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Complexity and Knowledge Management Navigators…

KM is dead! Long live knowledge!

This is an updated edit in response to several questions received by email — To clarify my, and the K-Cubed position, we work with the term ‘KM’ as it is the terminology of choice at this moment in time within the wider business community; although it means vastly different things to different organisations.  This article aligns with what we do as a business; as our website says, we look at this as, “KM Rebooted”. We work with knowledge centric organisations who want to engage, or are dissatisfied with, KM and show them through our K-Core process how to mange their knowledge environments holistically, as a way to effect sustainable knowledge advantage through their people.  We assist companies in navigating the complexities of KM practice, educate them and show them pathways to achieve sustainable success. We advocate the use of technology, but it is not the focus of our practice.


KM is its final death throes.  There, I’ve said it.  That’s my position and I’ll stand by it. How long it is going to take is the only real issue here… Look at the technology providers, they are already talking about ‘Wisdom Management’ and ‘Expertise management’.  They are getting desperate because KM has crested and is in need of reinvention; and the time for people to become the epicentre of knowledge activity will come again.  To be clear, I believe in the founding principles of KM.  I do not believe in the practical concept of KM as it exists today.

KM a term is owned by technology, we need to face this.  However, the management of knowledge resources is so much more than this.  You can look back through my blog posts, this is not an epiphany for me.  The bottom line, too many organisations are dissatisfied with KM as a strategic management tool because it is grounded in technology platforms that cannot possibly deliver the dynamic capacity that the organisation needs.  Technology as a KM solution is Snake Oil, it just doesn’t work!  Technology is there for the management of complicated information processes.  People are the platform for complex knowledge processes.  The only way to improve things is to reboot KM and embed people as the platform for sustainable success.  That simple. We need to be ready for a paradigm shift. History tells us it will happen and nothing can stop it – it’s just a case of when the tipping point will come.

Want some evidence beyond what I have written and posted before…?

During May and July 2010 KM job ‘tweets’ were monitored on the Twitter social media platform.  In all 239 jobs were isolated from over 1000 tweets – this accounted for duplication (multiple tweets), non KM related jobs and misleading links.  In analysing the associated job descriptions it was found that 86% (206) were solely related to technology or information related positions; 14% (33) took a socio-technological view, requiring an understanding of wider HR-centric issues; and zero 0% were solely focused on the HR-centric view.  The geographic spread of the techno-centric view  predominantly emanated from the United States (56%), United Kingdom (28%) and India (12%).  The socio-technological positions were in China (16 of 33), Singapore (3 of 33), United Kingdom (2 of 33), France (4 of 33), Australia (2 of 33), India (5 of 33), Japan   (1 of 33).

David Snowden stated in KM Asia 2010 that he and Larry Prusak had stopped talking about KM, they now talk about decision-making.  At K3-Cubed we talk about dynamic capacity and sustainability.

Times are changing…

The following builds on a blog from May 2010 and the IJKSS article from October 2010; “Are we stuck with KM:  The case for strategic knowledge resource development

Where does KM come from? How durable is it as a concept? Is it a fad? Is it on its way out?

KM is one of the most fantastic but fundamental concepts for human society. It is
unfortunate it does not have a better name. But, ultimately, what it represents is the
history and future of mankind. It’s disappearance due to [the distraction of modern
technology] will be human society’s downfall? (Manager at Price Waterhouse Cooper)

If knowledge is a resource that the organisation needs to invest in then there has to be an acceptance that the organisation will need to manage or coordinate it. Enter KM. But what is KM exactly? Much like the concepts of knowledge, the knowledge economy and value, it is complex. Let’s begin by dispelling a popular myth; KM is not in its infancy.

The 1980’s, the birth of KM, really?

