KM Categorization

The term "knowledge management" is now in widespread use, having appeared in the titles of many new books about knowledge management as a business strategy, as well as in articles in many business publications, including The Wall Street Journal. There are, of course, many ways to slice up the multi-faceted world of knowledge management. However, it’s often useful to categorize them.

In a posting to the Knowledge Management Forum, Karl-Erik Sveiby identified two "tracks" of knowledge management:

  • Management of Information. To researchers in this track, according to Sveiby, "… knowledge = Objects that can be identified and handled in information systems."
  • Management of People. For researchers and practitioners in this field, knowledge consists of "… processes, a complex set of dynamic skills, know-how, etc., that is constantly changing."

(From Sveiby, Karl-Erik, "What is knowledge management" )

Sveiby’s characterization is on target, but it may not capture the full flavor of the important distinctions in approaches to organizational knowledge management. At Knowledge Praxis, we have adopted a three-part categorization: (1) mechanistic approaches, (2) cultural/behavioristic approaches, and (3) systematic approaches to knowledge management.

Mechanistic approaches to knowledge management

Mechanistic approaches to knowledge management are characterized by the application of technology and resources to do more of the same better. The main assumptions of the mechanistic approach include:

  • Better accessibility to information is a key, including enhanced methods of access and reuse of documents (hypertext linking, databases, full-text search, etc.)
  • Networking technology in general (especially intranets), and groupware in particular, will be key solutions.
  • In general, technology and sheer volume of information will make it work.

Assessment: Such approaches are relatively easy to implement for corporate "political" reasons, because the technologies and techniques — although sometimes advanced in particular areas — are familiar and easily understood. There is a modicum of good sense here, because enhanced access to corporate intellectual assets is vital. But it’s simply not clear whether access itself will have a substantial impact on business performance, especially as mountains of new information are placed on line. Unless the knowledge management approach incorporates methods of leveraging cumulative experience, the net result may not be positive, and the impact of implementation may be no more measurable than in traditional paper models.

Cultural/behavioristic approaches to knowledge management

Cultural/behavioristic approaches, with substantial roots in process re-engineering and change management, tend to view the "knowledge problem" as a management issue. Technology — though ultimately essential for managing explicit knowledge resources — is not the solution. These approaches tend to focus more on innovation and creativity (the "learning organization") than on leveraging existing explicit resources or making working knowledge explicit.

Assumptions of cultural/behavioristic approaches often include:

  • Organizational behaviors and culture need to be changed … dramatically. In our information-intensive environments, organizations become dysfunctional relative to business objectives.
  • Organizational behaviors and culture can be changed, but traditional technology and methods of attempting to solve the "knowledge problem" have reached their limits of effectiveness. A "holistic" view is required. Theories of behavior of large-scale systems are often invoked.
  • It’s the processes that matter, not the technology.
  • Nothing happens or changes unless a manager makes it happen.

Assessment: The cultural factors affecting organizational change have almost certainly been undervalued, and cultural/behavioristic implementations have shown some benefits. But the cause-effect relationship between cultural strategy and business benefits is not clear, because the "Hawthorne Effect" may come into play, and because we still can’t make dependable predictions about systems as complex as knowledge-based business organizations. Positive results achieved by cultural/behavioristic strategies may not be sustainable, measurable, cumulative, or replicable … and employees thoroughly "Dilbertized" by yet another management strategy may roll their eyes. Time will tell.

Systematic approaches to knowledge management

Systematic approaches to knowledge management retain the traditional faith in rational analysis of the knowledge problem: the problem can be solved, but new thinking of many kinds is required. Some basic assumptions:

  • It’s sustainable results that matter, not the processes or technology … or your definition of "knowledge."
  • A resource cannot be managed unless it is modeled, and many aspects of the organization’s knowledge can be modeled as an explicit resource.
  • Solutions can be found in a variety of disciplines and technologies, and traditional methods of analysis can be used to re-examine the nature of knowledge work and to solve the knowledge problem.
  • Cultural issues are important, but they too must be evaluated systematically. Employees may or may not have to be "changed," but policies and work practices must certainly be changed, and technology can be applied successfully to business knowledge problems themselves.
  • Knowledge management has an important management component, but it is not an activity or discipline that belongs exclusively to managers.

Assessment: Unrepentant rationalists in the business world are taking a systematic approach to solving the "knowledge problem." You’ll also find evidence of such approaches — as well as a less formal use of the term systematic knowledge management —Karl Wiig’s Knowledge Research Institute Web site and Gene Bellinger’s Systems Thinking Web pages. Systematic approaches show the most promise for positive cumulative impact, measurability, and sustainability.

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