KM blasts back from the past…

KM (Knowledge Management) has been a recurring topic in the past year. It keeps coming up again and again in the most diverse of situations, several times I have been asked ‘is KM back?’ and the answer has to be “It looks like it probably is…..’.

KM was a hot topic in the late ’90s and throughout the dot com era but the excitement (like so many things in the dot com era) dissipated quickly when the bust came. But what was always fascinating about KM was its a discipline embraced by the tech community, but not originated by the tech community. KM was and remained an organizational management philosophy. One codified by Ikujiro Nonaka (and others) through the concepts of Implicit and Tacit Knowledge and a theory of how Knowledge is socialized and internalized. In a world of information overload, those theories and practices could not be more relevant today. In the simplest of terms, Knowledge infers an understanding, context, and awareness of the value of a piece of Information. Whereas Information is ultimately just a form of refined data, Knowledge is relevant and actionable information. We have more than enough Information, but little of it is appropriate and actionable. KM is a methodology to change that situation.

Even in the late ’90s, there was nothing wrong with KM as a management philosophy and discipline; it was sound and has stood the test of time. What was wrong was the technology that claimed to support and promote it. The technology, unfortunately, fell woefully short of its promises. In hindsight, in the late ’90s, there was simply no way of capturing all that Information effectively. Information could be captured, but it needed to be manually managed and stored. It relied on workers to manually tag and manage Information. That is never a good idea; they won’t do it; if they do it, they won’t do it well. Add to this the fact that organizational Knowledge is often perceived as power. There was and remains little to no incentive for anyone to give up and share their precious secrets, skills, and insights. Even so, the concepts of KM remain as relevant today as they were in the 1990’s. But now we have the added burden of far more Information and data than could have been imagined then. Conversely, we now have the technology, through the use of the cloud and AI to identify and activate Information into actionable Knowledge. 

It’s not that the nut has finally been cracked. Capturing Information from voice to documents to video and beyond is still challenging. Codifying all that Information though is much easier. Automating the use of that Information in a timely fashion is now more possible than ever before. Of course, sifting the trash from the treasures remains difficult as do many other factors in truly automating KM. That said, we can do it at an order of magnitude better today than we could 20 years ago. The success of Slack, Microsoft Teams, Facebook Business, and startups like GetGuru tell us there is plenty of interest an appetite for KM. The opportunity is there; the technology has improved beyond imagination. But real challenges remain, for success in KM traverses the human and the digital worlds. People still see Knowledge as power; they use and manage it as precious currency. We will see some big advances in KM over the coming years. But its progress won’t be in the hands of technologists; it will be in the hands of workers. As Zadie Smith said rather well, “The past is always tense, the future perfect.” KM has a period of vibrant revival ahead, of that I am sure. However, there will be many obstacles and side roads to navigate.

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