25. Juni 2004

[ English , Wissensmanagement ]

Knowledge Management does not exist. Personal Knowledge Management does.

After a long day of working on my BlogTalk-paper I need to vent a little on the state of "Knowledge Management". Forgive me if I sound angry or cynical. Trust me that I am still in a good mood.

Since I became interested in the topic of KM, I went through arguments like this a hundred times:

Someone: "Knowledge Management does not exist! You can't manage knowledge!"

Me: "I agree - you can't 'manage knowledge'. But you can do things that improve knowledge worker's productivity. You can do things that have to do with knowledge and that benefit the organisation - that is what I call 'Knowledge Management'."

Someone: "Hm... well..."

I am really tired of these discussions.

Let's make it simple:

You can't manage knowledge. If you are an organisation.
You can manage knowledge. If you are an individual.

"Knowledge" is something personal and only something personal. Once you make it explicit, it's no longer knowledge: It's information. We can manage information well, we can build fancy databases and label them "Knowledge Management Systems" but they remain Information Management Systems. And information by itself is completely meaningless.

"Information (...) is simply the vehicle by which we attempt to provoke - or evoke - a human response. Information on its own is quite static and lifeless. It simply exists - on multimedia computer screens, in text books, magazines, movies, TV, CDs, reports, letters, emails, faxes, memos and so on - all waiting to be interpreted, all waiting to have meaning attached - by people."

(Miller, F.J. (2002) "I = 0 (Information has no intrinsic meaning)" Information Research, 8(1), paper no. 140 ")

Once we forget about organisations, things are much easier: Every person has knowledge and everyone is "managing" it for himself, personally: By keeping files, gathering information, reading, talking to other people, asking questions, thinking, reflecting... People are managing knowledge all the time! Try it out and talk to someone about "Personal Knowlege Management" and you will quickly be in understanding. Try the same with "Knowledge Management"...

What should "Knowledge Management" do? It should improve Knowledge Workers' productivity. This cannot be approached from a top-down organisational viewpoint. We need to understand what Knowledge Workers do and how their productivity can be improved first. Then we can build Knowledge Management Systems. They need to benefit the individual directly or they will not work. And they will need to forget the idea that it is the systems that are "managing knowledge." The people are. The systems can only help them. Information Management is a part of that.

How do we go on now? Is this the end of "Knowledge Management"? Do we need a new term? [1] What are we going to call our discipline? "Intellectual Work Effectiveness Improvement"?

While it is sad that "Knowledge Management" as a term has been completely devalued (as pointed out beautifully by T.D. Wilson in "The Nonsense of Knowledge Management"), inventing a new term would probably cause more problems than benefits. Maybe we just need to emphasise more what we mean by "Knowledge Management". We should stop talking about the label of our discipline but about concrete things we do:

  • We help Knowledge Workers organise their work better and become more productive.
  • We help Communities work together more effectively.
  • We facilitate group-forming and the sharing of knowledge between people

Maybe one day it will be possible to say that you are working in "Knowledge Management" and that will actually mean something. If this day ever comes it will probably have something to do with a very direct connection to improving Knowledge Workers' effectiveness. (Which raises the question of who is a Knowledge Worker and who isn't. I have some pretty clear thoughts about that but I'll leave that for another time.)

It's strange: I work in Knowledge Management and I say that Knowledge Management does not exist. When I was younger, I hated paradox. Today I love it.

So now let's go on with our work. Sorry for ranting. We should talk less and do more. And I need to finish this paper by next week.

Knowledge Management System
(full size picture here)


[1] There is an interesting Comment by Tom Wilson on this on David Gurteen's Weblog Entry on "the nonsense of km".

Trackbacks sind Links von anderen Weblogs auf diesen Eintrag.

''You can't manage knowledge. If you are an organisation. You can manage knowledge. If you are an individual.''

Anders Jacobsen's blog: Personal KM (25.06.04 12:35)

Svært lesverdig om Knowledge Management, via Anders Jacobsen. Fra før er det opplest og vedtatt at "data" ikke er "informasjon" før noen faktisk er blitt informert. En naturlig følge av dette er at systemer i beste fall kan lagre informasjon,...

ynnesdal:blog: Data, informasjon og kunnskap (25.06.04 14:06)

Das E-Business Weblog: Knowledge Management does not exist. Personal Knowledge Management does. Let's make it simple: You can't manage knowledge. If you are an organisation. You can manage knowledge. If you are an individual. Entertaining and informati...

Knowledge Jolt with Jack: Personal or Corporate Knowledge Management (30.06.04 04:01)

There's a discussion going on about Knowledge Management -> Personal Knowledge Management. I think you wouldn't want to miss it.

