Defining KM

In an earlier post, I mentioned Joe Firestone’s insistence that we define knowledge management. The ‘defining KM’ meme is currently a hot topic. This is partly due to Joe’s article, and partly a result of Ray Sims’s listing of 43 (now 54) knowledge management definitions. When I read that list, I was disturbed by the wide variety of aims illustrated by the definitions. I thought that this was probably a reflection of the different contexts in which the definitions were originally created. Some were abstract and academic, drawing on epistemology and philosophy. Some were concrete and managerial: clearly driven by the need to sate an internal organisational need.

Today, however, I have discovered that this is not the only reason. I am tempted to buy The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. (At more than £100, I am very unsure that I need it.) The first two chapters are available as samples of the greater work, so I have been leafing through them. I came across this in the first chapter (in section 4.4 “Defining grammatical concepts”.)

It is useful to begin by considering the kind of definition familiar from dictionaries and traditional school grammars, which are known as notional definitions, i.e. they are based on the meaning of the expressions being classified, not on their grammatical properties…. To determine whether a word is a noun, for example, one asks what it means or denotes; to determine the tense of a verb one asks in what time period it locates the action or state expressed by the verb; and so on.

Such definitions have long been criticised by linguists. Indeed, it takes only a moment or two’s reflection to see that they do not provide satisfactory criteria for determining the correct classification of words or verb-forms or clauses.

The problem with notional definitions is that they do not refer to the kinds of property that motivate the use in the grammar of the theoretical concepts being defined.

A satisfactory definition or explanation of concepts like noun, preterite, and imperative clause must therefore identify the grammatical properties that distinguish them from the concepts with which they contrast.

The definitions of knowledge management that disturbed me most in Ray Sims’s list are, I now understand, notional definitions. Worse than that, they are in some cases wishful notional definitions: they describe something that someone wants to be knowledge management, whereas someone else may equally justifiably call it something else.

Examples of wishful KM thinking abound. For instance, consider Doug Cornelius’s short series of blog posts on Household Knowledge Management. It is not clear to me that the very interesting systems that Doug has identified as potentially improving the management of his family’s domestic affairs are necessarily KM-related. They could equally well be time management or process management tools. (This is a bit unfair, because I want to use one of Doug’s posts more constructively as the basis for another blog post of mine, but I hope he will forgive me.)

The crux of finding a good (or even just a working) definition of KM, for me, is for it to distinguish what is unique about KM from general good management or business practices. If KM is a distinct activity (and there is a strong view that it is not), then it needs to be able to do more than say, rather weakly, that KM is “the way a company stores, organizes and accesses internal and external information” or “consciously managing knowledge as a resource and using it in a targeted manner within the company.”

3 thoughts on “Defining KM”

  1. I forgive you.

    As you point out, there are lots of different definitions of knowledge management. I personally do not get too hung up on trying to define knowledge management. It is different things to different people.

    Of course I never hear anyone trying to define HR or IT or the library.

    It is much more about the role of that group within the firm. I think stating what you do is more important that trying to define the term.

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