KM = BS?

The Nonsense of Knowledge Management by T.D. Wilson


    Examines critically the origins and basis of 'knowledge management', its components and its development as a field of consultancy practice. Problems in the distinction between 'knowledge' and 'information' are explored, as well as Polanyi's concept of 'tacit knowing'. The concept is examined in the journal literature, the Web sites of consultancy companies, and in the presentation of business schools. The conclusion is reached that 'knowledge management' is an umbrella term for a variety of organizational activities, none of which are concerned with the management of knowledge. Those activities that are not concerned with the management of information are concerned with the management of work practices, in the expectation that changes in such areas as communication practice will enable information sharing.

The author obviously enjoys himself while poking holes in the pipedreams of consultants who continuously recycle old material with new labels:

    'Where did knowledge management come from?' (Prusak, 2001) This is an interesting paper, which cleverly tries to defuse the proposition that knowledge management is nothing but a management consultancy fad, claiming that, 'knowledge management is not just a consultants' invention but a practitioner-based, substantive response to real social and economic trends'. However, no evidence is produced to support this contention, so we must assume that it is little more than management consultancy rhetoric.

    ...those papers that seriously address the question of whether knowledge can be managed generally conclude that it cannot and that the topic breaks down into the management of information and the management of work practices.

The author shows the fallacy of Nonaka's descriptions of converting tacit knowledge to explicit knowledge. (You can't know the unknowable.)

    Implicit knowledge, in other words, is expressible: tacit knowledge is not, and Nonaka would have saved a great deal of confusion had he chosen the more appropriate term. The critical reader might ask him/herself: 'Does it make any difference to the argument if, in the diagram, we replace "tacit knowledge" with "knowledge" and "explicit knowledge" with "information"?'

The author searches the empires of Microsoft, the World Bank, Accenture, McKinsey, E&Y, D&T, Cap Gemini, IBM, Pricewaterhousecoopers (what a mouthful), et alia, inevitably finding the emperor unclothed.

Communities of practice? Most corporations are too short-sighted for them:

    Of course these distinctions would be meaningful if organizations were structured in such a way as to encourage the creation of 'communities' in which members owed allegiance only to one another and had the autonomy to develop their own ways of working. Expertise might well then be shared. However, organizations are not like this and business organizations in particular are certainly not always like this. Business organizations (especially public companies) are generally driven by the idea of 'shareholder value', which emphasises short-term strategies that are likely to increase the share value. Chief of these strategies are those that seek cost savings, leading often to a rather blinkered choice of the reduction of staff to achieve savings. Coupled with the kind of corporate misgovernance that we have seen in the cases of Enron, WorldCom, and others, one must doubt that business organizations are busy building the kind of corporate cultures that will actually encourage 'communities of practice'

This cracks me up. I only regret that Tom beat me to the punch:

    opportunely for the software houses and IT firms, 'km' came along just as they were being hit by the wave of scepticism over the possibility of IT ever delivering more than problems - and certainly never likely to deliver productivity and performance. 'Whoops, we've cracked it!' cried the IBMs and MSofts of this world - 'We should have been dealing with 'knowledge' all along, and now we are - Lotus Notes is no longer groupware and personal information management, it's KnowledgeWare!' So they are happily marketing the same product under a new name.

If this article gets you fired up, pro or con, it ends with a discussion board where you can wrangle with the authors and others.

Extra points: Do you know your ass from your elbow?

Posted by Jay Cross at December 20, 2002 08:30 PM | TrackBack

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