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The uniqueness of knowledge management – or the emperor's new clothes?

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Professor G.E. Gorman, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand

I must confess at the outset to being an interloper, or perhaps a charlatan, when it comes to knowledge management, and to writing about it – like Tom Wilson, I believe "knowledge management" is an oxymoron, because something as abstract as "knowledge" cannot be "managed" in an organizational sense. In his well-known paper on this subject Wilson (2002) concludes that "...data and information may be managed, and information resources may be managed, but knowledge (i.e., what we know) can never be managed, except by the individual knower and, even then, only imperfectly". Others have sought to discredit this basic argument based on the data -> information -> knowledge continuum, but none of their objections convince me that Professor Wilson is wrong.

Yet, there are many professionals these days being paid very handsome salaries indeed to work as "knowledge managers" in rather posh corporate suites in London, Melbourne, Boston, Singapore... Are they laughing all the way to the bank, or are they actually doing something new and unique that adds value to an institution?

Beyond explicit knowledge

It used to be the case that information professionals (aka librarians, information managers, etc.) operated in a world where they were recognized as gatekeepers of explicit knowledge. This is no longer the case, because the orderly containment of information has fallen by the wayside largely, one suspects, as a result of technological innovations that have enhanced the malleability of information and improved access to information resources. As librarians have continued to be bound by the confines of their library walls, and therefore explicit knowledge, and as the management of information becomes increasingly technology-enabled, professionals from other areas are finding their place in the information management areas, including "knowledge management".

It is the confines of explicit knowledge that those who call themselves knowledge managers have broken out of, and they understand that knowledge (or information) is created in a variety of environments and therefore exists in many forms, explicit, implicit, tacit, and that some of these forms are particularly elusive. What a knowledge manager should be aiming to do is to capture and control as many of these forms within a specific context as possible. And "specific context" means a particular organization. While the librarian and information manager draw explicit knowledge from many external sources into an organization and specialize in organizing, storing and accessing these more formal forms of information, the knowledge manager tends not to look outside his organization for information but rather concentrates on gathering the many forms of information from inside his or her organization. Generally this does not include the static formats familiar to librarians, but the more elusive internally generated documentation: internal reports, minutes of meetings, memoranda, etc. So far, so good; this is just old-fashioned librarianship under a new name, information management with a larger salary perhaps.

My knowledge belongs to me?

But, and here's the rub, the knowledge management gurus add that their brief extends to the ideas of individuals who work within the same organizational context. This is where I for one begin to worry about the ethics of knowledge management. Although I am employed by a particular institution, the ideas I generate while in that institution's employ do not belong to anyone but myself – this is my intellectual capital, my intellectual property. I may choose to share these ideas with others – by writing this column for example – or I may choose not to share this knowledge. It is my choice, it is my knowledge. Now, the knowledge manager may wish to suck all of the ideas out of my mind, and technology makes this ever easier, with bosses able to access my desktop computer remotely, read my e-mail, etc. and therefore access those ideas I have committed to the written word. But if I choose not to record my knowledge, and therefore make it explicit, at present no one can manage this except myself. Long may this continue to be the case.

The logical extension of knowledge management, which the KM gurus like Larry Prusak either fail or choose not to recognize, is a kind of Orwellian world or scenario from The Prisoner in which all thoughts and ideas are somehow transferred automatically to a great database-in-the-sky for whatever reason. The line between management and control is very fine indeed.

What do knowledge managers actually do?

Bouthillier's excellent review of knowledge management finds that knowledge management as actually practised "...really means facilitating the sharing of tacit knowledge" as distinct from explicit knowledge (Bouthillier, 2002). He goes on to propose a typology of 'methodologies which he categorizes thus:

  • Communication – sharing ideas, developing informal networks
  • Storage and retrieval – information audit, database of experts, information storage for access
  • Selected dissemination – information alerts (i.e., SDI), organizational learning (CPD)
  • Action – virtual collaboration across divisions (and institutions).

While Bouthillier insists on linking all of these activities to knowledge, and especially tacit knowledge, is this really any different from what librarians and information managers have traditionally done? That is, the information manager is engaged in:

  • Discovery
  • Acquisition
  • Storage and organization
  • Use and sharing.

