Knowledge what (management or capability)?

Earlier this week, David Griffiths published a thought-provoking post summarising the current state of organisational knowledge management. He highlighted some real concerns, but his conclusion is a positive one.

The past needs to be forgiven, treated as a learning experience. The future is about Knowledge Capability. This requires a change in mind set. Knowledge Capability is not about managing a resource. Knowledge Capability is about embedding, developing, sharing and, most importantly, activating a resource by better coordinating emergent conditions.

This means expanding understanding, influence and integration in such a way so as to enable people to develop as sense makers, problem solvers, decision-makers, collaborators, managers and leaders.
People can choose to ignore the inevitable, but, to remain relevant, this is the future. Knowledge Management maybe dying a slow death, but Knowledge Capability is alive and kicking!

The history of KM is littered with the dreary battles about nomenclature. I have no intention of starting another one. (And nor has David, I think.) I am, however, torn between redefining an existing term and inventing a new one. In the end, both demand a similar effort.

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I think the best one-line definition of ‘knowledge management’ is Nick Milton’s:

“Knowledge Management” is “Management with a focus on Knowledge”.

Management is what we do to make organisations work; to make them prosper and succeed. And if we don’t manage with knowledge in mind, then they won’t prosper and succeed to the same extent.

This gives a clear message to be delivered when discussing ‘KM’ or ‘knowledge management’. Often, however, people hearing that term bring their own (mis)understanding to it. Typically, they start with an analogy to information, document or records management, where the phrase refers to a thing (which is often understood as being close to knowledge) that needs to be managed. As a result, those arguing for a more nuanced meaning must first wrestle it away from often basic conceptions of classifying, storing, retrieving and organising. Worse: those activities tend not to be highly valued by organisations, and that affects the perception of value that might flow from intelligent knowledge management.

By contrast, organisations also manage with people in mind, or money, or customers/clients. Those functions (HR, Finance, and Sales/Marketing) tend not to use the term ‘management’ at all. People also understand better the value that they provide for the business — often to the point that they are represented directly at the most senior level.

The other business disciplines are better developed and understood than knowledge management. This is an ideal opportunity to reframe people’s understanding of our work. Referring to ‘knowledge capability’ can help to do this — it is much clearer about what will change as a result. It also refocuses away from the possibility of managing knowledge towards making changes in organisational practices and people’s behaviour.

In its early days, knowledge management grew out of information management and technology. It is not surprising that those fields still affect the way people still perceive the discipline. Newer influences — such as psychology and other behavioural sciences, organisational design, strategic management — have given KM a role that should place it much closer to the heart of the organisation and the way people work.

This video by Patrick Lambe illustrates this journey. He describes a project to create a set of competencies that is clearly distinct from historic descriptions that were rooted in information management.

[vimeo 86395864 w=508]

The focus in Patrick’s work was on people and how they worked, whereas the TFPL material he describes is rooted in the way knowledge and information might be treated. (That material appears no longer to be available from TFPL.)

For me, that is the heart of the way modern knowledge activities should be appreciated. They prioritise how people work towards improving the success of their organisation — using knowledge. The older approach (which can still be seen in some places) thinks first about knowledge and what might be done with it, rather than organisations or people.

 If you want to move your firm towards better use of knowledge, please get in touch.

3 thoughts on “Knowledge what (management or capability)?”

  1. Hi Mark, enjoyable post and thank you for the mention.

    The only thing I want to add is that we have to be careful with the idea of “managing knowledge.” It is here that key choices are made. Do you take a resource-based (asset) view or do you acknowledge complexity and take more knowkedge-based view?

    The former misses the integrated/interconnected nature of knowledge, where the latter requires organisations to ‘manage’ the capability to deploy/select/develop knowledge. This is a fundamental difference between traditional KM and organisational knowledge capability. More than this, it is only the latter that can add true value (i.e. included in integrated reporting frameworks – emerging accounting standards) to human, social and intellectual capital in organisations.

    Thanks again for the blog and for the mention.

    1. Thanks David. My fear is that ‘managing knowledge’ is most commonly construed as a resource-based function. (Which is congruent with its roots in information management and technology.) That has a necessarily backwards-looking focus — we can only manage things that already exist.

      I agree with you that a better approach is to focus on developing knowledge capability. That can include consideration of resources, but also allows the possibility of fostering emergent and unpredictable things.

  2. Hi Mark & David,

    I believe that the tendency to focus on making knowledge a capture-able resource arises because it’s the “obvious” way to preserve knowledge once a person leaves or changes roles.

    And any time KM becomes implicitly about “managing individual knowledge”, then knowledge capture and knowledge handover (one-to-one) are really pretty much all you can do, Even activities like training are individual-focused, albeit on a one-to-many basis.

    However once we shift the conversation to “managing organisational knowledge”, then a whole new range of conversations open up. Do our processes support short term and long term organizational knowledge, in the form of organizational memory, embodied capability, culture and so on?

    To me the key shift is to get people to accept that organizational knowledge is more than just than sum of individual knowledge. “Knowledge capability” is a good way to express that, but we don’t need to throw out KM as an overarching term to make that shift.

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