Complexity and Knowledge Management Navigators…
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]