The need of KM is a persistent knowledge. The practice of KM over the last decade has been fundamentally flawed in conception (David Snowden, KM Asia 2010,

Many credit Peter Drucker with the birth and growth of the modern KM movement through his seminal article in 1988, “The coming of the new organisation”. Some talk of Karl-Erik Sveiby as the key figure in the field. Others credit Robert Buckman (and his work with Buckman Laboratories during the early 1980?s) with being the father-figure of KM, due to his contribution to the technological evolution of the field. Those championing Buckman as the ‘father’ of the field also seem to subscribe to the view of KM as something that technology does. This just does not align with the needs of the organisation, just look at the drivers of the knowledge economy. Whereas writers, such as Joel Mokyr, in his book, “The gifts of Athena”, believe that the evolution of technology is the residual evidence, or artefact, of knowledge development.

So, is the need for knowledge an enduring one? Is KM nothing more than a new label on a very old bottle? Or is the answer, to borrow the words of David Snowden, based in the fact that, “The need of knowledge is a persistent one”?

250 years old and counting…

If you have not read the acclaimed work of Joel Mokyr, into the links between knowledge and technology, you should give it a try. It delivers an insight into the development of knowledge economies, which can be observed through surges in technological achievements, such as during the first and second industrial revolution – The first industrial revolution starting around 1760-1780 and lasting until 1830-1850.

  • The Industrial revolution constitutes a stage in which the weight of the knowledge-induced component of economic growth increased markedly
  • At the turn of the century (1890) it was being stated that knowledge and its organisation contributed to capital value and was a significant engine for output.
  • In 1908 The Lancet published an article, The diffusion of medical knowledge, promoting the virtues of knowledge sharing within the field of medicine and health.
  • In 1918 knowledge was being discussed as a resource for organisations, predominantly in North America.

“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?”

  • In 1933 Fisher recognised industry to be moving toward a tertiary stage, with an emphasis on knowledge based goods and services instead of traditional manufacturing and production.
  • In 1938 by Barnard, in his book “The functions of the executive” argued the need for organisations to create and disseminate knowledge.
  • Periods of war brought about a voracious appetite for competitive advantage, which, in turn, brought focus to knowledge as a resource. The following is an extract from a newspaper article published during World War II.

“Primarily we need proved weapons, men, planes and ships to make America safe fromattack?.Back of these defense lines lies knowledge, organised and implemented by the
searchings of human minds and hands?”

  • Literature from this period also offers a glimpse of an early incarnation of the modern Knowledge Manager, Industrial Efficiency Engineers. These were specialists who could critically manage knowledge to bring about what was 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?”

  • Subsequent to this period there was as a knowledge explosion stimulated by events such as the post war recovery of Britain. This period brought with it a second incarnation of the knowledge manager, through the advent of the, “science of knowledge utilisation”, where there was focus on the need to coordinate such knowledge that was deemed useful to man.
  • Was Drucker, and his 1988 article, a little behind the times? No, in 1959 Drucker famously 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?”

  • The economic contribution of knowledge was being discussed by Machlup in his 1962 publication, “The production and distribution of knowledge in the US” . A position championed by Carter in 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]”

  • The importance of technology for Information Storage and Retrieval was being extolled in the United Kingdom during this period by Maxwell in 1968.
  • Duncan took this further in 1972 through a 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?”

  • It is during the 1973 that the term, KM, first appears, through discourse on Public Administration.

“By Knowledge Management, I mean public policy for the production, dissemination, and use
of information as it applies to public policy formulation?”

  • It was from this time that authors began to widely recognise that knowledge was usurping capital in the battle for power within organisations.
  • In 1977 the term KM appeared in discussions on marine and environmental science and in the term was evident in discussions in the field of computer science.

This time line traces the discussion of the management of knowledge resources well beyond the turn of the twentieth century. This means that organisations have been acknowledging the economic value of knowledge for well over 250 years. KM really is nothing more than a new label on an old bottle of wine. What this also tells the KM leader is that the management of knowledge has itself adapted to the needs of time and place.

Back to today…

At the moment KM is facing a multitude of problems and issues. The shift in terminology detailed within the KM time line appear to be brought about to meet the shifting needs of the environment, but the core need to utilise knowledge endures. It therefore stands to reason that KM itself will have to undergo a shift, especially if the field fails to overcome the dominance of
technology based KM solutions. But, regardless of what it might be called in the future, however it it is reinvented, historical precedent indicates that organisations will continue to need to manage knowledge as a resource for value creation.

