IBM has placed Knowledge Sharing in the news again, by announcing that it has “philosophically repositioned” its Knowledge Management practice around Knowledge Sharing. According to IBM’s Chris Cooper, “Management suggests control: control of process and control of environment. The sharing tag is quite important to us.” Of course, “Management” suggests control, these days, only to those who are being disingenuous, because they want to move from one marketing “tag” to another because they think it will be more effective; or to those who are totally unacquainted with the history of Management and Organization Theory, since the 1930s. That history has shown a continuous movement from a machine model of Management, toward one that emphasizes people, their self-organization, their processes, their culture, and their complex adaptive systems. Only the most unread, and, I think, naive, still adhere to the machine model of Management and few of them will admit it.
Furthermore, it is highly debatable that very many Knowledge Management practitioners ever adhered to a model seeking control of processes and environments, since KM appeared as a formal field very late in the game and much after the revolution in Organization Theory and Management Science that invalidated the Machine model. The closest management fads to a machine model to appear in recent years were probably Six Sigma, a Quality Management technique and Business Process Engineering (BPR), the hot topic in Management which KM was in part a reaction against. Neither of these has developed an appreciable following in the KM field.
In short, I believe that IBM’s shift of orientation has little to do with either the idea of “KM” itself, or with the notion that “KM” is associated with “control” because that is flatly not true, and everyone in KM knows it. What I think the IBM shift in philosophy is about, is its calculation that the idea of “knowledge sharing,” can sell more Web 2.0 products and consulting, than the idea of “KM” can. The large IT companies are currently in an intense battle for dominance of the web 2.0 marketplace, and I believe that IBM has all it can handle and more from Oracle, and that its shift in “philosophy” has more to do with its theories about how to market Web 2.0, than it has to do with any association of the “KM” concept with “control” out there in management land.
Also, I think we should have, and should have always had, a certain degree of skepticism about the commitment of IT vendors to KM as a field of theory and practice Such vendors can have no commitment of this kind to a management process. To expect them to be leaders in the “KM” field for very long is tantamount to believing in Santa Claus. They are not leaders in any field of practice, other than IT practice. Instead, they will emphasize those aspects of any field of practice that are likely to give them a better justification for their software products. Right now, “KM” support is not as likely a sell as “knowledge sharing” support for Web 2.0 products, and that is the reason for IBM’s change in “philosophy.”