Dilemmas

Reading Tom Davenport’s brief polemic on the meaning of management (and the comments on it), I have realised that some of the things that I believe (and have promoted here) may be mutually contradictory.

Commenting on IBM’s explicit change in terminology from “knowledge management” to “knowledge sharing”, Davenport argues that (a) the equation of “management” with “command-and-control” is simplistic and misleading and (b) “sharing” as a concept is too unstructured to be useful in the enterprise (but equally, there is scope for tools of that nature).

I think this tension between the structure of a managed knowledge environment and vague knowledge sharing is symptomatic of the tension between what people want to do and what the business requires them to do. For example, people may be very keen to read widely to feed their creativity and improve the chances of innovation, but in order to perform their primary function they need to focus on the things that are more obviously related to the job. However, prioritisation of activities that are demonstrably valuable will result in a situation where people will only contemplate low-risk strategies. (As an aside, I think this might be particularly a problem in law firms: recording time in six-minute units is not conducive to activities that are not clearly relevant to client work.) As Bruce MacEwen has pointed out more than once, this is not a time to be concentrating on low-risk strategies.

So it is not sensible to encourage everyone to engage in what one of the comments on Davenport’s piece calls the “passive” activity of knowledge sharing. Equally there are dangers in insisting only on structured formal knowledge creation and capture. How do we manage our way around this dilemma?

I don’t know, but I think we need to be clear with people about the limitations of all the different approaches to knowledge in the enterprise, and the consequences of their over-use or misuse. By doing this, we can help them find a way that suits them and the business. Surely, that is knowledge management.