What is KM? A fad, faith, or fact?

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What is KM?

Knowledge management (KM) is four things at the same time:

   * It is a concept;
   * It is a business discipline or theory that reflects the increasing importance of knowledge as a corporate asset;
   * It is a collection of technologies; and
   * A philosophy.

Many of the varied definitions focus on one or more of these aspects. Users of the term don't always emphasize whether they are talking about the concept, the discipline, the tools and/or the philosophy. In some circumstances, KM is used interchangeably with knowledge sharing.

KM: the concept

KM, as a concept, is is about the way that organizations create, capture and re-use knowledge to achieve organizational objectives. Knowledge is created in the heads of people. It can be captured by putting it on paper, entering into a computer system, or simply being remembered. Knowledge is shared. When knowledge is shared and used, it leads to more knowledge creation.

To define knowledge management it is important to look at the two parts that make up the term, knowledge and management.

Knowledge is part of the hierarchy made up of data, information, knowledge and wisdom defined as the following: Data are raw statistics and facts. Information comprises the basic facts with context and perspective. Knowledge is information which provides guidance for action. Wisdom is understanding which knowledge to use for what purpose.

Management is part of another hierarchy that includes supervision, management and leadership.

Supervision is dealing with individuals tasks and people. It works at the operational level of an organization or sub-unit. Management is dealing with groups and priorities at the tactical level. Leadership is dealing with purpose and change at the strategic level. KM: the business discipline

As a business discipline and theory, KM was developed by management and organisational theorists/practitioners in the 1990s. It may also have taken over the learning organization 'baton' since 1995.

KM: the collection of technologies

The potential and reality of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) are an important component of KM. This is very much based on earliest approaches of KM which focused on stocking explicit knowledge or knowledge as a stock. Without the tools, KM would not likely have ever been conceived. Indeed, there is a whole toolkit of technologies which form part of the KM approach. These include, for example, Intranets and yellow pages, as well as a whole range of other technologies which stimulate dialogue between individuals and communities. However, an approach based on technologies alone lacks deeper understanding of the nature of knowledge. KM: the philosophy

As a philosophy, KM is strongly linked to the business discipline but it is taking it one step further. No longer based only on efficiency, it is about value for human beings for their own sake and for the knowledge in their heads. It is strongly related to the expected third wave/dominant strategy of knowledge management which will focus on social learning. The philosophy stands for non-hierarchical organizational structures, valuing the experience of others - and listening to them, and more fundamental analysis of the nature of knowledge. A Fad, Faith or Fact?

KM is all three at once - a fad, a faith and a fact..

KM as a Fad/Fashion Scarborough and Swan (2001) argue that 'KM is not easy to define and many definitions supplied in the literature are highly ambiguous. The ambiguity of the concept, however, is itself a clue to the fashion-setting possibilities of this discourse.'

By claiming that KM is a management fashion, commentators are claiming that it is short-lived, superficial, a question of style rather than substance, with strong bandwagon effects 'a matured wine in a new bottle'. However, as noted by a participant of the KM4Dev community, 'KM has the appearance of being fad but it is going to stick with us for quite a long time and, by doing so, alter the way we do things.'

Scarborough and Swan (2001) argue that 'the fashion model offers some useful explanations for the characteristics of KM. However, 'Instead of the uniform movement of ideas and practices described by the fashion metaphor, we see KM spreading through a ripple effect in which it serves as a trigger for activating locally-situated change processes.' KM as a Faith

As a faith or religion, KM has believers and non-believers, disciples, key texts etc. As explained by a participant in the KM4Dev community, 'For many people, KM is a faith. They live KM. They are inspired and enthused by it.'

Like faiths and religions, KM also has its myths. For example, KM luminary (or prophet) Dr Yogesh Malhotra, talks of three 'myths'; often associated with KM solutions. KM as a Fact

'It is a fact that you can draw people together. KM provides you with a bag of processes, tools and methodologies. The stuff in the bag - that is a fact' - KM4Dev Member

It is a fact, even as a fashion, because, for example, even in 1998, 43% of leading UK firms were undertaking some kind of KM initiative (KPMG)

References KPMG (1998) Knowledge management: research report. London. Scarborough, H. and J. Swan (2001) Explaining the diffusion of knowledge management: the role of fashion. British Journal of Management Vol 12, p. 3-12

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