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An interview with Karl-Erik Sveiby


Interview by: Alistair Craven

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Dr Karl-Erik SveibyDr Karl-Erik Sveiby is acknowledged as one of the founding fathers of Knowledge Management, having pioneered many of the fundamental concepts.

In 1986 he published his first book in Swedish, Kunskapsföretaget, in which he explored how to manage the rapidly growing "Knowledge Companies" - organizations that have no traditional production, only the knowledge and the creativity of their employees. It became an instant bestseller and he became the source of inspiration of the very early Swedish movement in Knowledge Management in both research and practice.

His book, published 1990 (Sw. "Kunskapsledning"), was the world's first with "Knowledge Management" in the title. He also holds the chair in Knowledge Management at Hanken Business School, Finland and acts as advisor to corporations worldwide. One of the tools developed by him is Tango®, the world's only business simulation of the knowledge organization and its online companion - TangoNet®.

Can you tell us about your website, Sveiby Knowledge Associates?

Karl-Erik Sveiby: and are my two websites. They are closely linked; on I have uploaded everything I have written for free download. The Sveiby Toolkit is an interactive site, which contains online versions of some of the tools I have developed.

You are often described as one of the founding fathers of Knowledge Management, having pioneered many of the fundamental concepts. However, you have stated that you in fact dislike the notion of "Knowledge Management". Why is this so?

Karl-Erik Sveiby:

The problem with the term is that it suggests that knowledge is an object that can be "managed". This is fundamentally wrong and it has led companies to sink billions of dollars into more or less useless IT systems. Instead we are talking about a different perspective on doing business as a whole. Hence I prefer the term "Knowledge-based approach" -to managing, -to strategy, -to business, etc. or "Knowledge Enabling" (Nonaka) because they say more about what we in the field are trying to achieve. They are better terms because they describe a mindset and a new approach to doing business and they describe a human vision, not a technological one. Knowledge Management is a poor term, but we are stuck with it, I suppose, because it has become a de facto standard.

Among the clients benefiting from your expertise are ABB, Siemens, Motorola, and Ericsson. What have been some of your key achievements in working with such high profile organizations?

Karl-Erik Sveiby:

I have worked in very different capacities; as member of advisory boards, or as advisor in very specific KM issues, such as what to do with 'knowledge islands' or to start up a company-wide KM initiative, or to educate people to start 'knowledge-based thinking'. I cannot tell details, because of client confidentiality.

You have researched the management of knowledge and knowledge organizations since the early 1980s. How would you say the discipline has progressed over the last 20 years?

Karl-Erik Sveiby:

The 80s were a time when a few of us - without knowing of each other - developed some of the key concepts of the discipline, which during the 1990s became known as "Knowledge Management". With hindsight, we can see already at that stage the major defining fundamental issue: is knowledge an object or a human faculty? This issue has not yet been resolved.

The 1990s was the decade of the Internet and not surprisingly this came to define the next phase of development. KM became squarely linked to IT solutions, and those who believed that knowledge was an object and more or less the same as information determined the agenda. KM became internally focused, the practitioners forgot the customers and many of the 'fathers' felt despair. However, after the IT euphoria descended into disarray and the IT solutions did not fulfill the promises, the field has become much more mature and sophisticated. We now see more human-oriented solutions emerging and I am becoming quite optimistic. We may in the future even reach the level that I am advocating: that company leaders begin to see their businesses from a knowledge perspective.

Along with Klas Mellander you created Tango which is the world's first business simulation of the knowledge organization. Can you briefly explain the concept behind Tango and the benefits it can offer?

Karl-Erik Sveiby:

It is well-established that a simulation is the second best approach to learn (the best is reality!), because the participants are 'learning by doing' in a simulated world. It is excruciatingly difficult to learn how to think differently; lectures and PowerPoint slides are useless for achieving this.

Tango is a business simulation for experiencing how doing business from a different knowledge-based perspective works. The participants discover how a shift in focus from managing tangible assets and profits to managing knowledge and intangible assets, such as image, competencies and innovation, enhance profitability. Tango participants see "in reality", by interacting with each other, how these intangible factors are directly linked to financial results and learn practical strategies to manage them.

The simulation now celebrates its tenth year and has been much more successful than I could have imagined. More than 50,000 managers have been through the simulation and it is still unique.

As an expert in this field, what words of wisdom can you offer knowledge managers reading this interview?

Karl-Erik Sveiby:

I have little to say that beats ancient wisdom! However, allow me to share one of my favourite quotes (from Lao Tzu ~600 B.C.):

We make doors and windows for a room. But it is the spaces that make the room livable. While the tangible has advantages, it is the intangible that makes it useful.

Finally, what article or book has had the most profound effect on your professional outlook, and why?

Karl-Erik Sveiby:

Probably Marshall McLuhan's Media, and Toffler's Future Shock. I read them in the 1970s when I was a Unilever manager. The books triggered me to start questioning my business administration education and the environment of the big organization, and the books encouraged me to jump ship and form my own "knowledge business" with "knowledge workers" and start managing from a different "knowledge perspective". Of course, this was long before I had consciously put such terms on what I was doing!

To find out more about Karl-Erik Sveiby, visit his website.