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February 2005

As long-time readers know, “knowledge management” (KM) is a topic we have mostly avoided, especially during the peak of the hype surrounding it in the mid-nineties when even CRT displays were being marketed as “knowledge management solutions”. We also did our best at the time to convince document management vendors that repackaging themselves as KM vendors was a big mistake. Eventually, vendors ended-up adopting the other, more reasonable choice, i.e., “content management”. (For more on this evolution see Vol 8, Num 8: What is Content Management?).

In spite of the mostly negative things we had to say about KM, we did recognize there was a real, identifiable problem that a combination of business practices and processes, with the help of a little technology, could address. In fact, and this was part of the cause of the vendor frenzy, businesses thought of many of their information management problems as knowledge management problems. You can argue that the concept is flawed, but you can’t tell the customer they don’t have a problem.

Today, the idea of KM is much more respectable – there is less hype, and a lot more understanding of the role technology can legitimately play in helping companies better manage their knowledge assets. Contributor Lynda Moulton is one technologist and KM expert that has helped KM become reputable. Her advice in this issue is valuable, current, and hype-free.

Frank Gilbane

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You might have noticed how frequently knowledge management (KM) pops up as a topic in surprisingly diverse contexts. Knowledge work has been acknowledged for over three decades since Peter Drucker emphasized it in Management: Task, Responsibilities, Practices. The phrase knowledge management emerged in business circles in the 1980s, usually used by information technology managers. Perhaps because computers and software applications were implemented to manipulate data creating new versions of information, a misleading idea came into existence, namely that the resulting information was knowledge being managed by computers.

Being inspired by the promise of automated solutions that could somehow manage knowledge, managers leapt to implement an astonishing variety of software applications associated with KM hype. The late-90s killed the belief in the hype, more quickly than most implementations could be brought to maturity. Some of those implementations might actually have resulted in desired benefits but the will to persevere in such undertakings requires thoughtful approaches and sustainable plans that evolve over time.

Now is a good time to talk about what KM should really be about and how it relates to business processes like content management (CM) and information technology (IT). In attempting to scope out important business components for managers to keep in mind, we give them a framework for positioning IT projects as adjunct, enabling activities in the larger business context. KM as a framework for managing knowledge assets in the organization is one way of looking some of the components of KM and relating them to other infrastructure activities.

How knowledge and organizations relate

Two definitions of knowledge seem to persist in society. The first, referring to an organized body of information, would seem to be ripe for computerized management. The second focuses on human perceptions, understanding and learning, and is more important for the discussion of knowledge within the organization. This assertion follows from the point that no body of information would organize itself without human understanding to govern the methods of information organization. Likewise, all drivers of any organization from its inception are the result of human knowledge.

To successfully understand and manage knowledge in an organization, we need to have a fundamental grasp of an organization’s origins and intent. Why it was founded and what it was supposed to achieve. What are the inputs and what is the planned output? Only humans can communicate those ideas that are the foundation for an organization. Ideas are clearly rooted in the knowledge of the founder. We can all agree that without ideas and the means to communicate, a founder’s knowledge could not be used or useful to an organization.

This brings us to ingredients we need to make the knowledge – organization connection. We need to leverage the knowledge of the founder(s) in the form of ideas that are communicated to the participants in order for the organization to take a path toward the target result. One thing that all sustainable and successful organizations need is clarity around what the founders and subsequent leaders expect, and what members get from them when a founder’s knowledge is shared (communicated) effectively. This can happen with or without technology.

Finally, ongoing organizational development depends totally on a sustainable pipeline of human inputs all derived from the knowledge of the members. An organization in which the members fail to communicate at least some of their knowledge will cease to function as an organization. Even an act as simple as passing on an explicit phone message or placing a directive to ship product is a communication that results from what one member knows and passes on to another contributing member.

How content management and knowledge management relate

Much of the communicating that goes on in organizations results in typed, graphic or spoken formats that are captured for sharing. These captured items form a body of information currently referred to as content. They represent the majority of the currency of most organizational communication. The remaining communication is verbalized but not captured except by the audience; it must not be neglected as critical content but is harder to tack, manage and organize in a system. [ Note: Voice messages and other tape-recorded information might also be considered significant content but that depends on the context and the organization.]

