Numerous decades ago, a discipline called Knowledge Management started to evolve around the many published thoughts of philosophers, psychologists, scientists, mathematicians, and countless other smart people. Many intellectuals (and even many wannabe intellectuals) from around the world were drawn to it, in hopes of becoming part of an intellectual movement whose possibilities were seemingly endless. The goal was to create a repeatable and powerful practice that could shape businesses, transform the way people work, and drive entire industries. And then, like countless other ideas whose originators thought would change the world… it went nowhere.
Many Decades of Inconsistent Definitions
In 2015, Girard and Girard published an article called: “Defining knowledge management: Toward an applied compendium” that listed more than 100 different definitions for the term Knowledge Management (Girard and Girard, 2015).
Yes, even the IF4IT has its own definition of Knowledge Management and is listed as one of the citations in the publication. In fact, if you look at the IF4IT definition, you’ll find multiple definitions, too!
Why? The answer is simple, even if unpalatable. There is no clear and generally accepted definition of what Knowledge, itself, is because there is no data that can be shown to unequivocally prove such a definition. This means attempting to define a repeatable practice (i.e. KM) around what cannot be defined is challenging, to say the least.
As Girard and Girard present in their research, there is no consensus of what KM is, even after more than three decades of attempts by many very smart people to turn such concepts into a professional discipline with clearly repeatable practices.
The outcomes of such inconsistencies become very obvious. Many people working in the so-called Knowledge Management industries, with many different definitions of what Knowledge and Knowledge Management are; all working with little uniformity and consistency, and all yielding very little in the form of significant, impactful, and transformative solutions.
At best, the only outcomes that have come from the formal KM industry are many published theories and theoretical frameworks.
The Perception of Knowledge Management as an industry
If you look at publications of industry leading research organizations, such as Gartner and Forrester, you’ll easily and quickly note that what is classified as the formal Knowledge Management Industry is almost non-existing. Formally starting about three (3) decades ago, the industry sputtered with no direction and, more importantly, no notable outcomes that could be proved to change the way people and their enterprises work. In 2007, more than a decade ago, Gartner completely eliminated KM from its Hype Cycle (Mann, 2007). Even after decades of trying to establish itself as a notable industry, prominent industry research and tracking firms like Bloomberg and Thompson Reuters still don’t seem to view the KM industry as worth labeling and tracking.
So, why has KM as an industry gone nowhere? The logical guess is that, both, Knowledge and Knowledge Management are ubiquitous and, therefore, exist within and across all things. This means it becomes impossible to classify, define, focus on, address, solve for, or tackle KM in any one specific way.
In fact, we can clearly show that anything related to knowledge has specific titles and/or roles associated with it that have clear work responsibilities and outcomes; roles that are not “Knowledge Manager.” Examples include but are not limited to:
- Clinical psychologists, psychiatrists, and other medical doctors (not Knowledge Managers) perform and publish research about the brain and how it works.
- Learning Management specialists like formal educators/teachers/professors (not Knowledge Managers) address and publish the most effective means of teaching humans and how to get humans to learn.
- Biology, Pharmaceutical, and other medical experts (not Knowledge Managers) perform research on how the body functions at physical levels.
- Engineers, Computer Scientists, Data Scientists and other IT professionals (not Knowledge Managers) are designing and building applications and other automation solutions that address all forms of human communications, data capture, data manipulation, and data sharing.
- Even capturing and documenting what people know in an enterprise is performed by professionals known as Documenters, Technical Writers, and Technical Communicators. Although, in this case, this is where the general public’s perception of Knowledge Managers seems to be (see below).
The above highlights a very clear point. Any role or title in any discipline area or industry that works with knowledge, in any way or form, is a Knowledge Management role and does not require (and rarely does have) the formal title of Knowledge Manager to be deemed as such. This further highlights that having the formal title or role of Knowledge Manager is ambiguous because it could mean almost anything. (We will discuss the industry perception of the Knowledge Manager role/title, later in this article.)
