management principles. Mokyr provides an insight into the difficulties of managing those very representations:

‘”Representations within the brain”…and the knowledge “this is how you do that” is twice removed from the audience: First by the ability of the knower to map what he does into his own brain, and then by his ability to cast it in a language common with the audience’ (p. 11)

 

These complexities heat the debate surrounding the ability of an entity, whether an individual or an organisation, to manage knowledge, as summed up by Alvesson:

‘Knowledge is an ambiguous, unspecific and dynamic phenomenon, intrinsically related to meaning, understanding and process and therefore difficult to manage’ (p. 995)

 

Fundamentally the issue of the management of knowledge is grounded in the fact that ‘it originates and is applied in the minds of human beings….’ (Grover & Davenport,  p. 6). Wenger et al return to the transition of knowledge to knowing and links with Nonaka & Toyama’s notion of knowledge emerging from a process of socialisation in which practice exists as the cornerstone for the process. Theorists such as Nonaka & Toyama  and Rahe discusses the complexities of coordinating individual cognitive experiences that are influenced by personally situated reflections, perceptions and interpretations.

‘In the literature, knowledge is defined as the result of a process which combines ideas, rules, procedures and information…The outcome of this process is based on reasoning and understanding and therefore made by the mind, whereby the process itself reflects information through experience, learning or introspection’ (p. 105)

 

If the contest to the ability of people to manage knowledge can be accepted as true then it would seem that we are actually speaking in terms of ‘Development’ as opposed to ‘Management’.

Development is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as :

‘[to] make or become bigger, fuller, more elaborate…bring or come to an active, visible or mature state’ (p. 235).

 

Whereas ‘manage’ is defined as:

 ‘organise: regulate; be in charge of…succeed in controlling…use or wield’ (p. 538)

 

Fayol’s seminal definition of management, first published in Adminstration Industriale et Generale in 1916 before being translated, states ‘To manage is to forecast and plan, to organise, to command, to coordinate and to control’ (p. 32). Drucker, in his acclaimed work from 1974 posits that management ‘cannot be defined or understood – let alone practiced – except in terms of its performance dimension and the demands of performance on it’ (p. 37). This ‘performance dimension’ is supported by Shenhar & Renier who in analysing ten popular management models from seminal theorists, including Fayol, Mintzberg and Drucker, concluded ‘results will always count and people will always be the most important part of management’ (p. 31). If these theorists are correct then how does this harmonise with knowledge? How can a manger ‘manage’ the performance of ‘know how’? The issue of metrics in KM is not core to this blog post, but this issue would appear to pose a fundamental question as to the feasibility of applying management principles to this area. The globally acclaimed management theorist, Mintzberg declared Ten Management Roles. None of these roles talk about knowledge, the closest falling under the ‘Informational’ category of management that included roles of monitoring and disseminating ( Mintzberg’s Ten Management Roles – Source: www.sayeconomy.com ).

 

Where in this seminal work in the relation to the management of knowledge is the role of developer? It appears that the roles of management diverge from the nature of knowledge and the need for its development as an organisational resource. If this is the case then it would seem to bring into question the application of management principles to knowledge resources.

These definitions would appear to reinforce the arguments of key KM theorists, writers and practitioners in that knowledge cannot be managed. Popular writers such as Prusak, cited earlier, have stated this position and yet have been widely published in support of KM, which would seem to support other writers such as Sveiby, who is seen by some as the father of KM, who state ‘Knowledge Management is a poor term, but we are stuck with it, I suppose’ (cited in Wilson, p. 5).

 This leaves us, the researchers and practitioners, with no choice at this time but to examine KM as the vehicle for the coordination of knowledge resources, but it would seem to direct us to future research towards an alternative for the current paradigm that governs the field.  

We can either keep trying to manipulate failing strategies or we can fundamentally question the governing variables of our field.  Perhaps it is time to grasp the nettle and work towards a change of thinking…

[Just another day and another point of view… It’s free, so take it for what it’s worth]

8 comments on “Stop the nonsense! Knowledge Management doesn’t exist, we are Knowledge Developers

  1. Abdullah
    May 16, 2010

    I have read wisons paper, I agree with you that it is well written but felt pity on how narrow is his thinking and idea. first of all he didnt understand…. what knowledge is? and why management? most of the time Wilson make knowledge synonymous to information or data.. but in reality it is not the same.. on the contrary i believe that any thing in this world with value attached is knowledge.

    coming down to the term KM.. even though some feels it to be an oxymoron or nonsense… is not to be so.

    Because when we say KM .. it is not just ‘Knowledge’ which we work with… there are people, process and technology that need to be managed..to derive value with what we do…

    any body to take this forward………….

