A Knowledge Management (KM) Primer

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


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+ I wish to thank Dennis Goldenson and Taz Dougherty for their advice and guidance, provided in conversations about this paper and in comments on earlier drafts.

[1] There is a collection of 42 definitions of knowledge management at http://www-958.ibm.com/software/data/cognos/manyeyes/datasets/43-definit…

[2] Both sets of ideas are embedded in what has become known as the “Toyota Way” (See Shingo, 1989), which turns Taylorist management on its head.

[3] For examples of the need to share knowledge and the challenges of doing so in highly complex, networked organizational settings, we need look no further than the Major Defense Acquisition Programs (MDAPs), where thousands of people from many organizations, with widely different skills, interests, and affiliations, working in various teams, are contributing, in innumerable ways, to the development and production of a particular weapons system.

[4] As anyone knows who has delved into the distinction between knowledge and information, that it is a highly contentious area. Unfortunately, either because the matter is unsettled, or because people don’t pay enough attention to the issues, knowledge and information are often treated as if they are interchangeable. People talk about ‘knowledge’ when they really mean ‘information’ and vice versa. Without claiming that my views are definitive or necessarily correct, I hope these ideas help both to reinforce the point that it is important to distinguish between knowledge and information and to stimulate you to think about the differences.

[5] People who, because of their training, or experience, or both, know (understand) differently, surely glean different information in the same circumstances; for example, a master mechanic and layman looking at an engine leaking something.

[6] The fact that much of what people know and need to know to ‘understand the problem,’ ‘get the job done,’ or ‘find a way out of the mess’ comes only from experience explains why it is so important to turn to those who have hands-on experience when drawing up plans, developing capability requirements for new systems, and so on. This fact also highlights a fundamental flaw in high-control management and administrative systems. In high-control organizations, the formal authority to act increases as you go up the chain of command and the greatest expertise is presumed to reside at the top of the organization. This combination often results in a particular type of hubris that leads to problems and breakdowns. Even though they have little or no practical knowledge on which to base plans or requirements, those at the top nevertheless plan and formulate requirements without advice from the people who have experience and they issue directives to subordinates who possibly understand the realities of the situation better than they do.

[7] For a fuller discussion of many of the points that follow, see Addleson (2011).

[8] By the 1980s, two kinds of software tools had appeared that supported collaboration. With one, like Ventana’s GroupSystems, designed primarily to facilitate group decision-making, participants (typically aided by a facilitator) sat in the same room responding to common questions. The software aggregated their responses and seeing the results on a screen was a prelude to further conversations, debate, and deliberation. The other, like Lotus Notes, built as a client-server system, allowed virtual knowledge sharing, by participants who were possibly separated by both time and distance. Although this latter category of software, originally known as ‘groupware,’ has proliferated with the advent of internet-based social networking tools, in many organizations the tools still have not fulfilled their potential to support collaboration. 20 years ago, Wanda Orlikowski (1993), who had studied the roll-out of Lotus Notes in a large management consultancy, pointed out that the way tools are used reflects people’s cognitive and technical frames, or perspectives. One reason why tools like SharePoint typically are used for storing data and accessing information, rather than as ‘spaces’ for sharing knowledge, is that the management mindset, which favors competition, doesn’t ‘get’ the human-social dimensions of collaboration (as opposed to the technical possibilities for enabling it).

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