The message here is to forget about the KM label and focus on the need of the organisation and the environment within which the organisation transacts. That need dictates what action is required and the label placed upon that action really does not matter; as long as the action and the outcome meet the organisation’s need. KM is here today and will be gone tomorrow.

Given the drivers of the knowledge economy, and the need for dynamic capacity, it is fair to say that the only constant for sustainable success is change.  We have no choice at this time, but to try and adapt to the dying whims of an ill-fitting concept, but we also need to prepare for the future to make sure that the next incarnation can deliver success…something KM struggles to do!

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14 comments on “KM is dead! Long live knowledge!

  1. Perry Puccetti
    April 8, 2011

    Interestingly, the term KM has been confused with technology for as long as I can remember it. The last place that I saw a “true” knowledge based approach to business was as an AH-1 pilot in the Marine Corps.

    Many organizations place their “KM” emphasis on technology, when in fact it is a cultural one. Human Capital Management (HCM) focuses on the investment of organizations in the primary asset of people.

    Knowledge; the transfer of, use of, flow of, management of, etc., is a MINDSET. No technology is going to make an individual, or by extension an organization, more willing or able to share knowledge.

    Technology is an enabler, and though an important part of how any organization architects its approach to the use of knowledge, it is but one component.

    Planning, briefing, flying, debriefing, and capturing lessons learned was part of what we did every day as aviators. In many cases, the knowledge shared as a result of this process, involved little to no technology – perhaps a little green notebook.

    Yet, a young pilot was often able to significantly accelerate their progression as an aviator in this manner. An experienced pilot could further hone their craft.

    Unfortunately, to many companies, technology is easier to address than the HCM aspects of an organization; its culture and the people that it comprises. Additionally, people “costs” comprise almost 70% of most organization’s total cost of doing business – a primary target for cost cutting.

    It is my opinion, that knowledge is and will increasingly become a competitive differentiator for those companies that understand that, and, embrace it as part of their culture – their people.

    • theknowledgecore
      April 8, 2011

      Thank you for taking the time to respond. For me you hit the nail on the head with this:

      “Unfortunately, to many companies, technology is easier to address than the HCM aspects of an organization; its culture and the people that it comprises. Additionally, people “costs” comprise almost 70% of most organization’s total cost of doing business – a primary target for cost cutting.”

      Part of the problem is that people get cut as part of the cost cutting exercise and technology is deployed as a ‘cost-effective’ way to capture organisational learning and minimise knowledge seepage. The problem is that they fail to uderstand the requirements for a learning organisation, which is the other side of the KM coin if you like, the side that will build dynamic capacity.

      Also, if they managed the whole process, instead of focusing on the static (explicit) side of the business, they might not have to make cuts in the first place as hopefully, if they were managing their processes correctly, they would naturally become more innovative and dynamic.

      This leads me to strongly agree with your other comment:

      “It is my opinion, that knowledge is and will increasingly become a competitive differentiator for those companies that understand that, and, embrace it as part of their culture – their people.”

      We need to work to change people’s mindsets… It isn’t easy, but it is the right thing to do.

  2. Stephen Bounds
    April 8, 2011

    Although I mainly agree with your position, I do believe that technology is a core component of KM. There are a few reasons for that:

    – If KM stands for anything, it has to mean management of knowledge in an organisational context. KM in a personal & social context has been happening for millenia quite nicely thank you and probably doesn’t need our help 🙂
    – Most organisations are fundamentally artificial constructs, enacted by government legislation and/or created through a profit motive. This misalignment in organisational and personal interests creates a very different management need.
    – Organisations have to assume that there will be non-continuity in personnel at various times.

    That said, I also believe that just about all “KM solutions” out there on the market completely miss the point. Except in rare circumstances, capturing point/ad hoc solutions for reuse is of little value. The core “KM” work served by technology is to embed organisational process, to provide enough for a framework to allow people to be replaceable in the organisation while still embracing their uniquely human capabilities.

