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Knowledge management: a wolf in sheep's clothing?

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David J. Pauleen, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand

In a recent information viewpoint column, "The uniqueness of knowledge management – or the emperor's new clothes?", Professor Gorman casts grave doubt on the legitimacy of knowledge management (KM) as an authentic management practice. He dismisses it as "hyped-up" information management – a sheep in wolf's clothing. In this regard, he has indeed epitomized in his column a problem currently facing KM: its would-be capture by IT consultants who are in desperate need of extending their careers a few more years. KM is no more an information management system than library and information science is a card catalogue.

When is information not knowledge? Always!

Before we get too much further into what KM is and is not, we need to step back and see if we cannot better understand knowledge in an organizational context.

Larry Prusak, the well-known KM guru Professor Gorman mentioned in his column, visited our University for two weeks. In explaining the difference between information and knowledge, he said information could be seen as two-dimensional, and knowledge as three-dimensional. He compared it to reading about a place in a travel guidebook and actually visiting the place. This is an excellent analogy for understanding the differences between information management and knowledge management. Information, like the guidebook, presents contextualized data and may generate some ideas and excitement about a place, but "being there" is what generates first-hand knowledge, an emotional connection, and memories – all of which help to form a deep-seated knowledge of a place. Now, think about the difference in the interaction between two people who have read a guidebook about Venice and two people who have been there. It's the excitement and passion of the latter that forms the basis of successful organizational KM.

No doubt when studying at university, all would-be information professionals (aka librarians, information managers, etc.) read books about managing information, but it is only when they get into the workplace and start to observe and listen to experienced information professionals that they learn how to do it. And maybe they will work with a particularly innovative person who shows them something not in their textbooks. KM is about getting these experienced and innovative people to share with others. People learn on the job and through peers, not from orientation manuals. This kind of learning is another key aspect of KM.

Knowledge in the head is worth less than knowledge on the hoof

This leads to a second important point; unless knowledge is shared with others, it has no extrinsic value, particularly in an organizational context. So while knowledge remains in an employee's head, this so-called intellectual property carries very little, if any, organizational value. The challenge for organizations is to create an environment that motivates employees to share their knowledge, pool their ideas and create new and better processes, products, services –- whatever it is the organization is in the business of doing.

Organizational culture

This can be done in several ways, foremost of which is creating an organizational culture conducive to knowledge sharing. Fundamental to knowledge sharing are trust, reciprocity, and transparency. Trust allows people to feel comfortable sharing knowledge, knowing they won't be taken advantage of down the line. Trust is contagious and can be developed when it is extended down the line from top management. A culture of generalized reciprocity can be immensely valuable for an organization and can be supported by shared reward and recognition systems. Organizational transparency supports knowledge sharing by emphasizing openness and honesty, creating a level playing field for all employees.

Space and time

Space and time are two other necessities for successful knowledge initiatives (Cohen and Prusak, 2001). Space and time are precious commodities to any organization, but they are exactly what are needed to create the even more precious knowledge that keeps organizations competitive. There is no false alchemy at work here; if they want knowledge gold, organizations must be willing to give employees the time they need to think, to explore, to research, and maybe even "to sleep on it", as well as the spaces to meet, talk and create with others. Good, strong, free coffee can also help.

Clearly, the above strategies are a far cry from information management and point out just how different KM is. If an organization is serious about knowledge management, the commitment needed to succeed extends far beyond installing another technological fix. Knowledge managers should not be confused with information managers. Knowledge managers are concerned with people and supporting organizational processes that help people to be passionate about their work, by creating what Gupta and Govindarajan (2000) call a social ecology of a knowledge organization. They are not just referring to "high falutin" gold-collar knowledge workers either, but all employees, including the steel makers they studied at Nucor Steel.

Much of this, no doubt, sounds like pie in the sky. The benefits of good KM are potentially great, but how many CEOs are really going to opt for the kind of organization described here? Chauvel and Despres (2002, p. 219) capture the paradox of managing knowledge in an organizational context, pointing out the "logical inconsistency of trying to generate new knowledge by manipulating an existing cognitive framework, which is, after all, responsible for one's current position". And we found in our research that, at least in the minds of employees, it is ineffectual management that is one of the key roadblocks in KM implementation, particularly management's inability to abandon old ways of thinking and practice (Mason and Pauleen, 2003). But one hopes that progress will be made.

A word for the IT professionals

Technology is a fine tool, but please don't confuse it with KM. The knowledge in one's head cannot be extracted by some Orwellian machine, and even if it could be done, this kind of knowledge would be devoid of context and would be little more than random information or bits of data, and of very little use to anyone. No one can record all they know. David Snowden (2003), of IBM's Cynevin Centre, explains this notion best when he says "I can show you far more than I can explain to you, and I can explain far more to you than I could put down into words on paper". The point here is that real knowledge sharing takes place in a shared social context.

However, there are technologies that do support knowledge management. The most successful of these technologies are "background" systems that support the way people actually work, as opposed to those that force people to conform to the technology. For example, the kinds of expert search systems that scan e-mails for meta-messages to find out what employees are writing about can be useful tools for capturing the current interests of employees. This up-to-date, relevant information can then be searched and act as a pointer for other employees with similar interests. Spending money on connecting people is never wasted.

In conclusion

In summary, much of what Professor Gorman says in regard to KM being nothing more than information management as practised by information professionals can be dismissed, as he has fallen into the consultant's trap and clearly missed the essence of KM. The fact is information professionals do practise KM. KM is what they are doing when they direct a customer to the section of the library that holds the book the patron is looking for, and KM is what they doing when they get together at a conference to discuss best practice. KM is also what they do when they casually mention to Mr Jones, the marketing manager looking for information on the Chinese market, that Ms Smith of Finance has just returned from China on a fact-finding trip. Locating knowledge resources, connecting with knowledgeable people, and knowledge sharing are all important aspects of KM, and one of the challenges of KM is encouraging and institutionalizing such behaviour.

References

Ardichvili, A., Page, V. and Wentling, T. (2003), "Motivation and barriers to participation in virtual knowledge-sharing communities of practice", Journal of Knowledge Management, Vol. 7 No. 1, pp. 64-77.

Chauvel, D. and Despres, C. (2002), "A review of survey research in knowledge management, 1997-2001", Journal of Knowledge Management, Vol. 6 No. 3, pp. 207-223.

Cohen D. and Prusak, L. (2001), In Good Company: How Social Capital Makes Organizations Work, Harvard Business Press, Boston, MA.

Gupta, A.K. and Govindarajan, V. (2000), "Knowledge management's social dimension: lessons from Nucor Steel", Sloan Management Review, Vol. 42 No. 1, p. 71.

Gupta, B., Iyer, L.S. and Aronson, J.E. (2000), "Knowledge management: practices and challenges", Industrial Management & Data Systems, Vol. 100 No. 1, pp. 17-21.

Mason, D. and Pauleen, D.J. (2003), "Perceptions of knowledge management: a qualitative analysis", Journal of Knowledge Management, Vol. 7 No. 4, pp. 38-48.

Mellander, K. (2001), "Engaging the human spirit: a knowledge evolution demands the right conditions for learning", Journal of Intellectual Capital, Vol. 2 No. 2, pp. 165-172.

Robertson, M. and Geraldine O'Malley Hammersley, G. (2000), "Knowledge management practices within a knowledge-intensive firm: the significance of the people management dimension", Journal of European Industrial Training, Vol. 24 No. 2/3/4, pp. 241-253.

Snowden, D. (2003), Personal interview with the author.