the attempt to define km can help you add value to your enterprise relationships.
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KM is one of those unified-field theories of everything that become a Holy Grail in so many other fields.
This column has so far refused to define either knowledge or knowledge management. There is no standard definition of knowledge management. Put 10 KM "experts" in a room and you are likely to get 30 definitions. Unless you feel a burning need to inject into conversations concepts like heuristics, reintermediation, probabilistic concept correlation or syntactic morphological disambiguation, no one should feel compelled to call it "knowledge management" at all.
Knowledge management is such a preposterous, pretentious and profoundly oxymoronic phrase that many of those who really understand KM--including some of the field's pioneers--refuse to use the term. If there is anything that those experts do agree on, it's that knowledge management is not about managing people in any traditional sense. Nor is knowledge management really about managing knowledge. They prefer terms such as knowledge-sharing, information systems, organizational learning, intellectual asset management, performance enhancement or gardening.
Just to get it out of the way, let's borrow a definition from a book I'm collaborating on: "Knowledge management is the practice of harnessing and exploiting intellectual capital to gain competitive advantage and customer commitment through efficiency, innovation and faster and more effective decision-making."
But that may not mean much without a whole book to back it up.
KM is such an eclectic discipline that no one could accumulate the necessary academic credentials and still have time for even a pilot implementation before mandatory retirement. You would need advanced degrees in cognitive and behavioral psychology, graduate philosophy seminars from ethics to existentialism and field studies in cultural anthropology and industrial archeology. Elective courses would include public history, library science, computer programming, artificial intelligence, information architecture, complex adaptive systems, statistics and economics. On top of that you could throw in business and management courses, but they would only count if you failed them.
In truth, six undergraduate years at any university probably gave you adequate exposure to these fields--as long as your nights at university were spent in the kind of drunken debauchery necessary to give them the proper perspective. College experiments in ethnobotany probably gave you helpful flashes of insight into the fundamental interconnectedness of all things. Poetry readings gave you a requisite appreciation for metaphor--and if you can parse Milton's meter in Paradise Lost, you can probably parse the metrics of an assembly line.
In other words, knowledge management is one of those unified-field theories of everything that become a Holy Grail in so many other fields. Perhaps it was just a matter of time that business professors would want in.
It's All You Know
This is not such a bad idea. Ultimately knowledge management is really just a way of looking at the world of business. It's a realization that who and what you know are assets of the organization. And just like the factory you build, the machines you fill it with, the people who operate them, the inventory they build and the cash you put in the bank, your knowledge assets need to be managed for the greatest possible return on investment.
What do these knowledge assets include? start with transaction data on all of your processes, projects, customers and vendors. Add to that all of the research logs, patents, trademarks, marketing strategies and business plans. Competitive insights accumulated by every employee daily, and the competitive intelligence available through the Internet and other information sources also contribute to this accumulation of knowledge. Then add in the knowledge contained in every e-mail, every Word document, every spreadsheet and every fax that zaps its way through your electronic infrastructure.
How well have you managed these resources so far? The answer, probably, is not well enough. Yet those things still account for only a fraction of the real value of your knowledge assets. Most--as much as 90 percent, by some estimations--of the real value of intellectual capital is in the heads of your knowledge workers: their skills, experience, hard-won insight and intuition, and the trust they have invested and earned in relationships inside and outside of the organization. This knowledge is even harder to evaluate, share and leverage.
Until recently, the tools to manage knowledge were unavailable or prohibitively expensive. But none of the amazing technology that makes knowledge-sharing possible works without addressing the anthropology of corporate cultures. You can spend tens of millions of dollars on tools to enable collaboration, data warehousing, data mining, document management and Internet searches, but if only the month's top salesman gets a bonus, nobody is going to share what they learn.
To understand something about knowledge management you have to understand knowledge. It isn't necessary to go spelunking in Plato's cave or explore ancient and esoteric branches of epistemology. But it helps to understand KM if you mix a little bit of philosophy in with the technology and anthropology (in roughly the same proportions as you'll find in any good science fiction novel).
Knowledge is not the same thing as information, which is not the same thing as data. But it's silly to pretend knowledge management does not involve the manipulation of all three. You often see a hierarchy that looks like this: Data becomes information when it's organized; information becomes knowledge when it's placed in actionable context.
When you get to the level of knowledge, it's important to distinguish between explicit and tacit knowledge. In the broadest terms, that's the difference between the knowledge that can be written down and the knowledge that cannot. Explicit knowledge can be processed by information systems; codified or recorded, archived and protected by the organization. Tacit knowledge exists in people's heads. Tacit knowledge is extremely difficult to transfer; explicit knowledge is easier. There are purists who argue that tacit knowledge made explicit ceases to be knowledge--that it is only information--and that information only becomes knowledge again when apprehended in the mind.
There is a difference between the knower and the known. Or to put it in less grandiose terms, knowledge is not the same thing as a knowledge worker. And just as there is a difference between the knowledge that exists in a knowledge management system and knowledge that exists in the mind of the knowledge worker, there is also a difference between the kind of knowledge that exists in the mind of the knowledge worker and that which exists within a community of knowledge workers.
Making this distinction between knowledge and the knowledge worker makes it easier to account for knowledge assets. A knowledge worker is an asset that appreciates over time. Knowledge itself is more often a depreciating asset. Patents, for example, quickly lose their value if not productized or licensed quickly. A sales lead becomes worthless if the contact chooses a competitor's product or leaves the customer's company for another job. Unlike other resources, however, knowledge is not subject to the law of diminishing returns; it is not depleted through use.
Another reason the difference between tacit and explicit knowledge is more than academic is that, by and large, the distinction determines who owns the knowledge. Explicit knowledge is most likely the property of the firm. One way or another it is either data or work product. But since tacit knowledge cannot be codified, it effectively remains the property of the knowledge worker. Companies have certainly tried to own this knowledge. While they are employed by the company, knowledge workers are ethically--and sometimes contractually--prohibited from sharing their knowledge with competitors. But if the knowledge worker leaves the firm, they'd take that knowledge and its inherent value with them.
Most of this debate can be saved for the intellectual enrichment of happy hour. In the final analysis, it matters less how you define knowledge management than how you practice it. It means nothing if you don't take knowledge and turn it into customer value.