Before moving on to discussing in more detail how a National KM Center would coordinate information availability about KM and knowledge processing, I’d like to take a little time to write about a long-standing issue in KM. The issue of definition. In Part One of this series, I defined KM as activity intended to enhance knowledge processing and then specified knowledge processing as: problem seeking, recognition, and formulation, knowledge production, and knowledge integration. But, in some circles one of the early definitions of Knowledge Management, “Getting the Right Information to the Right People at the Right Time,” is still current. Why not use this definition of KM for the Center? Of course, I’ll tell you why in this blog.
This early definition has a deceptive simplicity about it and an apparently practical aura directing one toward action. It was very popular with consulting firms in helping them to sell Best Practices solutions to early adopters of KM in the 1990s. It’s funny though that it has seemed increasingly unsatisfactory to practitioners in Knowledge Management, and Ray Sims’s recent survey of KM definitions, which with help from others ended with 62 distinct definitions, doesn’t contain this old saw. It’s worth asking, “why not?” Well, for some people it’s just the very bald seeming contradiction in the definition. They asked, “KM is about transferring information?” Why does that define KM? Why is that related to “knowledge?” Why isn’t that just information Management (IM)? And, if it is, why do we need to do KM anyway? If the answer is, because it’s about “transferring the right information,” then the next question is: “Well, what is the ‘right Information,’ and what does that have to with “knowledge,” and don’t you have to define that idea in order to avoid just begging the question of definition?”
For others looking at this popular definition, there was yet another problem. “Getting the right information to the right person . . . “ is doing something. But why is it managing something? Why is it “managing knowledge,” rather than just transferring knowledge? I think questions of this sort persuaded the World Bank to begin talking about a “knowledge sharing” program, rather than a KM program. Taking the above two problems together, I think people quickly understood that “Getting the right information . . . “ is perhaps not such a simple definition of KM at all, since it neither tells us what sort of information we ought to transfer, nor why transferring or sharing “the right information” is a form of “management,” nor in what way KM is different from IM. All it really tells us is that we need to start transferring some sort of information in order to do KM, and the inevitable response to that is “what information?” and “Why?”
Later on people did drift away from the good old “Getting the right information . . . “ definition. For example, Carla O’Dell and C. Jackson Grayson defined KM as a: “Conscious strategy of getting the right knowledge to the right people at the right time and helping people share and put information into action in ways that strive to improve organizational performance.” (p. 6) This definition equates KM with a strategy, when it is clearly, either a discipline or a set of activities. And, while elsewhere in their book (p. 5), O’Dell and Grayson define knowledge as “information in action.” this doesn’t help very much in guiding us to what the “right knowledge” is, does it?
In other instances, practitioners decide to just replace “information” with “knowledge” in the “Getting the right information . . . “ expression, and then add: “to solve problems,” “help decision making,” or “do the job,” as the case may be. Seems simple enough, but, on the other hand, it still leaves us with two problems a) how do we distinguish the “right knowledge,” from other knowledge and “information?” and b) why is “Getting the right knowledge to . . .” “managing” knowledge, rather than just “transferring,” “sharing,” or “communicating” knowledge?
So this “simple” definition is not only not simple, but it really doesn’t clarify the idea of “KM” enough to distinguish it from IM, unless we know from other considerations, how “information” may be distinguished from “knowledge,” and how the “wrong” knowledge may be distinguished from the “right” knowledge. So this revised definition of KM will come down to how “knowledge” is defined and even more to how “right knowledge” is defined. Neither definition is a “simple” matter.
The really interesting thing is that if we pursue the idea of the “right knowledge,” a bit, we have to ask how a belief we have, or an assertion we make, becomes “knowledge,” and “the right knowledge.” Without giving an answer to this question here, it seems clear that 1) all beliefs aren’t “knowledge,” and 2) all assertions aren’t “knowledge.” So, this raises the question of how we humans make beliefs and assertions that are “knowledge” and not “just information,” and the further, closely related question, of how we can know that something we’ve produced or created is knowledge, and not just information? Without the ability to answer this last question, we cannot implement KM, if we define it as “Getting the right knowledge to . . . “, because we cannot even know if something is “knowledge” or not. So, it seems that defining KM this way requires us to at least understand how knowledge is made and becomes distinct from information.
But, if we must go that far in implementing a First generation KM program focusing only on knowledge transfer or sharing, then what sense does it make to stop there? If to do KM, we must understand problem seeking, recognition, and formulation, and knowledge production (problem solving), in order to know what is “knowledge,” and what is “just information,” then why not simply recognize that a First generation KM program based on “Getting the right knowledge . . . “ is not a clean alternative that allows one to forget about problems, problem solving, and innovation, but that since it also requires knowledge of these things, we may as well pursue a version of Second Generation KM that seeks to enhance not only “Getting the right knowledge . . . “, but also how we make that “right knowledge,” in the first place.
And as long as we’re at it, let’s also make that distinction between “doing” and “managing” that is at the very basis of the field of Management, and say KM is not primarily about Knowledge Managers “making knowledge” or “Getting the right knowledge to the right person at the right time,” but rather is primarily about enhancing the ways in which knowledge workers do these things. If we do that, we in KM won’t be stepping all over the turf of other managers, who, from a point of view distinguishing managing “knowledge processing,” from “doing knowledge processing,” are some of the primary knowledge workers part of whose job it is to actually make and integrate knowledge into organizations.
Finally, to come full circle, to use a definition of KM that views it as “Getting the right knowledge to the right person . . .” for the National KM Center is a grave mistake, because there’s nothing in that definition that leads us to identify the “right knowledge,” or even “knowledge” as distinct from “just information. It therefore just substitutes one problem of definition for another, and leads us right back to the problem of defining “knowledge.” And then, if we don’t solve that problem in a satisfactory way, we’re left with a situation where someone will either have to tell us what the “right knowledge” is, based on their subjective judgments, or more likely, to simply avoid that difficulty by deciding that we’ll just share all the information we have with one another, and let people themselves decide what is the “right knowledge” for each of them.
While I have nothing against this last approach, I’m afraid it’s nothing more than good old Information management, and that when some bright decision maker understands this, they will also quickly conclude that a Federal KM initiative defined in this way has nothing new to offer beyond IM, and therefore should not be supported or approved.
To Be Continued