Pretentious KM?

Navel gazing is a distressingly popular activity among knowledge managers. (To be honest, even I have indulged in it from time to time.) I’m not sure exactly what drives this tendency, although I expect it may have something to do with the fact that we aren’t always able to explain succinctly what it is we do for a living and why we do it.

In the meantime, we expend a great deal of energy discussing the lofty goals of knowledge management and worrying about the difficulties of proving the ROI of KM activities.

In light of this, I found it refreshing to read Infovark’s post, The Promise of Information Management.  The post begins by asking what information management tools and technology are really designed for and answers the question with the Maslow-like diagram below that shows the hierarchy of IM needs:

Risk mitigation, compliance and security; cost savings and efficiency; improved knowledge and innovation.  Those sound like worthy — and rather familiar — goals.  But isn’t that what Knowledge Management (or at least KM 1.0) claims for itself as well?

So, would someone please tell me:  If the information managers have all of this well in hand, what exactly does knowledge management accomplish?  Does KM add anything?  Is it a distinct discipline or just information management with a fancy title?

[Photo Credit:  Vasta]

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13 thoughts on “Pretentious KM?

  • September 18, 2009 at 3:56 am
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    I think there is a bit of confusion here between outcomes and actions. For example, a wide range of business activities result in risk mitigation or cost reductions. Those would include financial management and risk management, as well as knowledge, information or learning activities. The difference, though, is in what is actually done. Financial managers actively identify ways of reducing working capital, for example, and risk managers maintain detailed risk registers. Learning professionals, or information/knowledge managers do not do those things.

    All business activities are dedicated to improving the health of the organisation in their own way. Defining what those activities are turns on the meaning of “in their own way.” The fact is that information managers work with different stuff in a different way from knowledge managers. This video from Nick Milton makes the distinction really clear for me:

  • September 18, 2009 at 10:31 am
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    I believe the point is that IM is more close to KM 1.0, which main focus is placed on technology. Nowadays, I see KM considering the really importante aspect of Knowledge: people and their interactions, not only to share explicity knowledge, but creating new and effective knowledge for the future of organization.

  • September 21, 2009 at 5:07 pm
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    Nice post, Mary! I found the descriptions in the pyramid quite broad. I think they could be more specific and we could make one for IM and KM instead of mixing both into one. But I think the main (and only?) point Infovark is making is: make sure your pyramid fits your customers. And that point goes for KM as well. Just remember the big 'knowledge base' initiatives of the past. Who was that for? For customers of the KM department or for 'risk mitigation', etc?

  • September 22, 2009 at 8:47 am
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    Mark –

    Thanks for the clarification and the clip by Nick Milton. I agree that the pyramid in the diagram represents results that many parts of a business strive to achieve. What I'm wondering is how many knowledge managers are finding effective ways to meet these goals that involve more than just information management. In other words, what do knowledge managers do that is different from what information managers do? While this question may seem naive, it is not misplaced. A well-regarded law firm knowledge management expert sent me an e-mail in response to this post that contained a single question: What's the difference between the two?

    – Mary

  • September 22, 2009 at 9:03 am
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    Marcelo –

    You're right that information management and KM 1.0 are very close cousins. This may be because of the strong focus of KM 1.0 on collecting documents. What's interesting to me is that despite the understanding of the possibilities of KM 2.0, many knowledge managers (and their employers) still seem stuck on KM 1.0.

    – Mary

  • September 22, 2009 at 9:06 am
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    Thanks, Samuel.

    You raise an interesting point about the pyramid. What would you do differently if you were to create a pyramid that was KM-specific? Is it that the “customers” of KM are different from the “customers” of IM? Or is it that IM and KM really serve different purposes?

    – Mary

  • September 22, 2009 at 4:35 pm
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    I'm afraid you are right in your assessment of so-called KM activity. My best guess as to why this is so is that there is a longer tradition of information management, it is readily explained to and understood by businesses, and people go with that flow.

    I think real KM is different from IM because it is forward looking. It isn't concerned with archiving but with exploring new mechanisms for creating value for the organisation from the collective knowledge of its people. That value comes (as Nonaka recognised) from actually tapping into people's tacit knowledge to create something tangible (not freezing the knowledge into a document, but making something of value). (I explored this back in July: http://blog.tarn.org/2009/07/13/back-to-basics/)

    Dave Snowden's recent blogpost about the CKO role also has something to offer here: http://www.cognitive-edge.com/blogs/dave/2009/0

  • September 22, 2009 at 5:40 pm
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    I think we have mixed up ends with means here. Everything in the pyramid is an end to which IM or KM might realistically hope to contribute. The key is in VMA's words : “what … tools and technology are really designed for” Knowing what something is FOR doesn't tell us what it IS.

    If we apply that to the Nick Milton video, we see that knowledge isn't information. And he gives us a clue that IM's job is ensuring that people are given meaningful representations of data to support their work. And their knowledge enables them to act on that information.

    But what does KM do? Implicitly, it sits between the information, and the knowing subjects who interpret information, doesn't it? But doing what? And for whom?

  • September 22, 2009 at 11:22 pm
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    Mark –

    I like your idea of “forward looking” KM. This seems the best approach. It uses KM strategically rather than in a purely reactive fashion. The challenge lies in finding non-intrusive ways of sharing tacit knowledge. This has to mean something different from the old method of badgering experts to “write down what they know.” As Dave Snowden noted in his 7 Principles of KM, that's a fool's errand.

    – Mary

  • September 22, 2009 at 11:42 pm
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    Gordon –

    You've put your finger on a key problem. If we accept Nick Milton's approach, then information does not become actionable until we've applied our knowledge. Since that knowledge is personal and very much tied to context, how precisely does KM assist? Simply through facilitating expertise location? Or is there more?

    – Mary

  • September 24, 2009 at 4:32 am
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    There is much overlap, I find. Is see IM as one layer, and KM as the next. Good IM is a prerequisite for KM. Do you agree?
    Yep, it's strange to see so many stuck in KM 1.0. Haven't they read a book like 'The social life of information'. The way IT looks at and handles data and information is really influential. I find IT looks at information as not being social, without context, etc.

  • September 24, 2009 at 9:01 am
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    You're absolutely right, Samuel. I suspect that many organizations start with the information management work (and call it KM) because it seems like a safe and obvious way to begin. (This is especially the case in industries like mine which are heavily document focused.) It would be interesting to see if any companies have had KM success by skipping past this stage and going straight to the social ways of handling information.

    – Mary

  • September 24, 2009 at 1:01 pm
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    You're absolutely right, Samuel. I suspect that many organizations start with the information management work (and call it KM) because it seems like a safe and obvious way to begin. (This is especially the case in industries like mine which are heavily document focused.) It would be interesting to see if any companies have had KM success by skipping past this stage and going straight to the social ways of handling information.

    – Mary

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