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Knowledge Management - ephemeral management fad?

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FadIt is now almost 15 years since widespread interest in the topic of knowledge management (KM) first developed. We evaluate the claim made by a number of writers in the late 1990s that KM was likely to be a passing management fashion, with interest in it likely to decline quickly.

After the sudden rise of interest in KM amongst academics in the late 1990s, which peaked in 1998, interest in the topic then stabilised and remained at a relatively high level. Since then, academic interest has been ongoing and extensive rather than passing and ephemeral.

Interest in knowledge management among global consultancies and professional service firms

In the late 1990s, when initial interest in KM had mushroomed, many organizations took a keen interest in the topic, and offered both business services and large-scale IT-based KM systems in this area. Anecdotal evidence of this interest is visible in the fact that KPMG had a business division focused on KM, and published two high profile surveys of industry practice in the area. McKinsey consultants also authored an early polemical book on the topic.

Since then, interest in KM among these organizations appears to have declined significantly. KPMG’s division for knowledge management services closed in 2007. Other evidence on the extent of contemporary interest in KM can be found in a content analysis of the web pages of a selection of companies done in 2009. The results showed a limited number of significant references to knowledge management on these web sites, giving a clear indication that it was not a topic of significant contemporary interest. So, in stark contrast to the situation among academics, interest in KM by these organizations appears to have declined significantly between 1998 and 2008.

Analysing the trends

Regarding the academic world, the suggestion made by a number of writers that KM would be an ephemeral management fashion with interest in the topic likely to wane quickly seems not to have been borne out. Not only did the number of publications on KM remain high, but there was also the emergence of a number of dedicated journals and conferences on the topic. This embryonic institutionalisation of KM as a subject area suggests that interest in the topic is likely to continue for the foreseeable future.

This could be interpreted as supporting the assertion that some topics that appear to be management fashions, due to a sudden growth of interest in them, can become institutionalised if interest in them remains sustained. Knowledge management has evolved into a legitimate academic discipline in its own right. In this respect, KM is comparable to the topic of organizational culture management, which appeared to be a management fashion when interest in it grew in the mid-1980s, but which has evolved into a legitimate topic of ongoing academic interest.

However, a more cautious, or pessimistic interpretation, especially when the apparent decline of interest in KM among global consultancies and professional service firms is taken into account, is that it may be too early to tell.

It could be that interest in it will decline over the next ten years, and that in the long term it may become regarded as a management fad. Ultimately, the only way to establish how academic interest in KM will evolve over the medium term will be through repeating this whole exercise in ten years time.

In explaining the contrasting decline of interest in KM among global consultancies and professional service firms, there had been a simultaneous declining level of interest in IS/IT related issues, and increasing emphasis on people-related issues in academic publications on KM. These trends could arguably all be indicative of the same significant change in the way organizations have been attempting to manage knowledge.

"For any organization interested in managing its knowledge processes, such initiatives should be less focused on using large-scale IT systems and instead be more concerned with small scale, informal initiatives."

Authors have referred to "knowledge management as a solution", and "knowledge management as a problem". The concept of KM as a solution represents the idea that the best way to address knowledge management issues is to utilise particular types of organization-wide IT-based knowledge management systems. By contrast, the concept of KM as a problem refers to the day-to-day challenges and problems that organizations and workers face in using, sharing, and developing knowledge in the management and completion of work activities. In the business world, there had been a shift from the "knowledge management as a solution" perspective, to one of "knowledge management as a problem".

This change in emphasis towards knowledge management among business organizations arguably provides an explanation for both trends. The change in academic interest from IT to people-focused KM issues could simply be a reflection of how business organizations have changed the way they attempt to manage knowledge. Furthermore, the decline of interest among global consultants and professional service firms in KM may be due to the fact that the market for the type of large-scale IT based KM solutions that these organizations were promoting declined significantly after the initial growth of interest in KM in the late 1990s.

Regarding the change from IT to people-oriented knowledge management, analysis of KM in the health sector concluded that whilst many healthcare organizations were concerned with managing knowledge, there was more interest in the use of social-based rather than IT-based systems. Indeed, many of these initiatives/activities were not even formally labelled as "knowledge management".

A 2008 study of KM in some UK SMEs reached very similar conclusions, with the "informal" KM activities they identified, such as talking with suppliers, having brainstorming sessions, or going to particular trade shows and events, typically being social rather than IT-based means of managing knowledge processes.

Implications for practitioners

The main implication for practitioners is that the general level of support and advice on KM issues available from consultants and professional service firms is likely to be significantly lower now than it was in the late 1990s, when they were most interested in the topic.

Secondly, for any organization interested in managing its knowledge processes, such initiatives should be less focused on using large-scale IT systems and instead be more concerned with small scale, informal initiatives. These should link closely to the day-to-day knowledge activities and problems that people carry out and have to deal with.

January 2011

This is a shortened version of "Knowledge management as an ephemeral management fashion?", which originally appeared in Journal of Knowledge Management, Volume 14, Number 6, 2010.

The author is Donald Hislop.