Knowledge Management as Trojan Horse:
The Subversive Aspects of an Age-Old Concept
Knowledge management has been easily dismissed by some as just the latest management fad. Dilbert has lampooned it. Untold software vendors slap the label of KM on their packages and tout miraculous cures for all our knowledge failings. Yet, behind all the jargon and the hype, we find companies engaged in serious efforts to manage their most precious asset—their working knowledge.
—L. Prusak (in his foreword to Rumizen, 2002, p. xv)
The Special Libraries Association (SLA) announced the creation of a new professional interest division for members who are currently practicing or have an interest in knowledge management in their organizations. The Knowledge Management (KM) Division of SLA will focus on the characteristics and processes through which organizations facilitate the creation, sharing and use of knowledge. …
‘Smart and savvy management of information is vital to any company’s success, and our members are moving into the field of KM with such enthusiasm and interest,’ said SLA Chief Executive Officer Janice Lachance. ‘Information professionals and librarians are armed with the expertise and training to be valuable assets to their organizations and flourish in the knowledge management role. SLA will continue to expand our offerings in KM with more programming and professional development opportunities based on the needs and interest [sic] of our members.’
—from press release ‘SLA Forms Knowledge Management Division,’
PR Newswire (September 14, 2006)
Knowledge management (KM) is an apparent oxymoron that, in other guises, is at least as old as recorded history and, crucially and fundamentally, has little to do with information technology, a point made eloquently in a recent article by McCollum (2006). Yet KM is as fresh as this morning’s coffee and as hip as the latest MP3 player, a point reiterated in a recent spate of business reviews (e.g., Neal, 2006). ‘In fact,’ summarizes Prusak, ‘there is ample evidence that senior executives are just being struck with the notion that knowledge is a factor of production potentially greater than the traditional triad of land, labor, or capital’ (in his introduction to Prusak, 1997, p. ix). Whence the paradox?
The short answer is that we reached a tipping point at the beginning of this century, induced by a convergence of several powerful factors: what had been taken for granted, knowledge creation as the source of innovation and competitive advantage, was suddenly and desperately in need of explicit management. The world-historical, economic, technological and professional forces are outlined below in the first introductory section that defines and describes KM.
The distinction between KM and the more traditional information management (IM) flows from the distinction between tacit knowledge and explicit knowledge, or alternatively the contrast between sociotechnical and technical, explored in section 2. When the subversive implications of the key concept of tacit knowledge are fully grasped, when the socio- in sociotechnical is understood, the radical implications for organization and management are revealed. In section 3 the resulting learning organization—or better, with Choo (2006), the knowing organization—and the move towards communities of practice are briefly described. In short, the postmodern organization of the Information Age requires a radically different type of manager: perhaps a MISt rather than an MBA, a point taken up in the concluding remarks.
1. Definition and Background of KM
What is KM, a ‘new emphasis on an age-old subject, one that occupied Plato and Aristotle, and a host of philosophers after their time’ (Davenport & Prusak, 1998, p. ix), yet a ‘concept that has emerged explosively in the business community over the last few years’ (Skikantaiah & Koenig, 2000, p. 3)? Unfortunately, it is difficult to say, since this increasingly inclusive term has been hijacked by software vendors, management consultants, business-book publishers and other vultures of a management fad. ‘KM has become a potpourri term and a bandwagon on which many partners have jumped for various and sundry reasons’ (Skikantaiah & Koenig, 2000, p. 8).
There is no end of definitions. Rumizen (2002) provides a useful one-liner: ‘the systematic processes by which knowledge needed for an organization to succeed is created, captured, shared, and leveraged’ (pp. 9, 13). A commonly cited definition of KM in the literature is attributed to the Gartner Group (
A discipline that promotes an integrated approach to identifying, capturing, evaluating, retrieving, and sharing all of an enterprise’s information assets. These assets may include databases, documents, policies, procedures, and previously uncaptured expertise and experience in individual workers (Skikantaiah & Koenig, 2000, p. 3).
For a raft of recent definitions, see further Firestone & McElroy (2003, pp. 63-69).
Another way to come at a definition is to see a breakdown of the three components of KM. First, there are the traditional collections and policies of IM: specifically document management, with an emphasis on quality, accuracy and timeliness of information. Second, there is organizational learning (OL) that ‘emphasizes that the efficiency and effectiveness of knowledge workers depends mostly on how workers communicate and collaborate in their efforts and expose themselves to communities of practice within the institution as well as outside the institution’ (Skikantaiah & Koenig, 2000, p. 9). Third and finally, there is the IT infrastructure that facilitates the integration of IM and OL: it is the integration that leads to the holy grail, knowledge creation (see further Choo, 2006, pp. 8-11).
