What is Knowledge Management?

For me, a key moment came in 1999 when I realised that KM is about treating what we know, both individually and collectively, as an organisational asset – in much the same way as we treat our financial asset. For years afterwards, as I learnt about how to apply KM, if I was trying to figure out the best way forward at any point I found myself thinking, what would we be doing if this was finances / money we are talking about and not knowledge?

KM then becomes about the application of practical frameworks, roles, processes, technology and governance to properly manage that asset. It’s crucial that KM is quickly shown to move on from being a fine philosophy or a compelling set of principles to a practical approach.

There have been many proposed definitions of KM over the years. One of my favourites is the following from Larry Prusak. It’s one of the originals and still one of the best in my view:

“Knowledge Management is the attempt to recognise what is essentially a human asset buried in the minds of individuals and leverage it into a corporate asset that can be used by a broader set of individuals on whose decisions the company depends.”

I particularly like this definition as it stresses the human aspect and also that KM is about supporting delivery of the organisation and not an end in itself. Daily in organisations we take decisions large and small, consciously and unconsciously, and the better knowledge we have as individuals and teams, the better those decisions will be.

KM is not a database or collection of lessons or the methodical filing of documents. It’s not just about communities or the application of individual knowledge transfer for departing retirees no matter how well executed. It’s all of these things, and more, applied in a complete, integrated and holistic way. Otherwise, it’s like trying to sell half a car, this is not really going to work!

The key message is that KM needs to be a complete system, factory or production line of knowledge. Knowledge and learning then flows around the organisation - it’s like an effective knowledge economy. This strategic approach, as opposed to tactical, is harder to implement initially not least because of the cultural implications, but it means it is much more sustainable. For example, when organisational cost cuts come, as they surely will at some point, a strategic approach to KM (built on practical systems and processes that are respected and applied by the business) is much more likely to survive whereas a partial and tactical one is probably going to be lost.

Another advantage of a system approach, applied commonly across an organisation, is that everyone uses the same language - this makes such a difference when people froom very different projects and functions meet and are talking about KM with the same frameworks and terms.