Why is knowledge management so hard to define? The concept itself is no longer new, although the terms used to label it vary: learning management, information management, expertise management and so on. Yet ask any two experts for a precise definition of KM and you'll likely get very different answers.
Perhaps the boundaries between what is and is not knowledge management remain hazy simply because KM itself has such close ties to many other business disciplines, such as customer relationship management and human resources. For example, several automated CRM solutions center on a knowledge base of frequently asked questions and their answers. The knowledge base, the taxonomy it is organized by and the natural-language search function used to access it are all tools and practices of knowledge management, albeit with a very narrow focus. Yet despite their basis in knowledge, these solutions are still considered to be strictly customer service tools.
In ways like this, KM, whether or not it is acknowledged as such, already exists in some form in every well-run business. From the archiving of e-mail to offering bonuses to exiting employees for training their successors, the capture, retention and redistribution of crucial business information was accepted as part of sound business policy by progressive companies years before it and similar practices were labeled KM. Knowledge management, to paraphrase our editor-in-chief, is simply one aspect of smart management as a whole--and as such is something that a company may have been doing for years without realizing it.
Business leaders can use this fact to their advantage when seeking to encourage their reluctant staff to adopt a specific knowledge management program. The idea is to determine what KM practices are already in place in the corporate culture and how to improve and build on them. For example, most workers with e-mail access keep an archive of mails on various subjects, but because of the limitations of most e-mail programs they are unable to efficiently catalogue and search that archive. Providing these workers with the needed organization and search tools solves a known problem that they deal with every day and is a relatively painless way to introduce them to a broader KM initiative.
An additional step might be to make the e-mail archives of everyone in the office, local network, and eventually the entire company, searchable by all employees and partners. The idea is to show--not simply tell--employees and partners how these knowledge tools can make their lives easier without introducing too many radical changes in their day-to-day work activities.
Instead of trumpeting how innovative brand-new knowledge tools and practices are, business leaders should instead consider presenting them as ways to streamline and improve on employees' established work habits. By building on what's already there, they can use employee confidence in proven tools and methods to boost acceptance of KM as a whole.