B2OB: Where is Tom?... (30.06.04 18:57)

Thomas Collins has written up an interesting post, building up on my recent article "Knowledge Management does not exist. Personal Knowledge Management does." and connecting it with Denham Greys seemingly...

Das E-Business Weblog: On Personal KM and Knowledge Work Models (02.07.04 22:13)

Thanks to Martin Roell over at Das E-Business Blog for his encouraging comments on my preliminary "End-to-End KM" model shown in my previous post. It was especially helpful to see how he displayed and compared my diagram with the very different, but re...

Knowledge Aforethought: Value of KM Models (06.07.04 19:31)

There's an important discussion going on over at Martin Roell's Das E-Business Weblog, revisiting the question whether Knowledge Management exists. Martin began the discussion with his post asserting, "Knowledge Management does not exist. Personal Know...

Knowledge Aforethought: There's No Such Thing As ... Knowledge Management? (12.07.04 17:33)

Jim McGee has written an article connecting back to conversations of Martin Roell and the recently-concluded discussion on Personal Knowledge Management "versus" Corporate Knowledge Management at AOK. I am also trying this idea with my colleagues and c...

Knowledge Jolt with Jack: PKM starts the conversation (17.07.04 05:04)

Jeff Beard, aka LawTech Guru, has an interesting post today about KM. In KM Thought of the Day he argues that KM should shift its focus to individual effort in place of institutional effort. I disagree.… If I were a...

tins ::: Rick Klau's weblog: KM - individual vs. organizational (19.07.04 19:42)

Here's a slightly focused grab bag of interesting articles that have caught my attention as I explore the field of knowledge management.

Top of the list: June 25, Das E-Business Weblog,

Contentious Weblog: Various and Sundry Knowledge Management Stuff (30.07.04 04:52)

"I must find a truth that is true for me" (Søren Aabye Kierkegaard) Cette citation vient de ce brillant papier qui me remet au chantier de la publication sur mon sujet de prédilection : "Le partage et la construction des connaissances par les outils NT...

Mario tout de go...: Le cybercarnet et son incroyable potentiel au niveau du partage des connaissances (31.07.04 20:29)


Three cheers Martin!

I sometimes use the equation Knowledge= Information * (Experience+Skills+Attitude). To me that points out nicely that only a individual perspective will work out, it's the individual who uses information in the light of his personal context. Organisations only concentrate on the information part mainly. But that is what you get when you talk about Knowledge processes for instance. Most process-schemata leave out the important bit: people.

Ton Zijlstra am 25.06.04 10:03 #

Thank you Martin for bringing this issue to surface (last talk I had was with Lilia at Lisbon airport). Since I've came to the field of KM, was faced with growing question marks concerning the «label» of this field. I had the pleasure of talking with Professor Tom on two diferent ocasions: one during ISIC2002, and the other during a seminar here in Lisbon (see pps), last year. After the last presentation we talked about «gaps» in the KM aproach, starting with defining the concept. Although i think the Information Management (IM) aproach is not a substitute for «KM» because does not consider (incorporate) the «spaces», the «links» between information and individual and the conditions to foster knowledge development, IMHO.

Mónica André am 25.06.04 12:33 #

I agree, Mónica. Dave Snowden has an interesting view on this: He sees Information Management as a prerequisite for KM. It is a "hygiene factor": When you don't get your Information Management right, you cannot go on to develop KM.

I definately need to write Tom Wilson an email. I re-read his "nonsense" paper on the train back from Luxembourg today and it helped me tremendously in getting my thinking about what I am actually doing in "KM" clear. Mr Wilson, if you read this: Thank You.

Martin Röll am 25.06.04 21:41 #

Verna Allee has some similar views on this... blogged here in an entry on the "KM in NGOs" Workshop in Brussels in October 03. (It's in German. If you can't read it follow the link over here to look at photos from Brussels. ;-))

Martin Röll am 25.06.04 22:04 #

Hi Martin,

Tom Wilson will be open to your comments I think.
I've been discussing with him and others (e.g. Euan Semple) in the past about this as well:




Ton Zijlstra am 26.06.04 12:01 #

Thanks to Monica for pointing out the discussion - I've been on holiday for three weeks - hence the delay in becoming involved.

It's a beast, isn't it :-) I'd probably have to write another paper to respond fully to the various comments in this thread. :-)

However, I'll try to be concise. First, what Martin has described as 'personal knowledge management' has been known for decades as 'personal information management'(we even offer courses in the subject for Ph.D. students to aid their effectiveness in the role) - so you really can't win there. The management of information resources is information management.