Finally, another way to understand KM is to identify the forces that converged in the annus mirabilis 1990. The rate of information-technological change took a quantum leap with the introduction of hypertext mark-up language (HTML) in 1990 and the launch of the world-wide web. The true knowledge-based economy with its knowledge workers was born, in which, according to the OECD, ‘the production, distribution and use of knowledge are the main drivers of growth, wealth creation and employment for all industries’ (cited by Al-Hawamdeh, 2003, p. 2). Other major factors include:
- the post-1973 economic malaise, induced in part by the removal of traditional manufacturing to so-called developing countries, and partially offset by the burgeoning information-intensive service sectors;
- the run-away stock-market bull beginning in the late 1980s, in which the disconnect between the market value of a company versus its underlying book value (valuation of tangible assets) was explained in terms of intangible assets and intellectual capital (Firestone & McElroy, 2003, Figure 10.1, p. 276; see further, e.g., Stewart, 1997);
- the reliance on buzz-saw ‘rightsizing’ to rescue flagging corporate profits, revealing that ‘middle management provided much of the connective tissue of the organization’ (Skikantaiah & Koenig, 2000, p. 32);
- the rash of popular books on the Information Age by management gurus such as Toffler, Quinn, Reich, and above all Senge (1990) and the self-described ‘insultant’ Drucker in his classic Post-capitalist society (1993);
- foundational conferences, e.g., the Knowledge Imperative Symposium (September 1995) sponsored by the American Productivity and Quality Center and the accounting firm, Arthur Andersen; and the KM Expo Conference (Chicago, October 1998);
- professional developments, especially the rise of the CKO (Chief Knowledge Officer, see further Davenport & Prusak, 1998, pp. 114-122, and Rumizen, 2002, chap. 3), with the crowning recognition by the Special Libraries Association (SLA) in its creation of a KM division in the fall of 2006 (excerpt in epigraph above);
- perhaps most importantly, the growing chorus of KM success stories, beginning with the seminal 1995 book by Nonaka & Takeuchi in which the secrets of Japanese genius are revealed; lists of KM programmes read like a who’s-who of major international high-tech and pharmaceutical companies (e.g., Rumizen, 2002, pp. 11-12).
2. Tacit Knowledge: The Key Concept
All the groupware and portal interfaces in the world will not make a knowing organization: this is the fallacy that Rumizen (2002) identifies as ‘Build IT and They’ll Come’ (pp. 254-255). Rather, the hallmark of Choo’s knowing organization is the harnessing and integration of tacit knowledge (2006). This section examines this key KM concept; an in-depth philosophical exploration can be found in Mooradian (2005).
Tacit knowledge as a concept in cognitive psychology would normally be attributed to the linguist and philosopher N. Chomsky. As any good introduction to linguistics explains, the fundamental difference between a native speaker’s ‘knowledge of language’ and other types of knowledge is that the latter can be made explicit. A native language is not learned explicitly, and judgements of grammaticality cannot be expressed explicitly. Accordingly, we describe our ‘knowledge of language’ as tacit knowledge. The linguist’s remit is to figure out what it is that people act as if they know.
This, however, is not the source of the concept in the KM literature. Rather, the concept can be traced through the seminal Nonaka & Takeuchi (1995) to the philosopher-scientist Polanyi, specifically to his book The tacit dimension (1966), the heart of which appears as an excerpt in the collection by Prusak (1997, chap. 7, pp. 135-146). This quirky fact of the KM literature raises two related problems: Polanyi’s concept is problematic philosophically (Mooradian, 2005); the confusion with other definitions is unresolved.
Nonaka & Takeuchi (1995) introduce tacit knowledge into their definition of organizational knowledge creation, by which they mean ‘the capability of a company as a whole to create knowledge, disseminate it throughout the organization, and embody it in new products, services, and systems’ (p. viii). Crucially, they contrast two types of knowledge, explicit versus tacit. Explicit knowledge, they claim, is the dominant Western mode, and it is the domain of IM. It can be ‘articulated in formal language including grammatical statements, mathematical expressions, specifications, manuals, and so forth’ and also transmitted. The more important kind, they argue, is tacit knowledge,
which is hard to articulate with formal language. It is personal knowledge embedded in individual experience and involves intangible factors such as personal belief, perspective, and the value system. Tacit knowledge has been overlooked as a critical component of collective human behaviour. At the same time, however, tacit knowledge is an important source of Japanese companies’ competitiveness. This is probably a major reason that Japanese management is seen as an enigma among Western people (p. viii-ix).
