Can We Manage Knowledge? (A Practice in Listening)

A lively discussion is now going on after I opened a new page on “Will KM Disappear?” and posted it too in the Linkedin group “Knowledge Management Experts” (to read the comments, click that page on the panel to the right or click HERE).

Some are saying that we cannot really manage knowledge. Others are saying we have been doing it all the time. I have my own views but I wanted to listen and learn (see my previous blog post on Listening) and really understand the thinking behind the comments posted. Why are the views so widely divergent? What does each commentor mean?

I think we need to be clear and precise what our referents are when we say the words “manage” and “knowledge”. Otherwise, confusion and fruitless debates will follow. Some say that labels are unimportant and let us just get on with the work. In this particular instance, we need precision of communication. In a work team, unclear labels will lead to communication gaps and then to performance gaps.

First, note that people do not talk about “managing an idea or concept”. Rather, they talk about “managing a process” involving ideas and concepts. Similarly, some are sceptical of the term “managing knowledge” but instead say “managing knowledge processes”. Nonaka prefers the term “knowledge-based management” instead of “knowledge management” (read Nonaka’s talk in Bangkok last January 2007).

Accordingly in the table below I detailed a range of knowledge processes that we actually refer to when we say we “manage knowledge”.


deconstructing the phrase managing knowledge

From the above deconstruction of the phrase “managing knowledge” we can better —

  • Understand why some KM practitioners say that only explicit knowledge (or “knowledge artifacts” or “knowledge objects”) can be managed, and insist that tacit knowledge of employees cannot be directly managed (by managers and executives);
  • Understand why other KM practitioners who equate KM solely with organizational KM will say that mankind has been managing knowledge all the time (even before the term KM was invented) and will equally insist that asking whether knowledge can or cannot be managed is asking a silly question;
  • Understand why KM practitioners who include also personal knowledge processes in KM will say that managers and executives cannot really manage knowledge in employees; they will also insist that managers and executives can only facilitate, support, motivate or incentivize the knowledge and learning processes going on inside the heads (and hearts) of their employees;
  • Understand how the above (often unstated or unconscious) differences in referents inside the heads KM practitioners (who are all well-intentioned) set up or predispose them towards miscommunication and fruitless debate (I wrote this blog post to avoid this); and
  • Understand why change management and similar behavioral tools — which address personal knowledge processes (nearer the bottom of the table) — must often accompany KM.

Here is my 2 cents worth:

The most important knowledge process in the above table is knowledge use/application/practice (the bottom one in red text). There are only two value-creating steps in the knowledge cycle, and knowledge use/application/practice is one of them. If this step is missing or faulty, all other knowledge processes would amount to useless expenditures. Since this value-creating step is affected most heavily by personal factors, KM must include “personal KM” or personal knowledge processes in its scope of concern and therefore also scope of definition.

Therefore, personal KM cannot be optional because personal knowledge processes in each employee are at the foundation of effective organizational KM.

What do you think?

(My thanks to Fernando Goldman, Skip Boettger, Jim Coogan, Harold Jarche, Douglas Weidner and John Tropea for their comments, which made me think this issue through.)

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