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What is knowledge management?


There is no agreed definition of “knowledge management”, even among practitioners. The term is used loosely to refer to a broad collection of organizational practices and approaches related to generating, capturing, disseminating know-how and other content relevant to the organization’s business.

Some would argue that “knowledge management” is a contradiction in terms, being a hangover from an industrial era when control modes of thinking were dominant. Thus knowledge is not just an explicit tangible “thing”, like information, but information combined with experience, context, interpretation and reflection. Knowledge involves the full person, integrating the elements of both thinking and feeling. Hence some object to the implicit suggestion in the use of the term “knowledge management” that knowledge can be so managed, as revealing a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of knowledge.

Many practitioners see “knowledge sharing” as a better description of what they are about than “knowledge management”. Advantages of "knowledge sharing" include its commonsense comprehensibility, along with a certain degree of inter-activity implicit in any sharing. Drawbacks include the possibility that even "sharing" is insufficiently interactive, and that it implies (falsely) that the existence of knowlege precedes the sharing process, thereby (wrongly) separating knowledge management from "innovation" and "research".

Others would prefer to emphasize “learning”, since the real challenge in implementing knowledge management is less in the “sending” and more in the “receiving”, particularly the processes of sense making, understanding, and being able to act upon the information available.

Overall, whatever the term employed to describe it, knowledge management is increasingly seen, not merely as the latest management fashion, but as signaling the development of a more organic and holistic way of understanding and exploiting the role of knowledge in the processes of managing and doing work, and an authentic guide for individuals and organizations in coping with the increasingly complex and shifting environment of the modern economy.

Some private practitioners — such as Ernst & Young — have started offering external knowledge sharing services, so that clients can have direct access on-line to know-how offered by the firm. The World Bank’s strategy for knowledge sharing has been explicitly external from the outset. Its objective is to make know-how and experience accessible not only internally to World Bank staff, but externally to clients, partners and stakeholders around the world, and in the process, reaching many who currently have little or no access to the organization’s expertise.

External knowledge sharing poses greater risks than internal sharing programs — raising complex issues of confidentiality, copyright, and in the case of the private sector, the protection of proprietary assets — but it may also offer greater potential benefits.

In 2000, Gartner Group predicted that over the coming five years, knowledge-sharing programs will broaden from their current employee focus and emulate the World Bank strategy to encompass suppliers, business partners and, in particular, clients and customers. By 2007, this had occurred in some forward-looking companies, such as Caterpillar, but this has been more the exception than the rule.

Some definitions of "knowledge management"

University of Texas: The systematic process of finding, selecting, organizing, distilling and presenting information in a way that improves an employee's comprehension in a specific area of interest. Knowledge management helps an organization to gain insight and understanding from its own experience. Specific knowledge management activities help focus the organization on acquiring, storing and utilizing knowledge for such things as problem solving, dynamic learning, strategic planning and decision making. It also protects intellectual assets from decay, adds to firm intelligence and provides increased flexibility.

The Biz Tech Network: Knowledge Management caters to the critical issues of organizational adaptation, survival and competence in face of increasingly discontinuous change. Essentially, it embodies organizational processes that seek synergistic combination of data and information processing capacity of information technologies, and the creative and innovative capacity of human beings. (

Reference: See Stephen Denning, The Springboard: How Storytelling Ignites Action in Knowledge-Era Organizations. Boston, London, Butterworth Heinemann, October 2000.

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