Knowledge Management (KM)

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Original Message

From: Sarah Cummings, posted on 2005/10/01

Knowledge management (KM) is an interdisciplinary field with its roots in business management, psychology, librarianship and information science and information technology. It is founded on IM which provides the architecture of knowledge. Its focus is on knowledge as a resource with an emphasis on connection, application and meaning making. Practitioners summarize, contextualize, value-judge, rank, synthesize, edit and facilitate to make information and knowledge accessible to a target audience, either within or outside their organization. Fundamental concepts include social learning, organizational learning and best practices. KM is largely based on tacit interpretation and less on rules. Networks, online communities, yellow pages, intranets and extranets, and websites are KM tools. Techniques commonly used by KM practitioners include After Action Reviews, story telling, and Open Space. Some suggest it is synonymous with knowledge sharing. Others question if knowledge can be "managed" at all.


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Related Discussions


Other Definitions

Steve Denning's description of KM as being "a different way of doing the organisation's business".

Central to the definition of KM is the understanding of the term "knowledge:" Knowledge is "information combined with experience, context, interpretation, and reflection. It is a high-valueform of information that is ready to apply to decisions and actions." T. Davenport et al., 1998

"Explicit or codified knowledge refers to knowledge that is transmittable in formal, systematic language. On the other hand, tacit knowledge has a personal quality, which makes it hard to formalize and communicate." I. Nonaka, 1994


KM for us must also relate to some sort of purpose, not just personal fulfilment. Personal fulfilment, career goals, and other individual drivers are key elements of promoting knowledge sharing, but for me what makes for activities where knowledge is shared and has a true impact is the quality of the underlying strategic vision. This vision can be individual (increasing rice production, etc.), internal/corporate (making sure that HR or monitoring systems are more effective) or external/corporate (making sure that donor programs meet their objectives more effectively, etc.). But without strategic purpose, and an understanding of what success implies, the best KM/IM effort is a waste of time.This of course makes cost-benefit of KM a complex concept; first cost is only marginally dependent on IM choice and second benefit can range wildly; a poorly defined result can make a cheap, share-ware driven approach seem highly exorbitant; a costly system that effectively meets a clear need that has high value can be a powerful investment.Helping KM folk to define the prize, as well as ways to keep one's eye on it, is a topic deserving of considerably more work. Tony Pryor


I am working with the Hygiene Improvement Project (HIP), a USAID program run by the Academy for Educational Development. Jaap Pels from IRC and I have been developing a knowledge management strategy for the project. Here is how we have tried to define the three generations or iterations of KM:

"The concept of KM has evolved over time and can be characterized by three distinct iterations:

  • 1st Generation, the 'stock' approach, focuses on delivering the right information to the right place at the right time. Information is central and is "pushed" (explicit knowledge) to potential users and knowledge is perceived as a thing or object. Using IT systems in work processes - concept during the 1990s when knowledge management emerged as field of practice. Focused on capturing data, information and experience to be easily accessible. Rooted in, and usually driven by, technology. Tended to deal with the development of sophisticated data sets and retrieval systems without a primary focus on their use. Heavy investments made in technological fixes with little impact on way in which knowledge was used.
  • 2nd Generation, the 'flow' approach, recognizes that knowledge flows between people, be it explicit (information) or implicit (socialization/internalization ). Knowledge sharing here requires actors to seek out information proactively and to use it rather than waiting for it to appear. Thus the flow approach emphasizes the need for both "push" and "pull" processes. Evolved from understanding of the theoretical and practical failure of first generation knowledge management. Based on a clearer understanding of how knowledge is created and shared. Gives priority to the way in which people construct and use knowledge, which is closely related to organizational learning. Key issues in current knowledge management practice therefore include measuring and accelerating culture shifts, integrating knowledge sharing with learning, streamlining organizational structures to launch knowledge sharing programmes, strengthening communities of practice and improving technology tools for these purposes.
  • 3rd Generation , knowledge is organic, fluid, almost living, thing; and is closely related to its context. Because knowledge created through dialogue is best, knowledge management that deliberately challenges existing structures and information flows helps new patterns, insights and new knowledge to emerge. " is emerging and which in addition to the foci of 2nd generation, also includes a major emphasis on engaging clients/target audiences/stakeholders as early in the knowledge cycle as possible. I am not sure if you have seen Steve Waddell's recent book on Societal Learning and Change, but I believe this is the way development agencies should move, and has an emphasis on this element. Key thinking in third generation KM: David Snowden


Book excerpt where Snowden sets up his definitions of third generation KM

Discussion springboard and summary where a lot of this was hashed out in a community interested in KM: Third Generation KM: Separating Content, Narrative, Context (Jerry Ash of AOK of the subesequent discussion)

The first generation of knowledge management is the period prior to 1995. Here "knowledge" as a word is not problematic, it is used without conscious thought and the focus is on information flow to support decision makers. Executive Information Systems, Data Warehousing and Process re-engineering dominate this period.

In 1995 Nonaka and Takeuchi publish the Knowledge Creating Company and for the first time on common business language the words tacit and explicit are introduced, although Polanyi had explored the subject in more depth in the 1940's. This publication with its SECI model defining four transition states of tacit-to-tacit, tacit-to-explicit, explicit-to-explicit and explicit-to-tacit proved decisive and was broadly taken up by consultants and software vendors, both groups seeking to drive revenue through the rapid growth of collaborative technologies.

