The over-riding problem with shifting from a “KM” orientation to a “knowledge sharing” one, is that the words don’t mean the same thing, and focusing on one or the other may well lead to different policies, programs, and interventions. Put another way, since “Knowledge Sharing” and Knowledge Management are not the same thing, it’s possible that enhancing the one, may have a negative impact on the quality of the other. This post will lay out some of the consequences of shifting the focus from “KM” to “knowledge sharing,” consequences that introduce additional problems themselves.
Innovation is an increasingly important focus of KM, but the shift to “knowledge sharing” prevents people from focusing on innovation as one of the important value propositions of KM, because “knowledge sharing” focuses attention on only one aspect of the knowledge life cycle, namely the knowledge integration aspect, and ignores the problem seeking, recognition, and formulation, and also the knowledge making aspects of knowledge processing. Note that innovation is a successful traversal of the knowledge life cycle, including its problem, knowledge making and knowledge integration aspects, so innovation is the key to successful adaptation, because it depends on high quality innovation.
An intense focus on enhancing “knowledge sharing” to the exclusion of the other major aspects of the knowledge life cycle is bad Knowledge Management because it leaves most of knowledge processing untouched by it, and may have the effect of enhancing the circulation of bad information rather than quality knowledge. Remember, there’s no guarantee that what “knowledge sharing” is doing is actually “knowledge sharing.” It, in fact, may only be sharing information, and poor quality information at that. So paradoxically, perhaps, for those who moved from a KM to a “knowledge sharing” focus, by making that move they guaranteed the continuation of poor quality KM in their organizations, simply by deciding to ignore most of the knowledge processing it ought to target.
Another important focus of KM, enhancing our capability to recognize where our knowledge is lacking and to formulate what the knowledge “problem” is, is also neglected by a knowledge sharing emphasis. As I indicated earlier, a shift to “knowledge sharing” means a shift away from problem seeking, recognition, and formulation, among other things. But, of course, it is vital for organizations to get better and not worse at seeking, recognizing, and formulating problems, because good problem processing is the first step in adapting to any challenge, big or small, that an organization has to meet. Insofar as managers focus on enhancing knowledge sharing, and turn attention away from problem processing, they are hurting their organization’s ability to adapt.
Next, a shift to “knowledge sharing,” and an avoidance of “KM,” tends to facilitate “information sharing,” while ignoring the problem of distinguishing whether it is information or knowledge that is being shared. An emphasis on “knowledge sharing” to the exclusion of “KM,” which certainly is implied by the notion of replacing a “KM” orientation with a “knowledge sharing” one, also tends to make sharing an end in itself, and works against establishing a structure of metrics that connects sharing outcomes to business impacts. It’s not that “knowledge sharing” as an orientation is necessarily hostile to metrics, but rather that “management,” as an orientation is more likely to be associated with an orientation toward measurement and impact analysis. Historically, one of the major problems of KM has been an absence of metrics allowing evaluation of the knowledge processing impacts of KM. Perhaps, the very popular focus on knowledge sharing running through, the Best Practices, Community of Practice, and Enterprise Portal movements within KM, is one of the reasons why the area of metrics in KM is so under-developed.
A decision to shift from “KM” to “knowledge sharing” will, of course, also prevent enhancing KM itself, since enhancing KM depends on developing new knowledge about to enhance knowledge processing. At best, however, a focus on knowledge sharing may involve developing new knowledge about how to enhance knowledge sharing. But new knowledge about the rest of knowledge processing activities will no longer be relevant, so “KM” will not develop such knowledge except through the kind of informal, half conscious KM interactions that have have been characteristic of its history prior to the appearance of formal KM activities in the late 1980s.
If we look at all the above problems, we can see that they all arise because the shift from “KM” to “knowledge sharing” as the focus of a major knowledge-related organizational program, isolates, if you will, “stovepipes,” one part of knowledge processing, and therefore leaves KM undone or done very badly in real organizational contexts. In other words, the decision to shift to “knowledge sharing” isn’t just an innocent decision to move from one complex focus of organizational activity to another, but rather, it is a decision to get only one part of the KM job done and only one part of knowledge processing enhanced in such a way that it may be improving the throughput of low quality information rather than improving that of high quality knowledge.
There is another way, however, of simplifying KM activities apart from isolating only one aspect of knowledge processing. That is, knowledge managers could simplify KM programs by selecting important domains of activity where problems exist and could enhance knowledge processing throughout the knowledge life cycle in these problem-related domains. In other words, let problems drive the simplification of KM program activities, rather than categorizations of particular knowledge functions such as “knowledge sharing.”
In short, I think that new KM programs should target knowledge processing more broadly than just knowledge sharing. But I also think that such programs ought to more narrowly focus on enhancing knowledge processing in specific business domains, so that changes in knowledge processing resulting from KM initiatives, and also changes in business processes and outcomes, indirectly affected by KM can be more easily measured. Thus, accountable and practical KM programs can be created, and “knowledge sharing” itself, can be enhanced in the full context of the knowledge life cycle and its central function of adaptation.