A Knowledge Management (KM) Primer

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Posted: February 10, 2016 | By: Dr. Mark Addleson

It can be difficult to navigate your way around the field of knowledge management (KM). Whether you are just starting out and thinking about putting ideas about KM into practice, or you work in a organization that has had a KM initiative in place for years, at times it may be hard to see what KM is about, what people are doing, and why and how they are doing it. For, although the field has been evolving for at least twenty years, there is a very broad spectrum of ideas about what KM is (the theory and principles), how to do it (the practices) and what not to do (Fahey and Prusak, 1998; Snowden, 2007).

One sign of trouble in this field is that there are many definitions of KM. 1 Another is that, while lots of organizations claim to be ‘doing KM,’ their strategies often have little in common. A third is that KM can be very technical, so KM initiatives become complicated, often unnecessarily so. In this primer, I want to answer three questions.

  • Why KM?
  • What is KM about?
  • How do organizations undertake KM initiatives?

If you are involved in KM, I hope my perspectives will help orient you and I would be pleased to receive your questions, comments, or suggestions.

In the beginning there was management without knowledge

Management practices, as we know them today, began in factories, machine shops, and foundries towards the end of the Nineteenth Century, when mass-production methods became more prevalent (see Crainer, 2000; Witzel, 2012). The generally recognized starting point for contemporary management practices is ‘scientific management,’ indelibly linked to the name of Fredrick Taylor (1911), the inventor of time and motion studies and founder of the management consulting industry. By ‘eliminating waste,’ his object was to improve the productivity of manual workers and cut costs to make industrial organizations more efficient and more profitable.

Today, whether they work in government agencies or accounting firms and whether they are involved in aerospace engineering, health care legislation, or web design, most people are knowledge workers (Addleson, 2011). As Table 1, below, reveals, knowledge-work and factory-work are completely different. Because the different kinds of work have nothing in common, you can’t manage knowledge workers – or their work – as if they were assembly line workers. In most organizations, however, you find principles and practices that evolved in factories, similar to those advocated by Taylor. It is hardly surprising, perhaps, that these conventional management practices are obstacles to doing knowledge-work.

Factory-work Knowledge-work
Physical Mental
Solitary (think ‘production line’) Social (think ‘network’)
Routine and repetitive Complex and dynamic
Talk is a distraction Talk (‘sharing knowledge’) is necessary
Tools (like blueprints, machines, and breakeven charts) are essential. Tools are needed, but all work starts with and is guided by ‘talk’ – people in conversation.

TABLE 1: Comparing factory-work with knowledge-work

One answer to the questions, where did KM come from and why are organizations doing it, is that KM provides tools and techniques to bring management into the Twenty-First Century. A well thought-out, fully implemented KM initiative can help to eliminate out-of-date industrial management practices. A good KM initiative will enable people to organize and run today’s organizations – government departments and agencies, for-profit businesses, as well as non-profits – as knowledge organizations need to be run, with employees – who often work in teams – collaborating and sharing knowledge (Bryan and Joyce, 2005; Linder, 2005; Sandow and Allen, 2005).

Knowledge management evolved from earlier ‘change management’ efforts that included ‘Total Quality Management’ (TQM) (Martínez-Lorente, et al, 1998) and ‘Process Reengineering’ (Macdonald, 1998) and ‘Organizational Learning’ (Yeo, 2005). These emerged about midway through of the Twentieth Century (Prusak, 2001; Lambe, 2011). The goal in each case was toimprove the way organizations worked – to make them more effective and/or efficient. In retrospect, we can see that each of these efforts shared at least two important features, which contradicted old-style factory-management practices.

  1. They advocated decentralization: greater reliance on ‘local’ knowledge and experience, instead of trying to run everything from the top with rigid rules, plans, and structures. The thinking here is that the people doing the work, with practical knowledge based on their experience of how things work, know most about how work processes can be improved and are the first to see problems when they arise. Workers ‘on the ground’ are usually in the best position to respond to changing circumstances, but they need to have the authority to use their knowledge, make decisions, and take action when necessary.
  2. People need to ‘share their knowledge’. If you want to devolve decision-making down to the local level, it is no good isolating individuals and groups in organizational silos (e.g. separating them by department) or behind top-down structures, which make it difficult for subordinates to communicate with superiors. You need to devise systems, structures, and cultures that make it easy to share knowledge, or ‘move it around’.2

Knowledge management represents the further evolution of these ideas. Where TQM and Reengineering were devised originally with the object of designing new work practices and processes to make industrial firms more efficient, knowledge management is a creature of the information age.

These are some basic premises of KM:

  1. people need knowledge and information to do their work;
  2. today they have access to lots of information (and some people work almost exclusively with information);
  3. accessing information and sharing knowledge enables them to do a better job – solve problems, work smarter, and produce better results;
  4. there is technology available to help people access and analyze information and share knowledge;
  5. conventional (factory-style) management practices don’t pay attention to knowledge or information: to what knowledge/information people need, how they get it, whether they share it, and so on; and
  6. in most organizations there are many barriers to accessing information and sharing knowledge

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