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Defining Knowledge Management

KM Wordle

KM Wordle (courtesy of Information Architected)

As long as I can remember, I have always looked for smarter and better ways to do things. Some people have described this propensity as lazy, but I don’t think working smart is really laziness. I like to think of it as a form of conservation. Of my energy! Additionally, working smart means you can be more productive; accomplish more in the same amount of time. No one should have to defend spending energy on making things easier and more efficient and effective.

I say this because this proclivity ultimately led me to the concept of Knowledge Management (KM) in the mid-90s and changed the trajectory of my career (late as it may have been) rather dramatically. Actually, KM had been around for as long as humans had the need to ensure hard-won lessons were passed down from generation to generation. However, as I was beginning to encounter it back then, it was being transformed by the proliferation of the personal computer and the expansion of the Internet and the capabilities it provided. These developments fairly exploded with the advent of Web 2.0 capabilities; the interactive web, and this ultimately led me to what has been called Enterprise 2.0 (now being referred to as Social Business).

Beginning around 1996 I began working with a small group of KM people at Boeing Propulsion and Power, a division of The Boeing Company, to apply these concepts to our various rocket engine programs. Shortly thereafter, I was appointed as the KM Lead for the Space Shuttle Main Engine Team, the largest of our then current contracts. From the very beginning it proved difficult to succinctly explain what Knowledge Management was. Although human beings have been sharing what they learn since time immemorial (it’s part of what makes us so unique), it proved exceedingly difficult to “define” KM. That is to say, it didn’t easily allow one to create a 30-second elevator speech.

I have therefore decided to offer a collection of definitions and explanations, culled from the best minds available on the subject, as discovered by me – through my research, experience, and education. I’m going to publish it as an ongoing project with the intention of adding to it, either by my own hand or through the input of those who find their way here. As it turns out, this is a somewhat convoluted process since so many have tried to define KM for over a decade. In doing just a little research I’ve come across lots of attempts to do the same thing I’m doing here, with varying degrees of success. Even my old friend, Luis Suarez, has an important collection. Unfortunately, one the main collections he refers to is no longer in existence (at least his link is broken). ‘Tis a bother.

Truth to tell, few of these are offered as definitive (which is kind of ironic, don’t you think?) by practitioners. I believe that’s because the practice is at once pervasive and deeply contextual. It’s just plain hard to pin down to a single or even a single set of practices or behaviors, or processes, etc.

I also want to include the sage words of Frank Miller, taken from a paper – I = 0 (Information has no intrinsic meaning) – he published in October of 2002. You really should read the paper if you want to understand his premise, which I think is really valuable if you want to get a grasp of what knowledge sharing (as opposed to knowledge management) is about:

This is a vexed issue. KM is, sadly, deeply embedded in most modern literature connected with the productivity of intangible assets. Yet this paper tries to make clear that when subjected to critical analysis, KM is an untenable notion. Knowledge (i.e., what people know) simply cannot be captured or managed, and hence the term Knowledge Management is inappropriate. Worse still, the language of KM suggests that knowledge is a commodity capable also of being processed, delivered, transmitted etc when it is not. Whilst knowledge sharing is an acceptable concept, the notion of knowledge management is, at best, dubious!

Please feel free to offer your own definitions, take issue with anything I’ve posted, or point me to others who you think deserve to be part of the conversation and I’ll do my best to edit it in to the body here. Thanks.

Definitions

Knowledge Management  is a field that takes concepts of Library Science & Pedagogy and, utilizing the latest trends in Information Technology, seeks to facilitate the capture, transfer, and useful application of the collective knowledge of an organization or group. – Rick Ladd

The purpose of knowledge management is to provide support for improved decision making and innovation throughout the organization. This is achieved through the effective management of human intuition and experience augmented by the provision of information, processes and technology together with training and mentoring programmes.

The following guiding principles will be applied 

  • All projects will be clearly linked to operational and strategic goals
  • As far as possible the approach adopted will be to stimulate local activity rather than impose central solutions
  • Co-ordination and distribution of learning will focus on allowing adaptation of good practice to the local context
  • Management of the KM function will be based on a small centralized core, with a wider distributed network David Snowden

Knowledge Management is the discipline to enable individuals, teams, organizations and communities, more collectively and systematically capture, store, share and apply their knowledge, to achieve their objectives. – knowledge-management-online.com

Knowledge management (KM) comprises a range of strategies and practices used in an organization to identify, create, represent, distribute, and enable adoption of insights and experiences. Such insights and experiences comprise knowledge, either embodied in individuals or embedded in organizations as processes or practices.Wikipedia

Knowledge management refers to strategies and structures for maximizing the return on intellectual and information resources. KM depends on both cultural and technological processes of creation, collection, sharing, recombination and reuse. The goal is to create new value by improving the efficiency and effectiveness of individual and collaborative knowledge work while increasing innovation and sharpening decision-making. – Steve Barth

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About Rick Ladd

Born in 1947, I was an officially retired pensioner, but in January of 2015 I returned to work as a contractor at Aerojet Rocketdyne. I remain intensely interested in, and fascinated by, Systems Thinking, Knowledge Management, Decision Intelligence, and Business in general. I am also conversant in such concepts as innovation and ideation, collaborative tools and strategies, crowd sourcing, and the use of social media to accomplish goals ranging from improving business processes to promoting small retail businesses. While "retired" I did a little bit of freelancing as an editor/proofreader, as well as some technical writing. There's lots more where that came from. Need some help? Perhaps another set of eyes? Contact me. The first one's free! ;0) View all posts by Rick Ladd

2 responses to “Defining Knowledge Management

  • Get Out There And Buy The Book Already! « Systems Savvy

    […] how I could afford to learn, starting at 46), or producing a monthly newsletter for the Knowledge Management team at Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne, I’ve been an author for a lot longer than I give […]

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  • Intellectual Juggernaut

    Rick, great post! I don’t, however, believe that KM is difficult to understand, execute, or define. I work with folks who also refuse to believe that we cannot manage something as abstract as knowledge. We should probably think of this in other terms using analogies to clarify what we can do to manage knowledge.

    Consider a glass of water. I can no more grasp the water in the glass than I can air before it enters my lungs, but I can use the glass to contain the water. I can use fans and air conditioners to manipulate air.

    These examples, although not the best, show one important thing – that is, we can influence abstract things. We may not exactly manage the knowledge in an individuals mind, but we can influence the individual. We can influence what the individual thinks, how the individual develops, what skills the individual learns, etc.

    We can influence groups of people. I like to think of this aspect of KM as managing the social environment.

    What we can and cannot do to other people, from a knowledge management perspective, is informed by cognitive science and neuroscience. I like to think of KM – what it should eventually become – as the application of cognitive and neuroscience concepts in a business environment.

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