There is much philosophical debate about whether knowledge in the form of tacit understanding or expertise can truly be captured. Of course, the connections that are made in a human brain among disparate pieces of information can only be approximated by representations that are communicated in some form. While, those connections may be electronically mapped and captured in a future electronic mind mapping, they aren’t useful to today’s organizational operations. For good or ill, captured human speech, writings, drawings or other human communications represent the best that we can do in terms of harnessing knowledge for sharing. These forms of content, we can think of as knowledge tokens. The better the communicator, the closer to the knowledge source we are and the better our understanding of what their knowledge truly is.

In an efficient and effectively operational organization, we find well-communicated information in the form of shared content that helps workers know what is expected of them, how to do their jobs, where to go for more information, and so on. Content is a significant part of our idea currency in the form of these knowledge tokens.

Before moving on to how we can manage these knowledge tokens in the form of content, it is important to make a distinction between sharing the tacit knowledge that an expert has and knowledge management. Tacit knowledge in the form of deep expertise is strictly a brain managed activity. Sharing tacit knowledge by an expert with a less experienced colleague is an activity that is vital to sustaining and growing organizations. How that happens and succeeds is another type of organizational activity and can’t be easily defended as knowledge management. However, making sure that experts are identified and findable in any system of knowledge mapping and retrieval is a useful and important aspect of building up a knowledge management system. Exactly, how the expert shares tacit knowledge with the individual, who approaches him/her with a need to know, is a knowledge transfer activity that currently eludes any practical knowledge management system. It is important to note that context is a useful starting place for learning to build up expertise. Content is a component to be leveraged in solving problems by experts. Content also needs to explicitly identify is source so that users, who are still learning, have a way of finding experts from whom to directly gain richer understanding.

Before anything can be managed we have to know about it

Having established an organizational need for communicated knowledge, let’s turn our attention to managing these knowledge tokens. Like the seemingly endless variants on how different human brains process the same information, organizations can operate in infinitely diverse ways when using the same or similar data sources. The variations depend, in large measure, on human knowledge and behaviors interacting. The complexity of possible reactions is studied in a subset of management sciences, i.e., organizational behavior. Understanding organizational behavior is a useful aspect of identifying how knowledge is shared and reacted to in a particular domain.

This prompts us to examine ways in which members of the domain relate to each other and the means they use to communicate among themselves. The artifacts of their communication, content, tell organizational behavior experts something about their effectiveness in communicating their knowledge. By looking at significant amounts of content, we also see norms of communication that have grown up within a body of content. In some organizations, it may be normal to share significant technical information in the body of e-mails, while in another the practice may be to use e-mail only for scheduling or to transmit attached formal technical memos. Still another organization may have evolved to a point of structuring a repository in which technical memos reside and members are notified of memo existence through an e-mail announcement with a link to that memo. Teaching and training activities that have been captured on video are a fourth example of a type of content.

In each case, knowledge and content have a relationship. But, in each case, an organizational member captured knowledge and communicated it differently. What the content is, how it is formulated and communicated are important things to know about organizational behavior. As well, the behavioral expert will want to explore whether a practice is widespread or spotty, and who in the organization is influencing one practice versus another.

To have these organizational understandings about content means knowing forms of communication, patterns of forms, and the nature of the information in each form. Identifying the type of content (e.g. technical data, scheduling, relaying a message, documentation), mapping content sources, where they are routed, and the purpose of these knowledge tokens is what we must know about before we can effectively manage them. In any management process the goal should not be to create barriers or add complexity. Management must understand what “is” before it can make changes to effect what “should be.” In the case of knowledge, the object should be to improve flow, facilitate sharing, encourage participation, and affect learning. Furthermore, and most important, behaviors that have already happened easily or through disciplined structures, which are working, should be identified for replication and reinforced.