    (We see this a lot by the way when IT comes to replace business systems. Often the people don’t really understand the deep rationale of why a business system does what it does. All they really understand is that the system provides the process structure and leads to the outcome they need.)

  3. theknowledgecore
    April 9, 2011

    Hi Stephen,

    Thank you for your response and it would seem that we agree. I totally agree with you, in that technology plays an important part in the development of technology resources for an organisation. However, we contend that it only acts as an enabler of the knowledge flow architecture of an organisation; it is people that are the real catalyst for change and sustainability and they should be treated as locus of any potential knowledge based “solution” in an organisation.

    I’m about to write a blog in the next few days to show that actually, if we are transacting in the knowledge economy, then KM,as it currently stands, cannot be seen as an adequate solution.

    This is what we do as a business, as our website says, we look at this as, “KM Rebooted”. We work with knowledge centric organisations who want to engage, or are dissatisfied with, KM and show them through the K-Core process how to mange their knowledge environments holistically to effect sustainable knowledge advantage through their people. We assist companies in navigating the complexities of KM practice, educate them and show them pathways to achieve sustainable success. We advocate the use of technology, as I have said, but it is not the focus of our practice.

    Thanks again for responding and I look forward to hearing what your opinion as the argument develops.

    • Roan Yong
      April 23, 2011

      Hi Stephen and David,

      I agree that KM needs to evolve. See my blog post below for more details:

      And I totally agree with Stephen that technology is a key component of KM. I believe the KM technology has became more people-centred. It is evolving towards social collaboration, specifically web 2.0 (the social web). The intranet is also moving along this trend, and more organisations are adopting the social intranet (the intranet which is based on web 2.0 model).

      The social media is a perfect solution in getting more people to adopt KM practices. The reason is social media is a fusion of marketing and learning that allows people to filter out junk contents (knowledge) and promote quality contents. It is the lack of marketing and insights of what people needs, that derail many technology-based KM initiatives. See my blog post below for more detail:

      I’m no technologist. I strongly believed that people should be the center of KM and technology is nothing but an enabler. However, I always wonder what people meant by saying “KM is about people”. To me, KM is about people as well as about social technology that empower conversations and knowledge capture. To motivate people to do KM, we have to provide implicit incentives (reputation) system. And social media (read: technology) is a perfect medium to host the reputation system.

      Here is how I see technology. Technology is KMers’ weapon. I wouldn’t want to throw away my weapon when I enter a battle! I would try to understand how to use my weapon well and surely I will succeed in my KM endeavor.

  4. Nikolay Kryachkov
    April 9, 2011

    Long live knowledge and Knowledge Person(s)! 🙂

  5. Perry Puccetti
    April 12, 2011

    Ultimately, K(m) as in businses, requires a strategy… Does your K(m) strategy emphasize personalization (person to person interaction tacit knowledge transfer) or codification (explicit knowledge transfer/storage), as an enabler of your business. One has to be prioritized over the other, which, is largely driven by your business model/strategy. The role of technology, is as an enabler, prioritized by strategy, culture, organizational structure, etc. Though I am an avid supporter of technology that enables business, I am also an avid believer of removing technology that does not. Technology that does not enable the business is at best a resource drain, and at worst an impediment to success. As we so often used to do in mission planning, we started with “what success looks like” and worked backwards from there. Successful businesses also understand this and take a similar approach.

  6. theknowledgecore
    April 12, 2011

    Hi Perry, this is my response to a similar observation on another forum… would be interested in your opinion:

    You make an interesting observation, which I think is part of the core issue with KM. KM, in my opinion, is driven by the needs of organisations transacting in the knowledge economy. This means that we are looking at socio-technological issues, with people as the platform for success. We could have a fundamental debate about the definition of tacit Vs explicit and whether explicit knowledge actually exists or whether we are actually only speaking of information and knowledge.

