Eleven years ago, I undertook a fool’s errand to document every definition of knowledge management (KM) that I could find. In the end, I published 61 diverse definitions on my (now defunct) Sims Learning Connections blog. For historical reference, including for the blog you are now reading, I republished the definitions here.
Since I expect to return to the knowledge management field soon, I did some reflection about how I now define KM. The purpose of this blog is not to persuade. Nor do I expect that this will stand-up to criticism from the purists in the community. Rather, I wrote this to further refine my own North Star.
Looking back to 2008, my favorite pithy KM definition remains definition #53 of the 61:
KM is about connecting people to people and people to information to create competitive advantage.
This definition is memorable and accessible to the lay-person (mom included). I also like that it is outcome-oriented (the Why) and doesn’t prescribe a particular set of activities (the How).
As much as I like the definition, I wanted more detail and prescription, while still remaining high-level and not dipping too far into the “how”. What I arrived at is:
Knowledge Management is the set of deliberate actions that efficiently ensure that the organization, and individuals within the organization:
In alignment with the organization’s mission and core values, and contributing to the achievement of the organization’s long-term goals and vision.
- have easy access to the information, knowledge, and relationships they need to be successful,
- continuously learn, and
- continuously improve and innovate.
The 1-2-3 order is intentional and moves from the highest KM accountability (easy access) to shared responsibilities. In many organizations, the “learning” goal is shared with the Learning & Development (training) function, Product Management, Agile, Lean, and/or Six Sigma programs. Continuous Improvement has an even broader shared responsibility with all the above plus c-suite accountability.
Let’s take a closer look at some of the words and how they might guide the ultimate “what” and “how” for a particular organization:
- Deliberate actions: Implying a defined strategy and tactics for knowledge creation, knowledge acquisition, storage, curation and value-addition, knowledge-sharing and reuse, and retirement. The resulting actions must address all three points of the people, technology, and process triad. Company culture is an important force multiplier (or unfortunate brake) for KM achievement. Any shortcomings need deliberate actions, irrespective of who handles execution.
- Efficiently: With minimum impact to front-line employees. Maximally embedded in core processes and using the minimum dedicated KM staff. KM staff must with Lean principles
- Ensure: Certain of success. This implies measurement (metrics) to monitor progress.
- Organization and Individuals: Along with structure (organizational design, company culture, processes, policy, etc.) people are the organization. The organization learns and improves the most when the people within the organization learn and grow.
- Easy access: Repository and people access via effective search, browsing, and conversational inquiry (human and/or artificial intelligence) at the moment of need. In the best of KM systems, information is selectively and proactively “pushed” to individuals in anticipated need.
- Information and Knowledge: I avoid falling into the “what is information?” versus “what is knowledge?” rabbit hole.
- Relationships: The KM program is not limited to managing only explicit knowledge assets. Person-to-person relationships are equally important. This is where e.g. communities of practice and people profiles strategies are considered.
- External information, knowledge, and relationships are implicit. For successful KM, an organization must look beyond their own company boundaries for sources of knowledge.
- There are master’s theses and doctoral dissertations that address the various relationships among KM, Organizational Learning (OL), continuous improvement, and innovation. I view all these concepts as being strongly intertwined, albeit each has its own heritage. I leave summarizing the literature for another day. For now, I only assert that a robust KM definition must acknowledge these related topics.
- Alignment: The Knowledge Management System (KMS) resides within an organization and must support the organization’s mission and embrace its core values. If documented, or implicit, core values are at odds with knowledge-sharing, the KM program must address this conflict head-on.
- Purpose: Ultimately the sole purpose of the KMS is to support the success of the organization as expressed by the organization’s vision and long-term goals. If vision and goals clarity is lacking, this shortcoming (again) must be addressed head-on.
I close this reflection with the reminder that I wrote this to increase clarity in my own thinking. That said, if you believe I am off the mark, I would like to learn from your thinking. Please comment or Tweet.
P.S. My preference is to use the “Knowledge Services” moniker, instead of KM, to dodge the “knowledge can’t be managed” assertion. That said, I know that Knowledge Services will never “stick”, and so I continue to use KM as the umbrella term.