What do IT Managers need to know of Knowledge Management in our days?
Information Technology (IT) managers in any organization are expected to manage IT infrastructure and projects. The scope of Information Technology, or Information and Communication Technology (ICT) as it is known today, encompasses creation, organization, management and communication of information. When we speak of Knowledge Management (KM) we are pushing the concept a step further from the domain of information to the domain of knowledge. The crucial question at this juncture is whether management or handling of knowledge is within the jurisdiction of the IT or ICT manager. The first step that the IT manager has to take in this regard is acquire a clear understanding of the difference between information and knowledge. In other words, the IT manager has to know in very clear terms what knowledge exactly is, its properties and its qualities.
Barnes (2001) bases his definition of knowledge on the sequential definitions of data and information. Data, he states, is observations of facts outside any context; information is data within a meaningful context; and knowledge is ‘information plus’ or information combined with experience, context, interpretation, and reflection within a very highly contextual environment. Knowledge is a high-value form of information that is ready for application to decisions and actions within organizations (Davenport, 1998). Knowledge is therefore a type of value-added information.
A further distinction is made between two categories of knowledge – tacit or implicit and explicit knowledge. Tacit Knowledge is defined as the type of knowledge that is both understood and applied at the subconscious level. It is knowledge difficult to deliberately expressed, manifested or articulated, and said to be developed, again subconsciously or involuntarily, through personal interactions, conversations, storytelling and shared experience. Explicit knowledge, on the other hand “is more precisely and formally articulated, although removed from the original context of creation or use…” (Zach, 1999).
Barnes (2001) defines Knowledge Management as an attempt to improve or maximize the use of knowledge that exists in an organization. The point here is however different. How does one handle, process or manipulate tacit knowledge that exists only at the subconscious level? Tacit knowledge would not be amenable to IT tools and would therefore be entirely out of the domain of IT. The saving grace for IT turns out to be explicit knowledge that can be processed or handled by IT, and would therefore be the concern of the IT manager. Seen in this context, tacit knowledge management would be more in the field of expertise of human resources management than in the scope of the IT management; and it would be only explicit knowledge management that would be the concern of the IT manager.
It however does not end at that. Wilson (2002) is of the firm opinion that Knowledge Management as it is being applied today, is nothing more than a management fad and at best a theoretical utopian ideal. He defines knowledge as something that goes on exclusively inside the mind. Knowledge is what we know, it involves the mental processes of comprehension, understanding and learning. The problem, according to Wilson (2002), is that we actually do not have control over what we know. We do not know what we know. What we know is expressed only when we employ the knowledge to accomplish something. What the human mind learns is apparently forgotten only to emerge when needed or even when not needed. What we know can be expressed only in the form of messages conveyed orally, in writings, and through gestures, graphics or even body language. Such messages are however not knowledge but information which another knowing mind can assimilate, understand, comprehend and incorporate into its own knowledge structures. Since each persons knowledge structures are ‘biographically determined’ Schutz (1967), they cannot be identical for the conveyor and the receiver. This essentially implies that the same information, even if it results in knowledge, will be different knowledge for different information. Wilson (2002) asserts that “everything outside the mind that can be manipulated in any way, can be defined as ‘data’, if it consists of simple facts, or as ‘information’, if the data are embedded in a context of relevance to the recipient. Collections of messages, composed in various ways, may be considered as ‘information resources’ of various kinds – collections of papers in a journal, e-mail messages in an electronic ‘folder’, manuscript letters in an archive, or whatever. Generally, these are regarded as ‘information resources’. Thus, data and information may be managed, and information resources may be managed, but knowledge (i.e., what we know) can never be managed, except by the individual knower and, even then, only imperfectly.”
Wilson’s line of argument puts knowledge management entirely out of the realm of Information Technology. If we have not been able to comprehend the mechanism of the human mind, there is no question of trying to digitize, quantify, manipulate or process knowledge which represents the human mind itself through the application of ICT.