The Importance of Information Technology (IT) in Knowledge Management
Given that Knowledge Management Solutions come from very specific discipline areas and industries that have nothing to do with the formal industry of Knowledge Management, it is fair to recognize that, since the beginning of computing technology, the Information Technology (IT) industry, which is composed of Engineers, Computer Scientists, Mathematicians, Physicists, etc., has been the greatest contributor to KM Solutions (O’Leary 2016). We can see this in all the IT solutions that automate, both, generic knowledge work and domain-specific knowledge work.
A very small set of generic knowledge solutions examples include but are not limited to:
- Communications & Collaboration Solutions (phones, networks, satellites, radios, audio, video, email, etc.)
- Computing Solutions (computers and software)
- Conversion Solutions (ETL/ELT, Voice-to-Text, Text-to-Voice, etc.)
- Search Solutions (string, boolean, semantic, natural language, etc.)
- Storage Solutions (computer memory, computer disks, Storage Area Networks, USB drives, etc.)
- Documenting Solutions (spread sheets, word processing software, presentation software, Content Management Solutions – CMSs, Document Management Solutions – DMSs, etc.)
- Workflow Orchestration and Automation Solutions (programming languages, process management software, workflow software, rules engines, work/batch scheduling software, etc.)
- Analytics and Business Intelligence Solutions (electronic reporting, automated dashboard generation, interactive charting and graphing, data visualizations, etc.)
- Etc. (the list is truly massive.)
Domain-specific solutions examples include all the tools and technologies used by any and all knowledge workers in any all industries. For example:
- All the electronic equipment and software used by the scientific research community.
- All the electronic equipment and software used for teaching and learning; used by education professionals to help teach and by learners/students to help learn.
- All the electronic business equipment and software used by marketing, sales, finance, HR, legal, support, etc.
- All the electronic medical equipment and software used by doctors, nurses, hospitals, etc.
- All the electronic insurance equipment and software used by property, casualty, life, and medical insurance companies.
- All the electronic manufacturing equipment and software like control systems and robots.
- All the electronic distribution management equipment and software that are used by the biggest brand distributors of retail and manufactured goods.
- Etc. (the list is truly massive.)
In this day and age, there is almost nothing related to knowledge that is delivered in any generic capacity or in any industry-specific capacity that is not dependent on domain-specific process automation, which comes from the systems and software designed, build, delivered, operated, and supported by IT professionals. Everything has evolved into or devolved (based on your opinion) into IT hardware and software solutions (Davenport, 2015)(O’Leary 2016). There is simply no other industry that can say this or even come close to saying this. For this reason, the IT industry has become and is the dominant force in Knowledge Management. Let’s be clear. This is something most people in the formal Knowledge Management industry hate to hear but it does help explain why the IT industry is soaring while the KM industry is sputtering.
Digging deeper into the above highlights a very important conclusion, which is that all KM solutions delivered by any and all industries (especially the IT industry) are driven by, consume, process, and deliver data and just data. In other words, the foundation for all existing knowledge management solutions, either generic or domain-specific and across any discipline area or industry, is data. It is not information. It is not knowledge. It is not wisdom. It is simply just data. Data is, therefore, the foundation for all knowledge work and all knowledge solutions. In fact, there is zero scientific proof that shows otherwise.
The Perception of Knowledge Managers (i.e. the Role of a Knowledge Manager)
If we look at international and local job boards, we find very few open job requisitions for the title of Knowledge Manager. And, where there are such job requisitions, the highest percentage of the small number we do find consistently seem to be for documenters; a role that competes directly with Technical Writers, Technical Communicators, and Library Management professionals. The few rare exceptions are for roles like:
- A manager of documenters,
- Someone technical, who knows and understands KM tools, to architect integrated KM technical solutions, or
- Chief Knowledge Officers, who sometimes have responsibility for both of the above.
The conclusion is that the majority of the world views Knowledge Managers as documenters and not much more. And, while such work is definitely respectable and important to many enterprises, most people will never construe the work of someone who labels himself or herself as a Knowledge Manager as being either enterprise transformative or industry transformative. This is further compounded when we realize that innovation happens in very specific roles that perform research and that build new things, like those described in the previous section, and not in the role of someone titled a Knowledge Manager.
The proof of the above statements becomes further compounded when we attempt to list any major, innovative, and truly transformative achievements that have come from the formal Knowledge Management field. There’s a very good chance you will not be able to find and list any. If, however, we just take two (of many) other professions like the Engineering and Computer Sciences industries, we see endless communications, manipulation, computation, calculation, and collaboration solutions.