    Knowledge as an object, ostensibly explicit knowledge, exists as part of the resource based view of the organisaiton – a view that advocates the treatment of knowledge as an object; a view that permeates KM literature as a result of Nonaka’s manipulation of Polanyi and his subsequent SECI concept that advocates the transition between the questionable registers of tacit and explicit. This has been taken by technology KM activists as a mantle to promote technology based KM solutions – solutions that just do not exist. Knowledge is a complex concept, something that complicated techno-centric solutions just cannot handle.

    This leads us to the knowledge based view of the firm, where knowledge is embedded through concepts such as the Learning Organisation and Organisational Learning. This is the home of KM. If we accept the needs of KM as being driven by the needs of the knowledge economy, then we agree that KM has to answer to the advancement of the dynamic capacity of the organisation. If we agree to that, then we also agree that KM is facilitated by people enabled by technology – enabled by technology, not solved by technology. This produces dynamic organisations operating with a complex knowledge environment – the resource based view leans more towards static organisation, operating with a complicated knowledge environment.

    What am I ultimately getting at here? I actually don’t believe that organisations who advocate a resource based view of knowledge, or the view of knowledge as an object, or explicit knowledge management, are actually addressing the needs of the knowledge economy. I also do not believe that they are actually practicing KM, but that is just my opinion.

    • Perry Puccetti
      April 23, 2011

      I agree with much of what you provide in your comments. My view may be somewhat simplistic, but Knowledge inherently involves the interaction of humans. By extension, organizational Knowledge becomes that of the collective, but again, humans. Nonaka and Takeuchi provide excellent commentary on much of this, however, another source that I have found to be superb, perhaps because of its pragmatic view of Knowledge is Nissen’s “Harnessing Knowledge Dynamics: Principled Organizational Knowing and Learning.” It looks at the concept of Knowledge Flows across an organization, and the resistance to the different rates of Knowledge flow as determined by whether tacit or explicit knowledge is the focus. The former being more “resistive” or slower to flow across an organization, the latter being more conducive to rapid flow. Where technology has a role is primarily in enabling the flow of Knowledge. Recently, in one of the courses I attended at MIT, the discussion focused on organizational dynamics and the concept of “stocks and flows” was addressed, and, even though they really weren’t addressing Knowledge flows, it is completely analogous in that Knowledge does tend to accumulate in certain areas of an organization (due to the people there), stocks, and what we would like technology to aid in enabling a flow of that knowledge to other parts of the organization… “from those who have it to those who need it.” Interestingly, we also discussed how “reinforcing loops”, “balancing loops”, etc., can create innovative or stagnant organizations – my belief is that this concept is extensible to Knowledge flows throughout an organization. Technology, is applied AFTER the fact; understanding the desired business outcome, the process(es) by which Knowledge is to flow, and the people using the technology, etc., must be addressed first. Ultimately, the creation, use/transfer, flow, and application of knowledge is a human activity, part of an organization’s culture, with technology solely an enabler.

      Strangely, technology, the very thing that is supposed to “bring us closer together” is in my opinion having just the opposite effect…

  7. Nikolay Kryachkov
    April 14, 2011
  8. theknowledgecore
    April 25, 2011

    Roan, I enjoy your feedback, thank you. I have a question, can technology transmit knowledge or is it a conduit for information transmission – a stimulus for knowledge extension or creation?

    If you can argue the case for technology transmitting knowledge, then, in my mind, you will have an argument for KM being embedded within social media – this view is embedded in how an organisation or individual sees knowledge as a resource. My problem is that I do not see knowledge as existing in an explicit form. With that being the case, KM, for me and my company, is about people. Too many times people, and the needs of the organisation they are bound to, are shoehorned into using technology platforms that just don’t meet their needs…usually, in our experience, as a result of management being sold technology based KM solutions. That, is my problem. In a nutshell, technology does not provide a KM solution. It deals with information, complicated processes, whereas knowledge is complex and the domain of the person human.

    Where we agree totally is that technology acts as an enabler for the KM process – which is exactly how we treat it when we work with organisations.

    Thanks again for putting your opinion forward…always a pleasure

  9. Pingback: The critical function of KM « Theknowledgecore's Blog

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