The pioneering work of practitioners such as Buckman, Edvinsson, Lank, Saint-Onge and Ward amongst others, provided legitimacy and the second generation with its emphasis on conversation of tacit to explicit was born. For second generation thinkers and practitioners, most notably in central Europe, Probst and his collaborators, the function of knowledge management is to convert private assets into public assets, though the extraction of that knowledge into codified form. I have argued elsewhere (Snowden 2000a) that this approach unnecessarily focuses on the container rather than the thing contained, and this view has been strengthened by the increasing recognition by practitioners that there is much tacit knowledge that either cannot, or should not, be made explicit.

As we move into the third millennium we see a new approach emerging in which we focus not on the management of knowledge as a "thing" which can be identified and catalogued, but on the management of the ecology of knowledge. Here the emphasis is not on the organisation as a machine with the manager occupying the role of Engineer, but on the organisation as a complex ecology in which the manager is a gardener, able to direct and influence, but not fully control the evolution of his or her environment. We are also seeing a refreshing move away from programmes which seem to manage knowledge for its own sake, to those that tightly couple knowledge management with both strategic and, critically, operational priorities.

"I always know more than I can say, even after I have said it, and I can always say more than I can write down."

This is one of the basic operating principles of knowledge management, regrettably not fully understood in the second generation. The process of moving from my head, to my mouth to my hands inevitably involves some loss of content, and frequently involves a massive loss of context. Once we recognise this we can start to rethink the nature of knowledge management. Most second-generation approaches are to all intents and purposes content management; they focus on documents containing structured and reflective knowledge that is disconnected from the knowledge holder, diffuses easily and is formal structured.

What we can say and what we know are respectively covered by Narrative and Context Management. Context management in contrast focuses on connecting and linking people through, for example, expertise location, social network simulation, apprentice models of knowledge transfer and the retention strategies for key staff. Managing context involves the recognition that knowledge cannot be disembodied from human agency either as giver or receiver, content is the exact opposite. Context Management takes control of what we know, but cannot fully say or write down. Content Management organises that which can be written.

Narrative Management lies somewhere between the two and is the focus of this chapter, it manages what we can say in conversation and in declamation, it is also cheaper and less onerous as task to capture than written knowledge and its use is closer to the natural patterns of knowledge acquisition in organisations because:

  • it is easier and less onerous to capture, because I can record to a video camera in ten minutes what it will otherwise take two weeks to get round to spending a hour or so writing up;
  • it is a natural process, in that when we face a new task, or encounter a problem we go and find people to talk to, to ask questions to provide context sensitive answers and advice that cannot be provided by past project reviews and idealised statements of best practice.

The separation of context, narrative and content management in third generation approaches in turn makes each more effective. By understanding the imitations and capabilities of each medium - head, mouth and hands - we make each more effective and the combination of the whole is accordingly greater than the sum of the parts. Here is an article that comes at KM from a slightly different perspective and made me rethink what I thought about the distinctions between IM and KM. ;-) It reminds me I should always be happy to revisit my assumptions! I'm not sure I quickly agree with all David says in this essay, but it is provocative "food for thought!" And if you agreed with his proposition, it could radically change one's approach to KM.

Major Components

  • Improving access to information and knowledge - covering the availability, accessibility and affordability of information (especially of scientific information in developing countries)
  • Promoting knowledge sharing, through learning circles and vertical/horizontal coalitions, peer-to-peer technology, communities of practice, "infomediaries", help-desks, e-learning and better interaction/mutual learning with target groups (the poor).
  • Networking: international and regional cooperation - covering networking models, "digital solidarity", collaboration tools like portals and common terminology (thesaurus), social network analysis, network effectiveness, strengthening existing structures and Resource Centres.
  • Measuring KM activities
  • Applications of ICTs
  • Enabling organizational environments for KM
  • Ethical application of KM
  • Cultural, language contexts in global settings

Examples of KM Practices

Knowledge Assets

  • Human: People, Interactions, Community
  • Structural: Processes, Systems, Infrastructure
  • Intangible: Culture, Trust, Learning


  • Stakeholder Analysis: What worked? What did not? Why?
  • Synthesis & Capture: Lessons Learned, Comparative Experiences, Best Practices

Content Management

  • Content types and templates (formats)
  • Business process integration: Inputs/Outputs, Content life-cycle
  • Organization and access: Content Management Systems, Taxonomy (classification), Search engines

Communities of Practice: Connecting People (CoP):

  • Common interests
  • Complementary experience and expertise
  • Strategic & goal oriented (i.e. Practices)
  • Sharing culture & trust
  • Collaboration tools : Online/e-mail, Face-to-face

Storytelling: Communicating experiences

  • Springboard stories
  • Visual and compelling
  • Easy to remember
  • Evocative
  • Resonate

Knowledge-enabled Business Processes

  • How you work
  • Standardization & Efficiency
  • Knowledge inputs/outputs

Organizational Learning

  • Integrated learning opportunities
  • Learn while doing
  • Learning support systems
  • Incentive structures
  • T-shaped competency profiles

Development Context

In a development context, KM is concerned to facilitate exchange and cross-fertilization by providing access to knowledge both within and outside the organization. In international settings, language, culture, communication and dissemination channels add additional complexity to the task of KM.


  • From KNOWLEDGE is the conclusions one derives from information. It's the extension of various pieces of data to develop something new and different. For instance, data or information is historical sales figures for various regions of the world. The process of creating knowledge is to analyze that data, develop trend and seasonality models, and then building your distribution and production capabilities and policies to support the model with the right inventory of products in the right place, thus optimizing inventory costs and increasing company profits. The knowledge is the KNOW-HOW of looking at the data in the right way and then knowing about manufacturing, distribution, logistics, and company profit calculation and defining the inventory levels and distribution to optimize costs and profit.
  • Knowledge Management on Wikipedia