After analysis of a large number of papers purportedly on knowledge management in leading academic journals, Wilson comes to the conclusion that there is absolutely no agreement on what actually constitutes knowledge management, that a majority of the papers used knowledge as a synonym for information and knowledge management as another name for information management. His analysis of the perspective on knowledge management held by leading management consultancies leads to the findings that “knowledge management means different things to different companies…”, and that established approaches such as Intellectual Assets Management Practice were frequently confused with knowledge management. Similarly, his analysis of business schools makes it evident that expert systems, information management systems, organization training and learning and e-learning are all labeled as knowledge management. His review of business school sites also reveals that the most reputed and prestigious of business schools give a wide berth to knowledge management except in the statement of interest of faculty.
The use of knowledge management in place of information management is termed as ‘search and replace marketing’ strategy by business houses and ICT professionals in a bid to repackage failed ICT concepts such as Business Process Re-engineering (BPR) and Organizational Learning. In other words it was the proverbial old wine in a new bottle.
What however makes sense in the context of this paper is the perspective that Knowledge Management comprises two aspects: the technology aspect and the management of people aspect or the ‘IT Track’ and the ‘People Track’ to borrow from Sveiby (2001). It can be inferred from Wilson’s study that knowledge is a result of information assimilation by the human mind. Information therefore leads to knowledge although the same information may result in different knowledge in different minds.
This paper postulates that the concern of the IT manager with respect to knowledge management is the handling, manipulation, processing and communication of the information that is in turn processed and assimilated by the human mind to generate knowledge. In other words, the IT manager should know all that is related with the IT aspect or the Information aspect of Knowledge Management. The ‘People Track’ or the people aspect of Knowledge Management falls outside the domain of the IT manager. It is largely a concern of human resource management or people management where the focus would be on knowledge sharing by building ‘Communities of Practice’ (Lesser & Storck, 2001) in organizations.
Implementation of Knowledge Management for the IT manager would imply implementation of information systems that would foster knowledge in the organization and not implementation of Knowledge Management per se. Such implementation best practices would require the usual management approaches based on the Strategy, Planning and Execution. The strategy best practices would incorporate formulation of measurable business objectives, obtaining ongoing executive sponsorship, staffing the ‘Information’ Management team with the right people and identifying and tackling cultural resistance. The Planning best practices would involve identifying target consumers and experts, conducting detailed needs assessment, identifying a small and critical first phase, collating and creating ‘information’ content and designing effective workflow processes. Similarly, the Execution best practices would incorporate investing in meticulous project management, managing a flexible project scope, keeping the user community involved, being obsessed with ‘information’ quality and marketing the ‘information’ management implementation with a ‘Knowledge Creation’ perspective.
The above best practices of IT management has been derived from the ‘Knowledge Management Implementation Best Practices as described in the Talisma White Paper (2006) by substituting ‘knowledge’ with ‘information’
Barnes, P., C., 2001, A Primer on Knowledge Management, [Online] Available. http://www.accaglobal.com/students/publications/student_accountant/archive/2001/18/57627 [January 19, 2008]
Davenport, T., H., et al, 1998, Successful knowledge management projects, Sloane Management Review. In P., C., Barnes, 2001, A Primer on Knowledge Management, [Online] Available. http://www.accaglobal.com/students/publications/student_accountant/archive/2001/18/57627 [January 19, 2008]
Lesser, E.L. & Storck, J., 2001, Communities of practice and organizational performance. IBM Systems Journal, 40(4), 831-841 [Online] Available at http://www.research.ibm.com/journal/sj/404/lesser.html [January 19, 2008]
Schutz, A., 1967, The phenomenology of the social world. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.
Sveiby, K., E., 2001, What is knowledge management? Brisbane: Sveiby Knowledge Associates. [Online] Available at: http://www.sveiby.com/faq.html#Whatis [January 19, 2008]
Talisma White Paper, 2006, Knowledge Management Implementation Best Practices, [Online] Available. http://www.talisma.com/tal_resources/documents/datasheets_whitepapers/Talisma%20Knowledge%20Management%20Implementation%20Best%20Practices%20Whitepaper.pdf [January 20, 2008]
Wilson, T., D., 2006, The nonsense of knowledge management. Information Research, Vol. 8 No. 1. [Online] Available. http://informationr.net/ir/8-1/paper144.html [January 19, 2008]
Zach, M.H., 1999, Managing codified knowledge, Sloan Management Review. In P., C., Barnes, 2001, A Primer on Knowledge Management, [Online] Available. http://www.accaglobal.com/students/publications/student_accountant/archive 2001/18/57627 [January 19, 2008]