Yes, the focus is information rather than knowledge, but the point is that the processes are the same for the most part. The only real difference in our view is that the knowledge manager is also involved in the creation of new knowledge (or information resources) through seeking to capture and control tacit knowledge of the organization's members, while the information manager is more likely to be involved in repackaging existing knowledge. This single major distinction is graphically displayed in Kuhlen (2004), who follows Probst in allowing "development of knowledge" as an element of knowledge management in an otherwise quite mundane schema that any librarian educated after Ranganathan will immediately recognize.

The most likely real distinction between knowledge management and information management/librarianship in all that I have read of late is the insistence on management as the key term, rather than information/knowledge. And this is primarily management in a competitive, commercial environment (show me a university which employs a knowledge manager and I will show you a university in which the vice chancellor sees himself as a CEO rather than an academic leader, much to our great disadvantage). This is most clearly observable in Abell and Oxbrow's (2001) list of "key competences for KM":

  • Know the business
  • Know how to apply core competences
  • Demonstrate flexibility
  • Understand enterprise-wide information, external and internal
  • Appreciate information integration and structuring
  • Understand business processes and information flows
  • Apply change management
  • Apply project management
  • Apply people skills
  • Apply consultancy skills.

Now, if this isn't a menu of skills for managers in a commercial environment, what is it? The evidence this far suggests that knowledge managers do what information managers do, who do what librarians do. The only real difference (bearing in mind our view that knowledge cannot truly be reduced to a series of management dicta) is that the knowledge manager is paid a lot more than an information manager, who in turn bags bigger bucks than a librarian. Now there's the only sensible argument in favour of adopting "knowledge manager" as my professional title.

If you think all of this is the rambling of a demented academic, take a look at the knowledge management literature in the Emerald stable, especially in that excellent organ, Journal of Knowledge Management. Listed below are some examples of the work found there, and fine reading it makes. However, there is nothing in these papers to contradict anything we have just written. Synman and Kruger (2004), for example, firmly ground knowledge management in the theory and practice of strategic management. Darroch (2003) creates a method of measuring knowledge management "behaviours", which again look suspiciously like information management "behaviours". And so it goes – looks awfully like another instance of The Emperor's New Clothes. Take heart, librarians and information managers, the KM apostles have nothing on you (except those bigger bucks).

References

Abell, A. and Oxbrow, N. (2001), Competing with Knowledge: The Information Professional in the Knowledge Management Age, Library Association Publishing and TFPL, London, UK.

Bouthillier, F. and Shearer, K. (2002), "Understanding knowledge management and information management: the need for an empirical perspective", Information Research, Vol. 8 No. 1, October.

Darroch, J. (2003), "Developing a measure of knowledge management behaviors and practices", Journal of Knowledge Management, Vol. 7 No. 5, pp. 41-54.

Diakoulakis, I.E., Georgopoulos, N.B., Koulouriotis, D.E. and Emiris, D.M. (2004), "Towards a holistic knowledge management model", Journal of Knowledge Management, Vol. 8 No. 1, pp. 32-46.

Kuhlen, R. (2004), "Change of paradigm in knowledge management – framework for the collaborative production and exchange of knowledge", in Hobohm, H-C. (Ed.), Knowledge Management – Libraries and Librarians Taking Up the Challenge, K.G. Saur, Munich, Germany.

Snyman, R. and Kruger, C.J. (2004), "The interdependency between strategic management and strategic knowledge management", Journal of Knowledge Management, Vol. 8 No. 1, pp. 5-19.

Styhre, A. (2003), "Knowledge management beyond codification: knowing as practice/concept", Journal of Knowledge Management, Vol. 7 No. 5, pp. 32-40.

Takahashi, T. and Vandenbrink, D. (2004), "Formative knowledge: from knowledge dichotomy to knowledge geography – knowledge management transformed by the ubiquitous information society", Journal of Knowledge Management, Vol. 8 No. 1, pp. 64-76.

Wilson, T.D. (2002), "The nonsense of 'knowledge management'", Information Research, Vol. 8 No. 1, October.


Note

For an alternative opinion on knowledge management, see David J. Pauleen's viewpoint "Knowledge management: a wolf in sheep's clothing?".