Great Knowledge Management Must be Visible

Jim Lee's picture

In my last musings, I pondered the impending death of knowledge management but never really came to a conclusion regarding its health: that is, whether or not we find it today on life support. The reason was due to a trip down memory lane, but that’s simply because I see that the parallels between digital computing and knowledge management are many (think: centralized, then decentralized, then centralized again, then decentralized again, then centralized making a comeback). While I plan to stay more focused this time, frankly, the topic of the passing of knowledge management has already been well covered.

To wit, a search on google *(1) returns:

  • “Is KM dead?” = 29,000 results
  • “KM is dead” = 17,000 (often postscripted with “Long live KM!”)
  • “the death of KM” = 50,500
  • “the end of knowledge management” = 315,000

With that many thoughts permanently inscribed in (on?) the internet debating the merits of the question, what could I possibly add to the discussion? Not much of course. However, that’s exactly what I intend to do: to add just a little bit more that makes sense—to me at least anyway.

Before I throw down my gauntlet however, another trip in the time machine is in order. It would seem that one of the most divisive things about knowledge management is the word management itself. According to Merriam-Webster *(2) management is: “the act or process of deciding how to use something.” There’s the rub—people may or may not like process, but they certainly do not like someone else deciding how they use their “something” (knowledge). In my industrial engineering days, we would have considered that the root cause of the problem. Who are you, they, them, the organization—to decide how I should use my knowledge?! And, if I want to take my knowledge out the door with me when I leave, I will do exactly that thank you (although a great Dilbert cartoon seems to indicate that Ratbert has solved that little problem).

So here’s my contribution to the discussion: to be effective, knowledge management must exhibit visible knowledge sharing. Actually in full disclosure, that insight comes from Tim Stouffer, petroleum engineer, knowledge manager, fundraising bicyclist, math educator, and formerly of Marathon Oil Corporation. Since then, I’ve personally experienced several times what Mr. Stouffer conveyed to me. Ironically, the most egregious occasions involve the very thing people often remark will put the knife in the heart of knowledge management: sharing through social media.

Here’s the scene: I’m sitting in a client’s office discussing some fascinating knowledge management topic when a corporate social media ping comes in. The client apologies for the interruption, excuses himself to respond, and then quickly dispatches the inquiry. Fast, simple, and we’re back to chatting. Minutes later another ping and the cycle repeats itself. Knowledge sharing round two over and we’re now delving deep into the world that is knowledge management. Before our discourse is complete, another ping arrives, waiting patiently for my subject matter expert to impart his expertise to slay the knowledge gap that exists between himself and the requestor.

By this time I have enough occasions to use them as a reason to ask my client: “Do you get many of these types of peer-to-peer requests?” More often than not, the response is, “Yes,” and sometimes even, “All day long.” Which allows me to follow up with the knockout punch: “Do you get the same questions more than once?” As you might suspect, that response is also a resounding, “Yes.” So there you have it: knowledge sharing via corporate social media allows for an excellent environment of (in)visible knowledge sharing! Invisible to the organization that is, regardless of how effective it may be for the two individuals involved in the exchange. By the way, my reference to a knockout punch is simply to get the point across that unfettered peer-to-peer sharing may be the solution that is worse than the problem in certain cases.

For me, what that means is effective knowledge management strategies, processes, techniques, communication, and change management still have legs in this world of ours. I for one, don’t see it being chopped off at the knees any time soon if the goal of knowledge management is visible knowledge sharing.

You can connect with Jim Lee on Twitter @KM_dude.



*(1), retrieved March 17, 2015.