    • theknowledgecore
      May 16, 2010

      Thank you for the response and I totally agree with your assessment of Wilson’s paper; I talked about this in my earlier blog on ‘The miracle of KM: Managing justified true belief’ on May 8th. I believe that when we look at the ontological definitions of knowledge as a resource it becomes impossible to speak of management. And this is where we hit problems as practitioners – KM is such a nebulous field and it seems that dissatisfaction is bred from a lack of understanding. Knowledge is aligned with learning and if we look to learn lessons from concepts such as Learning Organisations or Strategic Human Resource Development then we are looking at Development as opposed to Management

      The other problem is that ‘we’ as a field do not have a common understanding of what it is that KM actually is and so when we ‘say’ KM we do not have a collective understanding, which again breeds confusion and dissatisfaction. This is why we, the ALKaME Research Group, have been relooking at the field to try and bring new ideas to an old problem. Please take a look at our paper on Strategic Knowledge Resource Development and let me know what you think.

      Thanks again for the response….David

  2. Nikolay Kryachkov
    May 16, 2010

    Interesting and true about nonsense. Never heard about the needs of changes in thinking from the practical point of view. Why?

    5+ years ago I tried to define what knowledge is for CEN’s KM standardization purposes:

    “… deduced from Collins English explanatory dictionary:

    knowledge – the facts or experience known by a person … ;

    known – identified;

    identify – to understand …;

    understand – to know and comprehend the nature or meaning of, to know what is happening or why it is happening …;

    happen – to be or do something;

    action – doing something for a particular purpose.

    Thus understanding of action within natural limitations is knowledge.

    We are always limited in our actions and can not act beyond Nature. Space, time, something or someone else … are our natural limitations.”

    http://www.knowledgeperson.com/from_what.html

    But if to continue with management we enter the space where management meets mismanagement. You can find more in “Text viruses: an introduction to text viruses – the human made infection that leads to mismanagement”, Future-Based Consultancy Solutions Business Magazine, 2006, issue 2, p. 10.

    http://www.fbc-e.com/news/magazines/Maga_issue2_2006_Dec.pdf

    Nikolay
    http://ru.linkedin.com/in/nikolaykryachkov

  3. Fred Nickols
    May 17, 2010

    I agree that knowledge cannot be managed but for a slightly different reason; namely, it doesn’t really exist. Knowledge is something we infer about a person based on their behavior and performance. Thus, when we talk about KM as a way of getting Person B to perform in ways similar to Person A we miss the point – which is to get Person B capable of approximating Person A’s performance. We know how to do that.

  4. Evelyn
    May 24, 2010

    Well, we have tacit and explicit knowledge. Managing knowledge may well begin with first sharing it. When we share knowledge and it is turned into explicit knowledge then we can manage it. But managing what is in someones mind is almost impossible. So we should be looking more at ways to encourage people share their experiences, beliefs, ways of doing things… and then we should have ways of capturing these athen we are able to manage.

  5. Nick Milton
    July 13, 2010

    Your claim “knowledge management doesn’t exist” seems to be predicated on the assumption that “knowledge management” means “managing knowledge”.

    If you see it instead as “Knowledge-centred management” – ie management with knowledge in mind – then it isn’t nonsense at all. It is analagous to risk management and safety management. Risk and safety aren’t resources, they are focus areas for management. You don’t manage risk or safety like you manage money or people, as both are intangibles, and both are about behaviours and culture. But what you do, is manage your organisation in such a way as to maximise safety and minimise risk. Similarly knowledge management is where you manage your organisation in such a way as to maximise the application of knowledge (another intangible). As Prusak says.

    I would say that is perfectly valid to claim that you cannot directly manage an intangible, while still using the term “(intangible) management” (where (intangible) stands for safety, risk, reputation, brand, or even knowledge)

    • theknowledgecore
      July 13, 2010

      Nick,

      Thank you for your well considered response. The problem as I see it is not grounded in what you or I think about how the term ‘Knowledge Management’ should be interpreted…I happen to fully subscribe to your definition…but how organisations interpret the term and their subsequent approach to developing knowledge resources.

      I’ve been working with a number of organisations in the UK and Asia and the problem is an apparent limited understanding of what drives KM and what it actually means to an organisation – for many it seems to be seen as a technology solution. It seems from experience as a practitioner, supported by research, that technology has taken over the field, offering KM ‘solutions’ that cannot possible answer the needs of the organisation – see the K-Core model and ‘The Universal Drivers for KM’ – they set out my argument that technology is merely an enabler. It is this dominance of technology in the KM field that has brought me to contest the notion of KM in its present form; position that is explained in more detail through my article ‘Are we stuck with KM? A case for Strategic Knowledge Resource development’. These observations have been ‘tested’ with findings from 156 global MNC respondents showing that 136 viewed KM in their organisation as being solved through technology based solutions. That’s what we are fighting here and that’s been the motivation for writing the blog and the article.

      I also wanted to say that I enjoyed looking through your website, some interesting ideas and models…I’d love to chat in more detail if you ever have the time.

      Thanks again for the response…

      David

  6. Derek Parker
    June 25, 2012

    Excellent reasoning, and there is no such thing as speed, since all we have is position and displacement at different points of time. And as for the myth of acceleration, that’s just the other thing happening more often.

    Or alternatively, you could look at the activity, and realise that something is occuring, and substitute develop (from the heraldic french for unfurl) for manage (from hand work). Brilliant. A rose by any other name would smell as rank as weeds (when festering)

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This entry was posted on May 15, 2010 by in Organisational Development.
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