Tuesday, 16 September 2008

The Nonsense of KM - thoughts and jottings

Apologies for the delayed nature of this post. I started it over a week ago and then various things intervened. Onwards...

When I advertised my plan to read some KM materials (hopefully) in the company of colleagues I received a range of responses. One of these reminded me about my own scepticism regarding the topic. The other pointed me to a paper by Prof Tom Wilson (2002) The nonsense of knowledge management Information Research, 8(1), 2002, paper no. 144.

I had the pleasure of studying at Sheffield where Prof Wilson was for a long time the Head of Department and was pleased to be reminded of a paper of which I had vague recollections.

The paper takes a number of tacks to dismiss KM.

Firstly it examines questions around definitions - particularly that of knowledge. For Wilson lack of clarity around the definition of 'knowledge' has seen the term used interchangeably adn erroneously in place of 'information'. He also identifies an issue in the explanation by Nonaka (see posts past) of the concept of Tacit knowledge being potentially capturable and hence made explicit. Tacit knowledge for Wilson is in line with the original definition by Polanyi - something inexpressible and indwelling where by we acheive comprehension.

He next examines a range of papers found in Web of Science (1981-2002) located by a simple search for "Knowledge Management" in the title. Many of the papers located are clearly identifiable as being related to data or information management and to expert systems. Often the papers were part of theme issues and appeared to have knowledge substituted for information. It would be interesting to see how a similar study would fair with more recent literature? Perhaps there would be fewer papers with KM less in fashion or the papers located would be of a higher quality and not just rehashed papers from other topics. Wilson does identify a weakness in his search in that it only includes established titles - he does how ever examine some of the then more recent KM specific titles. These did not appear to always be of a high standard and it would be good to have a look at these again now to see how many continue to be published and in what form.

An attempt is then made to examine what the major consulting firms are saying about KM - on the theory that they are likely to be selling this. Wilson concurs with the views presented by some of the independents working in the field including Sveiby who he quotes as saying "I don't believe knowledge can be managed. KM is a poor term, but we are stuck with it". Moving onto the big corporates he tends to find them either selling IM systems in KM clothing, or not defining terms or moving on to other things.

Wilson then turns to the syllabi of major business colleges to see how they are approaching the topic. He finds little evidence of anything substantive or distinct from Information Management.

A discussion follows around the extent to which KM is just "Search and replace" marketing for old IM software. There is also a much clearer explanation than I gave of the tacit knowledge definition question.

In the concluding discussion Prof Wilson points to an interesting example close to home. "I've been told that the NeLH uses the term 'Knowledge' because in the NHS information=data". I have certainly encountered this issue.

So what to make of it? Certainly it is a convincing paper. It would be interesting to see how the literature developed over the intervening years and indeed how KM may have developed. Given the issue around 'information' in the NHS we might well make a case for trying to turn the K term to our advantage. If KM is marketing puff then why not make it a useful marketing puff for ourselves? I certainly look forward to going on to read Learning to Fly to see whether there is something more than the nonsense identified by Prof Wilson.

PS Interestingly I note that Blogger has kept the date I started the post rather than acknowledging the date I published it - bug or feature? In this case it shows up over a week of delay!


Harold Trammel said...
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Harold Trammel said...

I have just found your blog and am looking forward to following it. One of the papers that I found that helped me the most was by Karl Wiig http://www.krii.com/downloads/comprehensive_km.pdf. It took me several reads to get a good grasp of it, but I have found it invaluable. Even as I read LtF I found Wiig's concepts to be helpful in putting the big picture in context. To me, LtF is a toolkit to achieve the overall effect that Wiig describes.

Alan said...

Thanks for the tip Harold. I will add it to my list of things to read.