A Brief History Of Knowledge Management

An overarching theory of knowledge management has yet to emerge, perhaps because the practices associated with managing knowledge have their roots in a variety of disciplines and domains. Special thanks to Karl Wiig for supplying us with a pre-publication copy of "Knowledge Management:Where Did It Come From and Where Will It Go?" which will appear in The Journal of Expert Systems with Applications. This section draws heavily on that work but supplies only a small part of that value.

A number of management theorists have contributed to the evolution of knowledge management, among them such notables as Peter Drucker, Paul Strassmann, and Peter Senge in the United States. Drucker and Strassmann have stressed the growing importance of information and explicit knowledge as organizational resources, and Senge has focused on the "learning organization," a cultural dimension of managing knowledge. Chris Argyris, Christoper Bartlett, and Dorothy Leonard-Barton of Harvard Business School have examined various facets of managing knowledge. In fact, Leonard-Barton’s well-known case study of Chaparral Steel, a company which has had an effective knowledge management strategy in place since the mid-1970s, inspired the research documented in her Wellsprings of Knowledge — Building and Sustaining Sources of Innovation (Harvard Business School Press, 1995).

Everett Rogers’ work at Stanford in the diffusion of innovation and Thomas Allen’s research at MIT in information and technology transfer, both of which date from the late 1970s, have also contributed to our understanding of how knowledge is produced, used, and diffused within organizations. By the mid-1980s, the importance of knowledge (and its expression in professional competence) as a competitive asset was apparent, even though classical economic theory ignores (the value of) knowledge as an asset and most organizations still lack strategies and methods for managing it.

Recognition of the growing importance of organizational knowledge was accompanied by concern over how to deal with exponential increases in the amount of available knowledge and increasingly complex products and processes. The computer technology that contributed so heavily to superabundance of information started to become part of the solution, in a variety of domains. Doug Engelbart’s Augment (for "augmenting human intelligence"), which was introduced in 1978, was an early hypertext/groupware application capable of interfacing with other applications and systems. Rob Acksyn’s and Don McCracken’s Knowledge Management System (KMS), an open distributed hypermedia tool, is another notable example and one that predates the World Wide Web by a decade.

The 1980s also saw the development of systems for managing knowledge that relied on work done in artificial intelligence and expert systems, giving us such concepts as "knowledge acquisition," "knowledge engineering," "knowledge-base systems, and computer-based ontologies.

The phrase "knowledge management" entered the lexicon in earnest. To provide a technological base for managing knowledge, a consortium of U.S. companies started the Initiative for Managing Knowledge Assets in 1989. Knowledge management-related articles began appearing in journals like Sloan Management Review, Organizational Science, Harvard Business Review, and others, and the first books on organizational learning and knowledge management were published (for example, Senge’s The Fifth Discipline and Sakaiya’s The Knowledge Value Revolution).

By 1990, a number of management consulting firms had begun in-house knowledge management programs, and several well known U.S., European, and Japanese firms had instituted focused knowledge management programs. Knowledge management was introduced in the popular press in 1991, when Tom Stewart published "Brainpower" in Fortune magazine. Perhaps the most widely read work to date is Ikujiro Nonaka’s and Hirotaka Takeuchi’s The Knowledge-Creating Company: How Japanese Companies Create the Dynamics of Innovation (1995).

By the mid-1990s, knowledge management initiatives were flourishing, thanks in part to the Internet. The International Knowledge Management Network (IKMN), begun in Europe in 1989, went online in 1994 and was soon joined by the U.S.-based Knowledge Management Forum and other KM-related groups and publications. The number of knowledge management conferences and seminars is growing as organizations focus on managing and leveraging explicit and tacit knowledge resources to achieve competitive advantage. In 1994 the IKMN published the results of a knowledge management survey conducted among European firms, and the European Community began offering funding for KM-related projects through the ESPRIT program in 1995.

Knowledge management, which appears to offer a highly desirable alternative to failed TQM and business process re-engineering initiatives, has become big business for such major international consulting firms as Ernst & Young, Arthur Andersen, and Booz-Allen & Hamilton. In addition, a number of professional organizations interested in such related areas as benchmarking, best practices, risk management, and change management are exploring the relationship of knowledge management to their areas of special expertise (for example, the APQC [American Productivity and Quality Council] and ASIS [American Society for Information Science]).

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