Okay, here we go again, let’s talk about a difficult term – Knowledge Management. Since its early launch around mid-1990s, many people are excited over a new muti-disciplinary subject called Knowledge Management (KM). So what is KM? This seemingly simple question has left many consultants, lecturers, and knowledge managers – lost for words. KM, according to the conventional wisdom, is about sending the right information to the right person at the right time. Surely if organisations are able to achieve this, productivity will go up and innovation cycle will be shorten. But before we get excited about the possibilities of what ‘sending-the-right-information-to-the-right-person-at-the-right-time’ can achieve, we need to think what it means and whether it represents KM as a whole.
There is a need to distinguish between information and knowledge here. Information is something that can be transferred from person to person without losing its context. For example: research paper on smoking is stored in C drive, the HIV patients in Singapore are x people. Knowledge, on the other hand, is deeply embedded in context, and therefore it is difficult to transfer from person to person without losing some of its context. In short, knowledge is situation-specific. For example: showing gory pictures of lung cancer can encourage people to give up smoking. This ‘knowledge’ may work on certain circumstances or people, but it can’t be applied universally. We need to get the context of the knowledge so that we know how to apply it.
With the help of technology, ‘sending-the-right-information-to-the-right-person-at-the-right-time’ can be achieved. Recent development in taxonomy, folksonomy, and metadata shows that technology can ‘push’ relevant information to the person who needs it, provided they tag the information. On the contrary, ‘sending-the-right-knowledge-to-the-right-person-at-the-right-time’ is difficult to achieve, because as mentioned above, knowledge is deeply embedded in its context. It follows that the right knowledge for one person may not be the case for another. Each individual has different beliefs, values, and assumptions that make it difficult to see what is the right knowledge and when to apply it at the right time. Culture and decision making bias distort facts, and thus influence how a person applies ‘the-right-knowledge-at-the-right-time’.
KM is about ‘sending-the-right-information-to-the-right-person-at-the-right-time’, as much as ‘sending-the-right-knowledge-to-the-right-person-at-the-right-time’. The implications are:
- KM involves designing and tagging information so that people can find the relevant one. Thus, knowledge managers need to develop corporate taxonomy / metadata, and ensure that the information is presented in user-friendly manner, so that people can quickly sum-up what the information is about. When information is shared, people can talk with one another about it. When people talk about the same information, they can create, transfer, and reuse knowledge – the three KM processes (see below for more details) – more easily since they have a common ground to (at least) begin the conversation. To put this in analogy, shared information is an entry ticket to KM.
- KM involves keeping culture functional in its environment and minimising decision making bias. Culture and decision making are inter-related. Culture is shared tacit assumptions of ‘how-things-work-around-here’. It is a result of interaction between the organisation and the environment where it operates. Overtime certain elements of corporate culture may become dysfunctional and disrupt the staff ability to apply ‘the-right-knowledge-at-the right-time’. For example: Bush administration’s decision to relocate critical resources from Afghanistan to Iraq, gives Taliban a breathing space and allows them to regroup. Bush administration was certainly not applying ‘the-right-knowledge-at-the-right-time’. Though cultivating functional culture can help to reduce decision making bias, culture can also magnify decision making bias. For example: the US government’s decision to cut spending during the great depression in 1929 felt right at that time, but on retrospect, it was a bad decision, the government should spend, instead of save, to revive the economy. The US government was influenced by the ‘we-should-save-during-hard-time’ culture then. So how can we minimise decision making bias? there is no ‘perfect’ answer. Nevertheless, tapping ‘wisdom-of-the-crowd’ can help greatly.
So how can we implement KM? by running its’ three processes:
- Create knowledge. This means new knowledge are created in the organisation. How can one create new knowledge? through conversations where ideas are exchanged and people can built on other’s idea. You can also create new knowledge by applying existing knowledge in a new context. For example: The Chile government, looking for ways to save their trapped miners, asks NASA for survival tips. The Chile government is applying ‘survival’ knowledge from outer space (original context) to underground mine (new context).
- Transfer knowledge. This means knowledge are shared / transferred in the organisations. Note that knowledge can’t be shared by simply sharing documents. It has to be shared through stories or other medium where knowledge buyer can see the knowledge context – or clarify with the knowledge seller directly. So, conversation and/or observation are also good ways of sharing / transferring knowledge.
- Re-use knowledge. To be able to ‘re-use’ knowledge, we need to be able to get ‘the-right-information-at-the-right-time’ so that we can use the relevant information, and apply the knowledge either in the same context or in the new context (where new knowledge is created). It also involves good decision making so that we can apply ‘the-right-knowledge-at-the-right-time’. Hence, we have to not only converse with diverse people, but also be aware of decision making bias and be able to tap into ‘wisdom-of-the-crowd’.
That’s how I see KM. See the picture below for illustration.
What do you think? Feel free to comment.