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Knowledge Management: Oxymoron or Dynamic Duo?

Dr. David J. Skyrme

The following is the full text of this article which appeared in Managing Information, Vol. 4, No. 7, pp. 24-26 (September 1997). Reproduced with permission.


Introduction

As reported elsewhere in this issue (of Managing Information) (page 50), the Aslib IRM network recently discussed the contribution of information professionals to effective knowledge management in their companies. It was concluded that many of their skills, such as selecting, classifying and organising information were an essential prerequisite to successful knowledge management. But what is the distinction between information and knowledge management?

In my own work, I have found two schools of thought. The first is the "quick fix" school who substitute the word knowledge for information in their language and literature. They then carry on as if nothing is different. (Don't look too closely at some reprints of Aslib literature!) The second school is challenged by the dilemma that knowledge and management seem uneasy bedfellows. After all, while information is tangible and easily transmittable over electronic networks, how can you classify, organise and distribute knowledge that is in people's heads and not so easily codifiable?

Tacit and Explicit Knowledge

Part of the solution to the dilemma is the recognition of two distinct types of knowledge - explicit and tacit. Explicit knowledge is that which is written down or expressed in some tangible form. This can be construed as its embodiment in information. Implicit knowledge, according to a widely recognised definition by Nonaka and Takeuchi [1], is that which:

"is highly personal and hard to formalise. Subjective insights, intuitions and hunches fall into this category of knowledge."

Tacit knowledge is communicable through mechanisms like observations, conversation, on-the-job learning and so on. Its very intangibility makes its management a challenge.

Many writers and academics give elaborate definitions of the differences between data, information, knowledge alongside even higher order concepts like intelligence and wisdom. In business practice such distinctions, while intellectually interesting, are peripheral to the main knowledge focus. This is the identification of that knowledge which the organisation can share, develop and exploit for bottom-line business benefits. Ask any senior manager what 'know-how' or which people are crucial to their firm's success and most have a much clearer idea than they do about erudite distinctions between information and knowledge. The focus of successful knowledge management programmes is to make this implicit knowledge about organisational knowledge 'explicit', and to put in place systematic processes that identify it, develop it, share it and exploit it.

The Momentum of Knowledge Management

The last couple of years have seen an explosion in conferences, articles and books on the subject of knowledge management and associated topics such as intellectual capital and intangible assets. The convergence of several strands of management focus, such as quality, agile manufacturing and 'the learning organisation' has been tracked by Amidon in her Wellsprings - hindsight and insight charts [2]. Today this congruence is leading to the introduction of knowledge management initiatives in many firms, particularly those that are knowledge intensive, such as high technology, oil, chemical and pharmaceutical companies, financial services and management consultancies. Many such initiatives are headed by newly created appointments of Chief Knowledge Officers, Directors of Intellectual Capital and other such posts.

Typical projects within such initiatives include:

  • Creation of knowledge databases - best practices, expert directories, market intelligence etc.
  • Active process management - of knowledge gathering, classifying, storing etc.
  • Development of knowledge centres - focal points for knowledge skills and facilitating knowledge flow
  • Introduction of collaborative technologies - Intranets or groupware for rapid information access
  • Knowledge webs - networks of experts who collaborate across and beyond an organisation's functional and geographic boundaries.

Role of Information Management

Clearly good information management practice has a role to play in several of these activities. Thus in a recent research project into the status of knowledge management and case studies of leading practitioners [3], it was found that knowledge teams at the heart of such initiatives include people from a wide variety of disciplines and backgrounds including information specialists, IT specialists and 'champions' with change management skills. Typical of such a knowledge management team are those at Dow and Monsanto, that are effectively webs of different specialists who work both within their business units on knowledge management, yet at the same time part of a wider knowledge network.

A common feature of successful knowledge projects is the use of common language. This may first emerge through in-company group and team discussions, but over time becomes embodied within internal memos and company documents. At Price Waterhouse, for example, they developed an International Business Language® , that provides a common means of classifying business processes across many industries, This offers a framework for sharing best practices in their KnowledgeView® databases. Elsewhere, information or knowledge centres are the focal for maintaining a company thesaurus that provides a basis for good information retrieval yet reflects the emerging language in use within the company.

