When asked to present on technologies that can help improve ‘knowledge management’, I have often started by testing what ‘knowledge management’ really means to an organisation.

For starters, what is knowledge? The only reason any organisation exists is because more than one person is involved in doing something. And doing something usually stems from knowing something needs to be done. Knowledge is acquired and used by people, and involves up to three sources in the process – other people (tacit knowledge, stuck inside peoples’ heads), information (explicit knowledge – recorded in documents) and data (potential knowledge – patterns and trends waiting to be discovered)…

This picture can provide a useful exercise for evaluating an organisation’s intentions for improving the use of knowledge. The process normally takes about an hour to work through, here’s a brief summary.

Step 1: Place a value (%) on the three sources of knowledge

Simple enough to do… you’d think. Divide up the Value pie into three portions:: your people, your information systems and your databases. These days, many organisations will say that people are their most important asset – this exercise helps prove (or disprove) that statement…

Step 2: On a scale of 1 to 10 (1 being low), how well are you using the three sources of knowledge throughout the organisation

This step can cause conflict in a room when a mix of people represent the organisation. Most people agree that information use could be improved (finding the right information is the most common issue called out) and score it somewhere between 5 and 7 out of 10. The other two areas can cause some heated debates… (An addition to this step is to score where you’d like to be for each area)

Step 3: List the projects/investments you are making in each of the three areas

This is where it gets interesting. The usual response is to list knowledge management and collaboration projects under People, document/content management under Information, and business intelligence/scorecard stuff under Data. And we come back to questioning the definition of ‘knowledge management’. After much coughing and spluttering, the answer is often along the lines “‘to capture and share ‘best practices’.” O…K… in that case, KM should be listed under Information, because you aren’t investing in people, you just want them to write down what they know into a document, that’s investing in information… (Itself no mean feat – ever tried writing a manual for tying a shoelace?)

Following this process through to conclusion, the session can often end up with near to zero investment listed under People (even most collaboration projects fall back to wanting stuff written down for re-use), the majority listed under Information, and a splattering of money assigned to Data (the BI project). We then refer back to the Value % and Usability Scores, and spot the flaw in the plan… 🙂

And that’s why I think Knowledge Management should be replaced with Knowledge Support. The phrase Knowledge Management just naturally lends itself to managing something tangible and that means documents – but stuff in documents is really just information, it requires a person to use it as knowledge.

There’s nothing wrong with improving the management of information, but acknowledge it won’t necessarily improve what the information is used for. Knowledge Support shifts the focus to people and the application of knowledge. You can’t manage somebody else’s brain and you will never be able to document the full value of tacit knowledge. But there’s a lot more out there, beyond content management, for supporting people – to help them find what they need to make a decision and do something. And it’s the doing that creates value…

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