Elsewhere they add that tacit knowledge ‘consists of schemata, mental models, beliefs, and perceptions so ingrained that we take them for granted’ (p. 8).
Choo (2006) captures the radical implication by contrasting knowledge with his preferred knowing: ‘The use of knowing instead of knowledge also underscores our view that knowledge is the result of collective action and reflection, and not simply the acquisition of things and objects that somehow “contain” knowledge’ (p. 1). Tacit knowing cannot be embodied in hardware or software but in wetware that leaves for home every night. Collective reflection requires an organization that is not a hierarchical, bureaucratic factory. It requires a revolution.
3. Postmodern Management for the Knowing Organization
‘Learning organizations demand a new view of leadership’ (Senge, 1990, p. 339). A revolutionary vanguard is required to create a knowing organization, and it is unlikely that MBAs will be the standard-bearers, but rather the educators, specifically what were once called librarians (cf. p. 340). The new knowing organizations must be anti-authoritarian, anti-bureaucratic and democratic—an ‘open’ organization, as it were. Instead of top-down control, management becomes a process of organizing to know (M. Addleson in Skikantaiah & Koenig, 2000, chap. 9, p. 138; cf. Senge, 1990, p. 5). For a detailed review of the process as the knowing cycle,see Choo (2006, pp. 8-28, 249-250); cf. the knowing spiral (Nonaka & Takeuchi, 1995, esp. pp. 20-21). On organizational creativity, see further Borghini (2005).
‘It is no accident that most organizations learn poorly. The way they are designed and managed … create[s] fundamental learning disabilities’ (Senge, 1990, p. 18). Nonaka & Takeuchi (1995) devote their chap. 6 ‘A New Organizational Structure’ to the topic. Every author explicitly recognizes that knowledge creation requires a new ‘supporting organizational culture’ (Rumizen, 2002, p. xviii). What would this look like?
‘I’ve never been in a culture that had an open road to knowledge management with no cultural barriers. No organizational culture is a knowledge management nirvana’ (Rumizen, 2002, p. 174). Translation: organizing to know remains a utopian dream. Rumizen (2002) identifies three major impediments to the transition: the authoritarian personality’s resistance to change; the failure to understand the facilitating role of middle management in knowledge creation (p. 178-179); and the misalignment of rewards and recognition (pp. 179-180).
Generally speaking, the nirvana would more or less be a community of practice or COP (e.g., Rumizen, 2002, chap. 8; Al-Hawamdeh, 2003, chap. 7; cf. Lehaney et al., 2004, section 3.5, pp. 46-51). ‘Slowly over the past few years, communities of practice have come to be acknowledged as the killer application for knowledge management. And rightfully so’ (Rumizen, 2002, p. 85). Unlike teams, in which members are temporarily drafted by management in pursuit of a specific goal, COPs are voluntary, non-goal-oriented and open-ended (p. 87)—more like an knowing co-operative.
As many managers know, managing a co-operative in the nonprofit sector is much different than managing the typical for-profit corporation: the contrast is libertarian versus authoritarian. Asking an MBA to engage in KM would be much like asking a tyrant to engage in participatory democracy. Here’s the rub, then: what kind of ‘vanguard’ manager could engineer such a revolution?
4. Conclusion: Knowledge Management as Life and Death
The American Empire has provided numerous illustrations of abysmal failures in KM and their consequences, from Vietnam to 9/11 to Iraq. Choo (2006) draws attention to parade examples involving NASA: the Challenger and Columbiashuttlecraft disasters (chap. 6). No matter where we look, we seem to arrive at the same conclusions as Choo (2006): (1) a failure of experts to express their tacit knowledge in a way that managers can understand, and (2) a failure of understanding on the part of managers because of their bad habit of satisficing (pp. 260-261). The promise of KM is precisely the harnessing of tacit knowledge in order to improve decision-making.
