A (very) Brief History of Knowledge Management
Although the current move toward gathering, cataloguing, storing, and disseminating information and data for widespread organizational use is a fairly recent development, the basic concepts of Knowledge Management have been with us for as long as humans have gathered in communities. Humans have always struggled with the need to pass on information gathered through hard experience and disastrous failure.
In his new book, to be published this fall, Steven Denning sets forth a brief synopsis of the human activities which have preceded our current drive toward Knowledge Management. In it he states, “The pursuit of any significant human activity typically leads to the acquisition by those involved of know-how and expertise as to how the activity may be successfully conducted. Insofar as what is learned in the process can be captured, and communicated and shared with others, it can enable subsequent practitioners – or even generations – to build on earlier experience and obviate the need of costly rework or of learning by making the same repetitive mistakes.
“In the village, from time immemorial, the elder, the traditional healer and the midwife have been the living repositories of distilled experience in the life of the community.
” Interactive knowledge-sharing mechanisms have always been used – from palavers under the baobab, village square debates, and town meetings, to conclaves, professional consultations, meetings, workshops, and conferences – all functioning to enable individuals to share what they know with others in the relevant area of knowledge. “ (emphasis the author’s)
In 1988, as the pace of change was accelerating with the rapid development and deployment of large-scale information systems, Peter F. Drucker observed, “Information responsibility to others is increasingly understood, especially in middle-sized companies. But information responsibility to oneself is still largely neglected. That is, everyone in an organization should constantly be thinking through what information he or she needs to do the job and to make a contribution”.
Drucker understood then the pivotal dilemma with respect to data and information now being faced by many organizations, that of understanding its power and devising the methodologies whereby it can be harnessed and used to the benefit of the people who need it to perform their jobs properly.
In referring to information specialists as toolmakers, Drucker said, “They can tell us what tool to use to hammer upholstery nails into a chair. We need to decide whether we should be upholstering a chair at all.
“Executives and professional specialists need to think through what information is for them, what data they need: first, to know what they are doing; then, to be able to decide what they should be doing; and finally, to appraise how well they are doing. Until this happens MIS departments are likely to remain cost centers rather than become the result center they could be.”
Today, MIS departments are still struggling with the notion of becoming “result centers”. Too frequently, they concern themselves with the infrastructure of the organization’s data processing capabilities, and completely ignore the role Knowledge Management (in its broadest sense) can play. Instead of leading the way through the morass of competing needs, whether perceived or real, they find themselves being led around by various departments seeking to have their agenda legitimized, often to the detriment of the MIS department’s ability to serve the company as a whole.
At Rocketdyne, which employs a large percentage of well-educated, highly computer literate individuals, there exists a great deal of enmity between the users and the Information Systems (IS) department. There are many who feel the department should fulfill the role only of providing the infrastructure, i.e. the telecommunications backbone and the hardware, and maintaining its reliability. These people believe IS has abdicated its responsibility of providing guidance for software development and acquisition, through an historic ineptness in performing this function.
Whether this view is accurate or not, it demonstrates a division which has long been developing and will not soon go away, especially without visionary leadership schooled in the concept of Knowledge Management. Many knowledgeable workers at Rocketdyne believe they must have the freedom to purchase software which will support their needs, or to develop that software without interference and second-guessing by the IS department.
The question which looms now for most organizations, and certainly for Rocketdyne, is how can the data which is both created and collected be harnessed for the purpose of continuing a company’s pursuit of its goals.
What we are experiencing, I believe, is a time of challenge and opportunity. Historically, humans have always valued the hard-earned wisdom of our forebears. We rightly believe in the inappropriateness of “reinventing the wheel”, and we have continuously improved on our methodologies for categorizing and memorializing the lessons we have been taught or have learned through experience.
Knowledge Management is merely the application of this historical pursuit of know-how and expertise to the comparatively new tools we have developed. The concept itself is nothing new, The question then becomes one of how do we go about harnessing these tools to our advantage; how do we make that quantum leap into an entirely new way of viewing an old problem.
the next section we will look at a little bit of the background of the present
day approaches to Knowledge Management, and see how companies are beginning to
recognize the necessity of understanding and utilizing this approach to
conducting business and running an organization successfully.
 Stephen Denning, “The history of knowledge management-The idea of sharing knowledge is not new“, in “The Springboard“; available at http://www.stevedenning.com/history_knowledge_management.html (accessed October 27, 2000)
 Peter F. Drucker, “The Coming of the New Organization”, Harvard Business Review on Knowledge Management (Boston: Harvard Business School, 1998) p. 11
 Drucker, Op, Cit, . pp. 11 – 12