*(2), retrieved March 17, 2015



Anonymous's picture
This is a good conversation. It highlights an ongoing issue about the goal of knowledge management and speaks a bit to why these conversations are ongoing (e.g. death of KM etc). For the sake of discussion, I would suggest that knowledge management cannot exhibit anything in and of itself. The effort to start and to sustain KM efforts (the show me the value) must come from leadership....knowledge leadership. The end goal referenced in Mr Lee's post "...if the goal of knowledge management is visible knowledge sharing," is likely not the goal, or shouldn't be. To be clear and to put a fine point on this, I believe (my perspective) the end goal of knowledge management is ALWAYS continuous performance improvement.and the ability to use (capture, adapt, transfer, reuse) knowledge and move knowledge to solve business and operational challenges, make better decisions, on an ongoing and sustainable basis. If the focus is only on the sharing, many of the other important dimensions of KM can be marginalized and then lead to a slowing in momentum, and therefore sustainment of KM efforts, which should be an end goal. I'm not disagreeing with Mr Lee, I'm suggesting that there is more to it.
Anonymous's picture
Jim, I am sorry but you cannot replace the term "Knowledge Management" with "Knowledge Sharing" and expect it to work just as well. Firstly you are very selective in what you quote from Miriam Webster. The same dictionary also says management is "the act or skill of controlling and making decisions about a business..." and "judicious use of means to accomplish an end". Knowledge Management fits under both of these - "the act or skill of controlling and making decisions about how the use of knowledge is promoted and enabled within a business" and "judicious use of knowledge to accomplish an end". Also you decline to use the term management about anything that "you cannot decide how to use" then you eliminate risk management, safety management, reputation management and so on. See here for a broader discussion,
Jim Lee's picture
I must say, “Thanks for the comments above!” I’m thrilled that someone other than me actually reads my blog posts. Moreover, while I actually agree with your thoughts, they’re exactly why I wrote what I did in the first place—to generate an opportunity to convey a different perspective. To start, it would seem to me that both commenters are pretty fluent in knowledge management and understand what the benefits of improved knowledge sharing (still using that term) can bring to an organization. With that in mind, here are my counterpoints. So the goal of KM isn’t visible knowledge sharing—agreed. A better choice of words would have been to say that an output of good KM must be visible sharing. Otherwise, the total value of all the invisible sharing that is certainly going on is inefficient, if not wasted all together. And—the outcome of good KM should be the improvement of the organization. APQC’s framework for good KM always starts with the organization’s strategy and objectives in mind. Therefore, we agree yet again. Yet, think about this: if this is so obvious to us—and presumably to the casual observer—then why is it so difficult to make happen in real life? Who doesn’t want to improve? So why aren’t we getting our message across? Regarding the word “management.” As an individual, how does your organization manage your knowledge? Do they require you to spill everything you learn every day for the benefit of your colleagues? If so, how do they do that? Do they require you to use every bit of expertise ever created in your organization in your daily efforts? If so, how do they do that? Furthermore, if Knowledge Management were so obvious a benefit, then why do we have to manage it in the first place? Wouldn’t everyone—including those who see management as a detraction—embrace all the knowledge available to them to make themselves better if not for the betterment of the organization (WIIFM)? All I’m suggesting is that if we—“KM professionals”—speak only in KM-speak, then we risk what Paige Kane (a really smart woman) once said: “…then we’re speaking a language that only dogs can hear.” So what do our colleagues, constituents, clients, hear when we extol the virtues of Knowledge Management? Do they immediately jump on board? I would actually like that—I could work myself out of a job and… P.S. Please keep the conversation going; this is good stuff.
Anonymous's picture
Hi Jim, I agree with your point of view. Social media is the new must have drug of business - after all it is the latest thing and very easy to buy. However it is somewhat like putting new wallpaper over a badly designed wall - it may look nice and go up quickly but it really isn't going to do anything to solve the underlying problem. It is this masking of the real problem that is most ominous. For my mind, Gloria Gery's idea of building performance into the process and not into people resonates. If you create smart and simple as possible processes that are 1) accessible (ie not buried in a SharePoint digital landfill site), 2) up-to-date and 3) actionable (this is of course the most important attribute) then you will have gone a long way to achieving a high level of operational expertise. Collaboration built on top of a solid process foundation starts to make sense.
Anonymous's picture
Good comments here, mostly in line with my own views that knowledge management is not a useful tool for a business unless it visibly and actively contributes to performance improvement. Actively, so you can demonstrate that this field is worth having within the business (or not) and visibly so people will engage and by doing so, help reinforce the worth of the activity. Active measurement of results is, to me, one of the few ways of determining if our KM activities are having the positive impact we need them to and is a crucial part of the PDCA cycle for KM. Nice blog entry, Jim!
Neil Olonoff's picture
Hi Jim, As you know, KM specialists everywhere have struggled with this question. KM will never die, for a few important reasons, but you are correct that knowledge "management" is -- and was, almost from the beginning -- a misnomer. The truth is that we do not manage knowledge. We attempt to affect and structure the "conditions under which knowledge and information" are used. A long time ago, I tried to discuss this topic, using the analogy -- and the famous painting -- of the zen master pointing at the moon. In zen, one's master understands that he or she can never explain or describe satori, the objective of meditation. This objective is reachable, but remote, like the moon. As such, his teachings are precisely like a "finger pointing at the moon." So our attempts are always a "roundabout route" towards our goals. However, the general objective of "enhancing knowledge and information use" is undeniably valuable, and increasingly so, in almost every sphere of life. So although KM may have flubbed its initial introduction -- and certainly we practitioners can always do a better job of explaining ourselves -- it will always revive. So, sure, I'll say it: KM Lives!