There isn’t much agreement about what KM is
It is difficult to find a definition of KM that two people agree on and many fields, from IT to lawyers and librarians, claim KM as their own. As each has different knowledge-related needs, they advocate different practices.
Here is my attempt at a brief explanation of what KM is and why we need it.
When people do anything they use knowledge and they often access information (e.g. reading a book because they are doing research, mining a database for information about customers’ buying habits). In most situations it requires more than one person to get something done and people share knowledge. At one end of the knowledge-sharing spectrum, in a person-to-person phone conversation, you might find a mechanic at a car dealership ordering brake rotors from a parts supplier. At the other end, where hundreds or even thousands of people, with different roles, responsibilities, and expertise are involved in a large-scale defense contract, at any moment, working in teams, various groups may be planning or reviewing some aspect of the design or testing of hardware or software.3 Focusing on the interconnections between work (getting things done), information, andknowledge, KM revolves around fundamental questions like:
- what information and knowledge do people need,
- how do they use it,
- where do they get it,
- do they have it,
- what obstacles are there to getting, sharing, and using it, and
- what will help them get it, share it, and use it more effectively
Wherever there are knowledge workers, questions like these help them accomplish whatever they are doing. The last one is most closely related to action, but, from the standpoint of KM, all are practical questions, in the sense that informed answers contribute to a better, more functional workplace.
The reason for asking these questions is usually framed in management language; for example, ‘improving efficiency’, ‘making the organization more competitive (or more profitable)’, ‘getting things done quickly and cheaply’, but the goal is the same. Unless people can do effectively what they aim to do (control air traffic, make new policies, protect critical infrastructure, care for the sick, and so on) organizational objectives won’t be met. So, it is helpful, when doing KM, to keep the fundamental questions and people’s work firmly in mind and stay focused on the connection between these questions and the work people are doing.
KM is about improving the experience and quality of knowledge-work, recognizing the importance of information and knowledge for getting work done well.