The fundamental question in KM is whether or not this fatal flaw, this deadly disconnect, is ‘an inherent element of all organizations characterized by complex structures, deeply held histories and cultures, and compartmentalized knowledge’ (p. 250). Often this question is raised instead as the (im)possibility of double-loop versus single-loop learning: to move from the detection of errors to the fundamental questioning of the norms and structures that give rise to errors in the first place (Al-Hawamdeh, 2003, 145-146; cf. Choo, 2006, pp. 308-314). ‘[M]ost organizations and individuals are unwilling to engage in double-loop learning because it involves the disclosure of errors and mistakes as well as the questioning of existing assumptions, norms, structures, and processes’ (Al-Hawamdeh, 2003, p. 146).
Notice, crucially, that this ‘double-loop’ revolution would have little therefore to do with IT. KM, as many authorities emphasize, ‘is fundamentally more an issue of corporate cultural transformation than it is of information technology and its deployment’ (Skikantaiah & Koenig, 2000, p. 4, emphasis mine). It is ironic, then, that much of the KM literature is written from the IT viewpoint, while “very little has been written from the viewpoint of those who need to be central actors in this unfolding drama—the information professionals’ (Skikantaiah & Koenig, 2000, p. vii). À propos the underappreciation and sidelining of the information profession within KM, J. Albert concludes:
Unless we [information professionals] can insinuate ourselves into the management structure of knowledge management, we will lose a position that ought to be our birthright. However, I have yet to see the professional literature that addresses what knowledge management means below the corporate management level, which concentrates on professionalizing what we already do in the context of knowledge management, rather than trying to leverage knowledge management into making us a different profession (J. Albert in Skikantaiah & Koenig, 2000, chap. 5, p. 75).
Select Working Bibliography
Al-Hawamdeh, S. (2003). Knowledge management: Cultivating knowledge professionals. Oxford: Chandos.
Choo, C.W. (2006). The knowing organization: How organizations use information to construct meaning, create knowledge, and make decisions (2nd ed.). New York: OxfordUniversity Press.
Davenport, T.H., & Prusak, L. (1998). Working knowledge: How organizations manage what they know. BostonMA: HarvardBusinessSchool Press.
Drucker, P.F. (1993). Post-capitalist society. New York: HarperBusiness.
Firestone, J.M., & McElroy, M.W. (2003). Key issues in the new knowledge management. Amsterdam: KMCI Press.
Kermally, S. (2002). Effective knowledge management: A best practice blueprint. New York: John Wiley & Sons.
Lehaney, B., Clarke, S., Coakes, E., & Jack, G. (2004). Beyond knowledge management. Hershey PA: Idea Group.
Nonaka, I., & Takeuchi, H. (1995). The knowledge-creating company: How Japanese companies create the dynamics of innovation. Oxford: OxfordUniversity Press.
Rumizen, M.C. (2002). The complete idiot’s guide to knowledge management. Alpha.
Senge, P.M. (1990). The fifth discipline: The art and practice of the learning organization. New York: Currency/Doublday.
Srikantaiah, T.K., & Koenig, M.E.D. (Eds.). (2000). Knowledge management for the information professional. MedfordNJ: Information Today.
Stewart, T.A. (1997). Intellectual capital: The new wealth of organizations.New York: Doubleday/Currency.
Wall, A., Kirk, R., & Martin, G. (2004). Intellectual capital: Measuring the immeasurable? Amsterdam: CIMA.
II. Recent Papers
Borghini, S. (2005). Organizational creativity: Breaking equilibrium and order to innovate [Electronic version]. Journal of Knowledge Management, 9(4), 19-33.
Chua, A., & Lam, W. (2005). Why KM projects fail: A multi-case analysis [Electronic version]. Journal of Knowledge Management, 9(3), 6-17.
Lim, T.T. (2002). Organizational culture and knowledge management. Journal of Information & Knowledge Management, 1(1), 57-63.
McCollum, D. (2006). Mark Twain and knowledge management. Information Outlook, 10(9), 15-24.
Mooradian, N. (2005). Tacit knowledge: Philosophic roots and role in KM [Electronic version]. Journal of Knowledge Management, 9(6), 104-113.
Neal, H. (2006). The rebirth of knowledge management: Information explosion has companies seeking better collaboration tools [Electronic version]. Manufacturing Business Technology, 24(10).
III. Collections of Papers
Choo, C.W., & Bontis, N. (Eds.). (2002). The strategic management of intellectual capital and organizational knowledge. Oxford: OxfordUniversity Press.
Coakes, E. (Ed.). (2003). Knowledge management: Current issues and challenges. Hershey PA: IRM Press.