Before knowledge tokens can be managed we have to know where they are – logically and physically

An analysis of knowledge flow in an organization is an important component of knowledge management. KM experts use techniques in the areas of social network analysis, systems analysis, processing mapping, focus group sessions, one-on-one interviews with key employees and other methods to identify knowledge assets and where they exist. These assets are generally embodied in two components: humans with expertise and content, which has been captured, collected and stored for later use.

When we ask, what is KM really about, analysis is another key component. Some use the expression knowledge audit, for it expresses a process of codifying critical knowledge elements in an organization. During the audit, the analyst should be able to identify:

  • How an organization does its work – the source of important new ideas
  • How ideas and new information are disseminated and shared in the organization
  • Who the idea generators and recipients are
  • How information is preserved for future re-use

Also, an auditor will pursue:

  • What is missing
  • What is not captured
  • What is not being shared
  • Where there are critical information needs that are not being met

It is also useful to discover how individual workers meet their own information needs. Where do they look for information when it is not readily at hand or when there is not an apparent process for finding fundamental documents that reflect what the organization has learned in the past? The answers to these questions inform a full view of an organization’s knowledge map.

Physical location of files, technology applications that are used to store and retrieve information, external resources that provide background research content, subscriptions to databases and publications, and society memberships need to be identified. A list of all forms of content (e.g. paper print, PDF, GIF) and experts will be needed to develop the specification for building a comprehensive KM infrastructure.

Finally, content must be categorized not only by topic or subject matter but also by the groups that use it and by other criteria they would find meaningful (e.g. date of creation, customer name). A common situation is that a number of groups in an organization need the same content for different purposes. A manager may require the same financial data in a structured report that an analyst needs in a spreadsheet or database application where it can be manipulated and edited. The context of content need and use is noteworthy.

Before content can be managed using information technology (IT), we have to know its origins and intended audience

How and why content is created, its purpose, when and where it will be called for, who the creator(s) were and who the users are likely to be must all be understood. This is often achieved through development of a knowledge map. A knowledge manager armed with this representation can guide a plan for managing knowledge tokens in the future. The management plan must accommodate three key content processing activities:

  • Capturing
  • Organizing (physically) and categorizing (logically)
  • Search and retrieval

It is at this stage that knowledge management can begin to leverage information technologies. Because of the diversity of organizational behaviors, types of content, cultural norms, leadership styles and the possibilities of software applications already in existence and perhaps in heavy use, it is foolish to think that a single software product will contribute a “knowledge management” solution. Such “software solutions” presume a standard framework for knowledge management. No such generic model exists. Even within a single organization, we can find hundreds of possible frameworks for managing knowledge, even as many as there are employees. Here is the most difficult KM challenge to be addressed. Unlike a highly structured discipline like, for example, accounting, typical knowledge handling reflects mostly the human behaviors inherent in its local domain. Imposing a pre-structured packaged solution is sure to fail, and examples of those failures abound. Implementing an unbounded solution will fail, as well, unless a plan with structure is set forth in advance in a roadmap with defined results.

However, an organization can and must look within its own practices to discover what technologies combined with business behaviors are already working well. It needs to learn where there is a comfort level and success in capturing key knowledge content, or where communities of sharing already exist, even outside formal organizational structures. Armed with examples of workable solutions and “natural” knowledge leaders or knowledge champions, the organization has a starting point.

Who is going to be the Knowledge Manager?

The position of Chief Knowledge Officer (CKO) may make sense in a very large organization, or in a smaller one a knowledge architect (KA) may be an appropriate role. Regardless, devising a knowledge management plan for creating more structure around capture, categorization and search depends first on the investigation we have explored in the preceding sections. Armed with this information, highly unique to the domain, the CKO or KA can begin to implement cohesive technology architecture. The next steps emulate that of any data modeling process by using one or more existing knowledge handling prototypes to use as a starting point. Aiming for an architecture that seamlessly integrates already working components is both practical and realistic. It is also bound to be the most economical in terms of technology. Often commercial-of-the-shelf (COTS) software can contribute a missing component for a content area that has been neglected or perhaps the company intranet can provide a simple gateway to all the applications that contain these knowledge tokens that are of greatest value.

