The Evolution of Knowledge Management

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Where From?

Knowledge has long been recognised as an important asset. Management writer Peter Drucker coined the term 'knowledge worker' in the 1960s and Fortune editor Tom Stewart highlighted the importance of 'brainpower' in the early 1990s. It was in 1995, that knowledge management truly captured widespread management attention. This saw the publication of the seminal book The Knowledge-Creating Business by Nonaka and Takeuchi and the conference Knowledge for Strategic Advantage organized by Arthur Andersen and APQC. We can trace the evolution of knowledge management through several overlapping phases:

  • BK - Before Knowledge Management (BC - 1995AD) - we did it (sometimes) anyway but didn't call it KM. A stone age person showing a colleague how to hunt, Icelandic sagas and organizations such as the Royal Society were all examples of sharing knowledge for a purpose
  • Awakening and Emergence (circa 1995-1997). Knowledge management becomes explicit. It was featured at conferences and gained attention on management agendas. The end of this period saw a wave of many new books on the subject. In reality, only a small number of companies had formal programmes, mostly just in one or a few divisions. These tended to be organizations in sectors that are heavily knowledge-based and/or globally dispersed: oil, chemicals, pharmaceutical, and high technology. The geographic bias was clearly North America and Northern Europe.
  • Bandwagon and and Relabelling (1997-1999). Knowledge management was actively promoted as strategic, particularly by the large management consultancies, which used their own internal KM programmes as exemplars. As a consequence, it was 'hijacked' by IT departments, and many software and service suppliers relabeled their products and services as 'KM solutions'. A growing number of large companies created formal KM posts, such as Chief Knowledge Officers, created new knowledge initiatives and brought several existing programmes (originally designated under other labels, such as 'business transformation' or 'the learning organization') under the KM umbrella.
  • Growth, Segmentation and Consolidation (1998-2005). KM is increasingly pervasive - across functions, all sizes of organization. all sectors and all geographies. It's a combination of KM with everything: KM and risk, KM and marketing, KM and innovation, KM and quality etc. It is also recognized as a distinct academic discipline, stimulating several new university courses at Masters level). However, its overall status varied from being an important high-level initiative to just another project. Some companies dispersed their central KM teams into business units, while in other organizations KM initiatives faltered.
  • Re-evaluation and Redefinition (2001-2005). Many companies embark on formal KM programmes for the first time, while others disbanded their central KM units. There is increased questioning as to KM's distinctive essence. After all, knowledge underpins many other enterprise initiatives - such as innovation, ecommerce and customer relationship management. Significantly, many providers of 'KM solutions' have relabelled their products (again) as content management, portal or enterprise information solutions!
  • In Search of New Identity (2004 onwards). As web-based and content management technology becomes more mature, IT-enabled KM solutions become more commonplace. There is also a renewed interest in the 'human' side of KM, again helped by the uptake of social technologies such as blogs (grass-roots KM), wikis (evolving knowledge) and Facebook-like 'Yellow Pages' (know-who). KM projects tend to have a more targetted business focus, e.g. risk avoidance. But is it KM?

Most commentators believe that KM suffered a set back in the 2000-2001 timeframe. Some of this is attributed to economic downturn, when companies 'downsized'. But it also led to a realization that valuable experience, skills and knowledge could be rapidly lost.

Where Now?

Knowledge management is now well established. It is widely practiced (under many different labels) in organizations of all shapes and sizes. It has been avidly taken up in developing economies such as India, China and Malaysia. Although many so-called management fads start to fade away after a period of 5-7 years, knowledge management is alive and well. Monthly magazines, quarterly journals, and annual conferences devoted to one or another aspect of KM are a well established part of the landscape.

Although the post of Chief Knowledge Officer is still a rarity, many organizations have identifiable and effective knowledge managers, knowledge networks and knowledge portals. However, although many companies are some way along the KM maturity curve, fewer than 5-10 per cent have totally embedded KM into their strategic thinking or daily activities (their 'corporate DNA'). What we also notice in our discussions with proponents of knowledge management in organizations is that some organizations do not know what they know, or at least once knew. In other words, once knowledge management became established, the eye was taken off the ball and the expertise on knowledge management has become diffused and some good practices introduced several years ago, have slipped into oblivion.

There is no excuse for this, since we now have a very strong base of research, evidence of effectiveness, teaching and practical knowledge about knowledge management, something that did not exist for the pioneers in the late 1990s.

In summary - we know a lot about how to improve organizational performance through effective knowledge management. However, the quality of practice of knowledge management across organizations is highly variable.

Where Next?

Unlike the late 1990s when it was fairly clear how knowledge management would evolve over the near future, today our crystal ball is somewhat cloudier. Discussions with leaders and experts in knowledge management identifies three divergent schools of thought:

  • KM is past it's 'sell by' date - typical comments are "we tried KM and it didn't work", "it never really took off in our organization", "it fragmented, became confused and went in disconnected directions"
  • The full potential of KM is yet to be realized - typical comments from this group are: "there's a better understanding of the real issues that concern knowledge management and organizations", "KM is still in its formative stages", "the discipline is still 'miles away' from a level of maturity", "There is a huge gap between theory and practice. I don't think KM has even reached 50 per cent of what it can offer"
  • KM's future is uncertain - epitomized by these comments: "it's in the midst of a sort of identity crisis", "the term has too much baggage to be useful", "it's schizophrenic suffering from multiple personality disorder"

Whichever one of these three positions you believe, the fundamental point is that KM, both now and in the future, is about the proactive approach of managing knowledge and that doing this better will contribute to improved organizational outcomes.


Last updated: 19th February 2011

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