Correcting the Problem
There are probably very few ways in which professionals in the KM industry can recover from their self-inflicted stigma as over-titled documenters. Here are a few recommendations…
- Get to scientifically supported definitions for key KM terms (e.g. Data, Information, Knowledge, and Wisdom) or stop trying. Making up inconsistent definitions is confusing to follow and sheds a light on the KM industry, which highlights that it is far from unified. More importantly, it shows there is nothing to base real scientific research on; something that every other industry of knowledge workers does have.
- Stop dogmatically quoting conjecture or theory as if it were scientific fact. Such behavior is below professionals like scientists, mathematicians, and engineers and it should never be acceptable in the KM industry, either. When people who label themselves as KM professionals do such things, they shine a light on themselves as not being scientific, at all.
- Stop taking credit for the work done by other professionals in other industries. Learning Management is where learning specialists and experts work. Psychology and Psychiatry is where mental human behaviorists works. Automation of knowledge tools is where Engineers, Scientists, and other IT professionals work. It’s time to stop pretending that KM professionals are solving the problems that are solved by the very qualified specialists in other industries.
- Get to real solutions that stick and that can be attributed to the formal KM industry and only the formal KM industry (e.g. not to Psychology, not to Education, not to IT, etc.)
Until such actions are taken, it is possible to easily predict that the KM industry will never really evolve beyond its current state, which appears to be nothing more than philosophical discussion domain.
Summary and Conclusions
- After decades of not being able to come to standard definitions and concepts that can be used as the baseline for research, creativity, and innovation, it appears the formal Knowledge Management industry has achieved nothing which can be considered as having a transformative impact on any industry.
- The most prominent and well-known industry research companies have published and continue to publish industry research that confirms that the KM industry is, at best, tiny and limping along.
- Other industries, which are composed of knowledge workers, have clear titles in clear discipline areas that support clear work, based on clear foundational concepts that drive scientific research, creativity, and innovation. A notable portion of such work has been proven to impact many different industries, around the world.
- Many other professional areas of practice that span many industries which employee many role-specific knowledge workers (e.g. Psychologists, Chemists, Physicists, Engineers, Computer Scientists, Mathematicians, etc.), can show clear scientific research, creations, and innovations, while the formal Knowledge Management industry cannot.
- The IT industry is the single largest contributor to world-wide knowledge management solutions because it provides, both, general/generic knowledge solutions and domain/industry-specific knowledge solutions.
- Open job requisitions around the world almost always define the formal role of (and set the perception of) a Knowledge Manager as a documenter. In other words the industry perceives a Knowledge Manager title to be a documentation role that is often considered to be the equivalent of roles like Technical Writer and Technical Communicator.
- In order to be considered as an industry with focus and direction, the formal Knowledge Management industry will have to come to scientifically proven and scientifically consistent conclusions and outcomes, beginning with terms and their definitions, that future works can use as their foundation(s).
- In order to be taken seriously, the formal KM industry will need to stop dogmatically asserting conjecture as facts (e.g. the DIKW pyramid) and, instead, get to tangible and repeatable solutions that stick and can be uniquely attributed to the KM industry and only the KM industry (e.g. not Psychology, not Education, not IT, etc.).
- Until such scientifically substantiated advancements are achieved to support its efforts, there is a very high probability that the formal Knowledge Management industry will continue to wear the perception that it is a professional area of practice that lacks focus, direction, and consistency; further painting it as not being critical to the success of enterprises and industry.
- Davenport, Thomas, H., June 24, 2015. Whatever Happened to Knowledge Management?, The Wall Street Journal – WJS.com.
- Girard, J. and Girard, J., 2015. Defining knowledge management: Toward an applied compendium. Online Journal of Applied Knowledge Management, 3 (1), 1, 20.
- Mann, J, August 2007. Why Knowledge Management Is No Longer on the Gartner Hype Cycles, Gartner, Inc.
- O’Leary, D.E., 2016. Is knowledge management dead (or dying)?. Journal of Decision Systems, 25(sup1), pp.512-526.
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