Having planned a technology strategy, the true challenge is in the details of implementation. To implement successfully we need to affirm what we know about organizational knowledge, those who create it, those who need it and why and how it will be used. The hardest part of knowledge management is managing the people at all points in the lifecycle of each knowledge asset. Value comes from dependability, consistency/uniformity, and comprehensiveness. Without clear structure and the assurance of that structure being followed, the resulting resource will not inspire confidence and will not be used. If seekers don’t find what they need, when they need it, they will not contribute to the system what they know – a cycle of non-compliance will surely set in. Technology can be used to help every step of content process: capture, integration, categorization and retrieval but it won’t replace the human knowledge processes from which content originates. Furthermore, technology will never replace human interactions that help experts convey to learners how they use their deep tacit knowledge to solve problems and to innovate.

To assure IT success the CKO or KA must have deep understanding of organization priorities and its workings. This professional must understand content organization techniques and methods and have the leadership skill and authority to garner participation and compliance with standards. The person needs to be able to establish standards, always within the framework of the unique domain, paying attention to “what makes sense” but also be knowledgeable about industry norms, standards, and technologies deployed and working elsewhere. But the chief role of this person is really one of fostering a community of rich collaboration, a sense of passion for sharing among the constituents. To do this the CKO must influence managers and construct a belief in a knowledge-publishing model. Maintaining relationships throughout all departments and having knowledge of the business, always mindful of how this organization goes about doing its business, is essential.


Organizations need to remember that knowledge creation is first a personal activity. Knowledge is assembled internally by individuals. Knowledge contributes to the building up of the value of the person, the worker, in whom it is embodied. Protecting growing expertise, nurturing it, encouraging it and exposing that expertise to others who will benefit is the ultimate knowledge management activity.

Leveraging expertise speaks to how the individual relates to his communities. The product of that leveraging results in “knowledge tokens” (verbalized communiqués, writings, or other detectable outputs) that convey or attempt to convey what knowledge the communicator wants to share with one or more communicants. When the individual uses knowledge tokens contributed by others to assemble new knowledge that in turn gets shared, we have a knowledge system that is working. Human behavior is the key at every phase and technology is only there as an enabler.

We asked at the beginning, what is knowledge management really about? Key components: ideas, communicating, sharing, collaborating, retrieving and learning. We start with knowledge, we add more knowledge, we re-use knowledge and we produce more knowledge. It’s a perpetual activity and will continue with or without technology. Top managers of knowledge creators will understand how to nurture and encourage individuals that will feed the knowledge system. They will also inspire those individuals to use the system to expand their own professional knowledge in ways that will enhance their value as members of the organization. By demanding and championing intellectual analytical and synthesizing behaviors we can elevate workers who actually experience interacting with explicit knowledge tokens as part of their professional work.

Lynda Moulton,


Other Readings to Stimulate Thinking on the Topic

Avishai, Bernard. ‘Knowledge Management’, Entry for the MBA in a Box, ed. Joel Kurtzman, PricewaterhouseCoopers 5p. Random House 01/01/2003

Berkman, Eric. When Bad Things Happen to Good Ideas. 5p. CIO 04/01/2001

Blossom, John. Publishing is shaping corporate culture. 2p. KMWorld 01/01/2004

Davenport, Thomas, H. Working Knowledge: how organizations manage what they know, by Thomas H. Davenport and Laurence Prusak. 199p. Harvard Business School, Boston, 2000 ISBN: 0875846556

Feldman, Susan. The High Cost of Not Finding Information. 3p. KMWorld 03/01/2004

Kennedy, Mary Lee. The .t., .i. and .e. in knowledge. 3p. KMWorld 09/01/2004

Leonard, Dorothy. Deep Smarts: how to cultivate and transfer enduring business wisdom, by Dorothy Leonard and Walter Swap. 288p. Harvard Business School Publishing, Boston, 2005. ISBN: 1591395283

Woods, Eric. KM past and future. Changing the rules of the game. 3p. KMWorld 01/01/2004