Adding the Knowledge Dimension

As I have noted earlier, the encapsulation of knowledge into databases, is effectively putting it into information format. This leads to another oxymoron a 'knowledge base', which is in fact more like a database about knowledge. Database formats have the obvious advantages of transmittability, ease of access and speed of dissemination. However it filters out some of the key features of what distinguishes knowledge from information - contextual richness, the human cognitive dimension and tacit knowledge. Effective knowledge sharing therefore needs something beyond databases. At the totally face-to-face human end of the spectrum is what Nonaka and Takeuchi call socialisation - the processes by which individual share their tacit knowledge in face-to-face situations, perhaps augmented by facilitation and other knowledge structuring techniques.

There are several steps that information professionals can take to make to move beyond basic knowledge 'databases' to something more useful. These include:

  • Adding contextual information - where was this information used? What factors need to be considered when using it?
  • Giving details of originator- allowing users of the information to contact the contributors e.g. via email hypertext links.
  • Offering an experts database - pointers to people, information on the location of experts and expertise, rather than the expertise itself.
  • Addition of multimedia material e.g. a visual demonstration of an entry, such as a team at work.

Undoubtedly the best contribution that an information professional can make, is that they are the personal interface to the database of information. They also act as pivotal links between people with queries and others who might have the solution. They thus interact and dialogue with their clients, helping them in a consultancy and advisory mode. This, as many senior information professionals know, has been part of their personal development from simply responding to information queries to that of developing a deeper understanding of the business, and gaining a better appreciation of the work, evolving needs, and personal styles of the professionals and managers they serve. As Sandra Ward of Glaxo-Wellcome and Jacqueline Copley of Clifford Chance demonstrated to the IRM network, their own personal development along these lines has helped their information units act as true business partners. Such individuals are often the key links in an organisation's vital 'web of knowledge'.

From Management to Leadership

Companies and individual professionals, like information managers, must take a wider perspective of the role of knowledge. The most valuable knowledge is often not that which is encoded as information. It is human expertise and the processes by which it is shared and enhanced that create value through new products and services and enhanced business processes. The techniques of information management and particularly information resources management provide an essential foundation. What our research has shown is how critical it is to have a culture of knowledge sharing. In such a culture, free flowing conversation, open dialogue across organisational boundaries, team and networking building are important mechanisms for creating high levels of innovation and learning. These 'soft' factors are essential complements to the 'hard' factors that are typical of information management processes.

Our research also showed that organisations that are successful at exploiting knowledge are those that exhibit good leadership skills at all organisation levels. The word 'management' suggests custodianship, even control, and a concentration on managing resources that already exist. In contract, 'leadership' is about constant development - of information resources, of individual skills (an important part of the knowledge resource) and of knowledge and learning networks.

Conclusion

If you view knowledge simply as another form of information then knowledge management is not an oxymoron. However, you will probably tend to focus on the hard and process aspects. You should gain the benefits that you would expect anyway from good information management. On the other hand, if you take the wider contextual view of knowledge, then it is really about getting the best out of your people (your knowledge workers), their expertise and creativity. This requires the higher skills of leadership, appropriately supported by effective knowledge processes. There is a shift of emphasis from knowledge management to knowledge creation and innovation. If one makes this shift, then we are talking not of knowledge management but of knowledge leadership and there is no oxymoron. Knowledge and leadership are truly a dynamic duo for the future that will go beyond the immediate fad of knowledge management.

References

[1] The Knowledge Creating Company, I Nonaka and H Takeuchi, Oxford University Press (1995)

[2] Innovations Strategy for the Knowledge Economy: The Ken Awakening, Debra M. Amidon, Butterworth Heinemann (1997)

[3] Creating the Knowledge-based Company, David J. Skyrme and Debra M. Amidon, Business Intelligence, London (1997).

® International Business Language and KnowledgeView are registered service marks of Price Waterhouse.


David Skyrme Associates provides consultancy services and workshops on information and knowledge management that address the topics covered in this article.



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