Knowledge Management 101?

Sometimes we just want someone to tell us what needs to be done and how to do it.  For those moments, there are hundreds of “how-to” books that purport to tell us how to “do” knowledge management — beginner’s guides, dummies’ guides, idiot guides, lazy person’s guides, etc. They are in the bookstores and their advice is regurgitated in any number of blog posts.  Unfortunately, too many of them are a waste of time. They will point you in the direction of KM 1.0, which invariably requires lots of people and technology to attempt the nearly impossible task of compelling your colleagues to convert their tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge, and then capturing and organizing the relatively small amount of converted information that results from your efforts.  Too few of these “helpful guides” actually explain how to align your activities with the strategic goals of your organization or the futility of trying to comprehensively capture knowledge.  Further, they encourage us in the delusion that it is possible to “manage knowledge” in a controlled, top-down manner.  In other words, few of these guides have a realistic view of how human nature invariably trumps neat centralized schemes and how critical it is to work directly with the workforce in a grassroots way if you’re serious about creating and perpetuating an effective knowledge sharing culture.

In short, these guides make fundamental errors that folks wiser than me (in this case, John Bordeaux) have already identified:

Believing that knowledge is only transferred once it has been made explicit leads to mechanistic, engineering approaches to knowledge management that have not proven their worth.  Crank it out of people’s heads, churn it into a shared taxonomy or tag it somehow, and then – and only then – is it useful to others.  I would like to know the exact date that the apprentice learning model was made obsolete by advanced information technology.

While a tidy approach to KM (actually more an approach to information management), the call to “make tacit knowledge explicit” ignores much of what we know about how the world actually works.  To be more precise, we are learning the limitations of what we can know as a result of research across the disciplines of sociology, neuroscience, anthropology, and others.

A far better approach is to think hard and then think harder again about human nature — how we learn, how we know and how we share what we know.  And then, put your organization and colleagues under a microscope and study them until you have an accurate understanding of how the knowledge ecosystem within your organization works.  When you’re ready to do this, here are some useful guides to help you along your way:

These are not idiot guides — they are invitations to deeper study and thought.  Better still, they contain truths that will outlive the quick take-aways of the how-to guides.  The best way to use these recommended materials is to read them with a critical eye, and then find some trusted colleagues with real KM experience and discuss* with them what you’ve learned through your reading and work.  Then, rinse and repeat.

* I’d be delighted to have that conversation with you online.  Just let me know by leaving a comment below.

[Photo Credit:  tsmyther]

8 thoughts on “Knowledge Management 101?

  1. I think you've really hit the nail on the head here: identifying the need to think about human nature first and technology second. I think that probably translates into supporting a bottom-up 'freestyle' approach to knowledge sharing, and tools that act as an amplifier to person-to-person interactions. I'll mull it over some more and get back to you if my ideas form themselves into anything more concrete!

    1. Thanks very much, Bill. The idea of using tools to “amplify” person to person interactions is far better than using tools to replace those interactions. When knowledge management got hijacked by the technology crowd, we lost something fundamental in our understanding of our discipline. With the passage of time, however, we're seeing that technology that doesn't account appropriately for human nature ultimately fails. Further, we've been reminded that the basic human impulses regarding learning and sharing knowledge are fairly constant and should be considered seriously in our planning.Please do come back here and leave another comment once you're through cogitating. This is a subject worthy of a long conversation.- Mary

  2. I whole heartedly agree! Knowledge management is not for idiots. It requires deep introspection and constant reassessment of whatever we think knowledge might be. The result is a rather mutable view of knowledge at the KM 102 and above level. There seem to be few clear paths but many nuanced trails, and the discussions turn quickly into academic arguments. So, please don't be surprised if you find that even with trusted collegues the discussions turn out as “lather, rinse and repeat.” (Or is it “blather, rince and repeat?”)

    1. Thanks very much, Tony. Perhaps the warning in all of this is to be very suspicious of simplistic or mechanistic explanations of knowledge management. Until we've pushed past KM 101, we won't really be able to have a positive impact on our organizations.- Mary

  3. Ok, for those of us that tuned in late, I'm guessing you've already covered the part where the knowledge base is only as good as the data put in, therefore the management of how the data is turned into useful information is key, so that the resulting 'expert' system can be used by anyone within the company, as a useful tool.If this is indeed the case, as a freelancer, e.g. a company of one, I don't need to create a place wherein my expertise can be freely given away, as I'd want to be hired by you to disseminate it in a useful manner, relative to you. I'd rather you hire me, then buy my 'app'.

  4. I strongly believe that KM is something which has to done and not said. In most of our organisation – they say KM and end up doing IT upgradation; some information sharing here and there – not looking into the need of the organisation. KM is managing the information, that has to be understood by the employees to carry out the business effectively. KM can also be said as capturing of “K” and making it available to the concerned at the right time. As commented earlier, I also believe that the conversion of tacit to explicit is very important.

  5. Interesting. I guess some how-to books could be helpful to some of its readers. But I am inclined to think that these how-to books will be useless if we lack the will to enact on whatever these books teach us. Just my 2 cents. Cheers!

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