'Knowledge' is not only personal, it is also only an evolutionary mental process - we formulate what we know 'on the fly' in response to situations in which we find ourselves, where we often have to adapt 'what we know' to novelty in those situations. Before being prompted by the situation we would probably be unable to make the relevant 'knowledge' explicit.

So the labels are important - they have to say what they mean and mean what they say - so I prefer 'information resource management' over IM because it is more explicit.

I'm working on another paper in which I try to unpick why km is such a problem and the essence of it is this. Under the IM paradigm, the information system's (or information worker's) interest in the information resource virtually ceases with the dissemination of the information to the information user - the 'life-cycle' of information virtually ends at this point, except that the cycle is generally drawn as an open spiral - the information received is used to generate more information for treatment in the life cycle. How it is used is usually left out of the cycle.

What the kind of km advocated by Martin is associated with is, in effect, an extension of the life-cycle to a concern with what happens to the information AFTER it has been received by the user - is it locally stored? is it shared? is it used creatively by the individual or a group ('community of practice')for organizational or research purposes?, etc., etc.

We are actually still talking about information, but in a much more diffuse form, involving oral transfer of information in groups, partial use of documentary information to support cases, etc., etc. Two existing organizational 'disciplines' already deal with these kinds of activities - 'organization development' and 'organizational communication'. In fact, a couple of years ago, I gave a presentation on the problems with km and a person in the audience at the end said, "Well, I'm called a knowledge manager." "What do you actually do?" I said. She then gave me a brief description of her work and I said, "That sounds like organization development to me." "Yes," she said, "we used to be called the OD department, but they've changed the name on the door."

This illustrates the problem - I think: various totally different groups have seized upon the label and use it for very different purposes - the AI community, librarians (e.g., the newly appointed librarian at the University of Edinburgh is actually called "Vice Principal for Knowledge Management" - a source of great amusement in the ancient seat of learning!), information technologies, information systems specialists, organization developers, etc., etc.

My conclusion is the everyone needs to ask themselves the question I asked: "What do I actually do?" - and if a well-defined label can't be found, then use the brief statement instead - for Heaven's sake don't use km - you'll just add to the confusion. Given what Martin, for example, is interested in, is it really an improvement to say, 'I'm concerned with knowledge management', rather than, 'I'm concerned with improving personal effectiveness'?

Tom Wilson am 09.07.04 19:25 #

Hello Tom, great to have you here! It's an honour!

I agree that the way I described "personal knowledge management" above really is personal information management. I meant it slightly differently than I wrote it ;): I was trying to say that people do "manage knowledge" (in their heads) and support that process by managing information resources. But now I see that even that might be an oversimplification or not getting the whole picture: It does not take into account that knowledge depends on the situation as you point out. So maybe 'personal knowledge management' also doesn't exist?

Do write that other paper! As you can see there are many people waiting for it. :-)

Martin Röll am 10.07.04 13:11 #

I agree with the definition that "Knowledge" is something personal. It is stocked in peoples minds, and only those who stock it will be able to use it.

My understanding of PKM is the way a person organizes his knowledge. What helps him remember information he learned about? What helps him to reconnect the information he once learned about an issue. We all know, that our brain does not always put out on demand everything we remember having put in. There are people who are able to do all this without any paper or IT support. But I think there is a limit to this.

My understanding of KM within an organization is: Increasing and maintaining the knowlegde of its members. Creating information exchange (here I am not sure if I should call this "knowledge exchange". I don´t do so, because Knowledge exchange would mean something like "exchanging brains" to me. Which is a rather ugly idea. ;-) ), giving access to information data bases, setting up rules for documentation of new information.

There is one sentence from a teacher of my business course, that I always keep in mind: "Wissen heißt: Wissen wo´s steht." Rough translation: "Knowledge means: Knowing were it´s written down."

Consequence for my personal knowledge is that I try to reduce the things I have to keep in mind on knowing that something exists and what´s the name of it. What I expect of IT-Solutions for personal knowledge management is therefore the following: They should help me to store information on Key Words I kept in mind. For example: links to more detailed information, names of persons who specialized on this issue, eventually noting down some own thoughts and ideas concerning the issue, and so on. And if I say "store" I also mean that it should be researchable via my mind kept key words. An KM-Solution for an organization should do more or less the same, but for the knowledge of all of its members at once.

What Knowledge Management should absolutely avoid is reproducing existing content. It´s rather contra-productive if someone looking for information to increase or maintain his knowledge is confronted with mountains of documents all stating more or less the same information.

Julia am 11.07.04 18:31 #

What a wonderful discussion you've started, Martin. I started to write a comment responding to Prof. Wilson's, but it quickly got too long. So, rather than clutter up your blog, I posted my response on my blog at:

Tom Collins am 12.07.04 17:47 #