The evolution of knowledge management and the Technology Eras hypothesis

March 26, 2010
  • or When Will Companies Finally Get It?

  • The other day a member of a web group I’m in asked, somewhat rhetorically, when we thought the US Fed would incorporate knowledge management into its official work agreements and policies the way it had information management (thank you, Albert S). His question arose from a discussion about how difficult it is to get mainstream buy in for KM as a legitimate body of concepts and practices in mature enterprises.

    This is a great question, prompting me to draft up for the first time a hypothesis I’ve mulled around for a decade or longer. So here goes.

    I believe one approach to detecting when KM will going “mainstream” is based on my own Hypothesis of Technology Eras. It goes like this:

    Upon the dawn of a new technology era the first application of the new technology is the optimization of the one that preceded it.

    For instance, when we moved from the agrarian to the industrial age, one of the first things that happened was industrialization of farming, leading to massive improvements in farm productivity. Ditto for the transition from the industrial age to the information age. IT was applied to manufacturing (and farming) in a series of successive waves to optimize it, resulting, again, in massive gains in productivity.

    KM is a bit trickier, or what comes after the information age for that matter. One way to tackle this question is to divide the Information Age up into a few smaller epochs or eras: you could identify the MIS era (<1993, pre-web), Web 1.0 era (1993-2006ish?), Web 2.0 (social media era, 2006 – present), Web 3.0 (mashup era, 2010/11?- ?).

    I’d locate KM’s true genesis within the Web1.0 era, even though Peter Drucker foresaw it several years earlier. Those of us who started practicing it then had a lot of trouble with the mainstream, and many mature enterprises used the principles to optimize information/document management (which emerged in the MIS era that preceded it). As the Social Media/Web 2.0 era picks up steam and has become mainstream in business, KM seems to be hitting its ascendancy as a legitimate body of knowledge and concepts. Perhaps we are now in the real KM era – social media being the last puzzle piece that was needed to make it truly viable at an enterprise scale. If that be true, then one could posit that as Web3.0 gains widespread traction one of the early uses of it will be to turbo-charge real KM in large enterprises that have so far only embraced limited or point-solution implementations.

    When will KM enter the slope of enlightenment?

    Gartner’s Hype Cycle ©2005 Gartner, Inc

    When will KM enter the slope of enlightenment?

    Of course all of this is pretty speculative, and even to me feels a bit forced. On the other hand, it will be interesting to see where things go next – after social media gets over the top of the hype cycle (inflated expectations) and down into the more realistic stage of using it for what it can do to make things work better. Heck, maybe that’s when KM will see another lift – people will realize business use of social media is much more than just tools and tech. It’s systemic, enterprise-level implementation of whole new ways of working that support strategic intent. And to me, that’s where KM gets interesting.

    We shall see.



    1. BTW – My experience is with the Canadian Government! I’ve read a related argument – new technology is first adapted to traditional work. The real payoff comes, however, when the new technology is used to do new kinds of work that couldn’t be done before. And, interestingly, the new kinds of work are usually not predictable before the new technology appears.

      A personal experience (sort of fits). I was hired by a government agency to develop a modelling framework. Being a KMer, I set up a Cop and a wiki and said “Let’s develop this together.” The majority response: “Oh no – you write it and we’ll comment on it.” Not having 5 years to change the group’s behavior and culture, I reverted to weekly meetings and e-mail revisions. But, unbeknownst to them, I actually used pure “dialog” rather than a committee approach. What I learned is that even with a significant disparity between a group leader and the members, careful listening and attention to concerns can lead to insights and synergies even if one person has to figure them out.

    2. Enjoyable article, thanks.
      Two things caught my eye here.

      Firstly, when you said “…the new technology is used to do new kinds of work that couldn’t be done before” it brought to mind Kuhn’s concept of “Normal Science” vs “Paradigm Shift”. In the latter it isn’t the answers that are refined, but rather the questions that change. This relates well to what you are saying about new technology not refining old needs, but producing new kinds of work.
      Secondly, you say that “…the first application of the new technology is the optimization of the one that preceded it”, and I am not sure I agree with this. All the big changes that I can think of were initially worse and solved less than the existing technology, but they appealed to enthusiasts who eventually outlived the stalwarts who stood by the old systems – suggesting a psycho-social mechanism at work. As a species we delight in discovering a new thing to toy with (although we resist change).
      This seems to me to be more an issue of conservatism vs innovation than optimization – new technologies seem to me to replace the frame and thus the questions that are seen as significant, rather than optimise what came before, and do so against the wishes of the people who maintain the status-quo.
      Why KM is taking so long is perhaps an issue of lack of clarity/simplicity of message, which in turn hints that we have not yet formed a CoP around KM itself. I think we are only recently starting down that path, and it may take some time before we mature to the point where KM is “understood” to be part of what an organization needs in order to compete – like everybody knows you need “financial control” or “management” or “human resources”.

      • Thanks for your comments, Matthew. Agree with you re your comment on why km is taking so long. There is so much “noise” out there as to what KM is or is not, and no one seems to have been able to seize the high ground in terms of definition. In a way this supports my assertion that “knowledge management” is really just “management” in the modern era. As such it becomes a catch all for everything that could be used to improve knowledge worker productivity (a core objective of the practice of management ); and increase innovation (according to Drucker the other primary value that knowledge provides to the firm).

      • I contend that it is not possible to define knowledge or knowledge management in one way that is satisfactory to all KM practitioners because they mean so many different things. English doesn’t even have the French distinction between connaisance (awareness) and savoir (understanding). I’ll venture that there are 1.5 times as many definitions as there are KM practitioners. I’ve personally defined the terms in different ways to fit different contexts.

        Arthur (2009) gets around the problem of multiple meanings for technology by defining it in three different ways. I expect that KM will have to eventually do the same. Meanwhile, we’re stuck with descriptions (lists of attributes of what it loks like) rather than definitions of what it is

        What led me to my opening statement is my recent realization that my favorite philosophical approach “justified true belief” doesn’t work for skill, because I don’t see a “belief system” underlying skill. I see skill as tacit knowledge embodied in a person (through practice) that is equivalent to explicit knowledge embedded in products and services through materials and coding.

        So don’t worry, be happy. Describe what you’re doing and don’t expend a lot of energy trying to define somethng that means so many things.

        • French only has two words for knowledge?? :) The Greeks have four: techne, episteme, phronesis and metis. I like these as they actually incorporate the notion of skill (techne) that you mentioned.

          According to Philippe Baumard (in his article, Oblique Knowledge: The Clandestine Work of Organizations), metis is often overlooked in KM efforts – regardless of which language is used to define it. He describes it thus:
          “Mètis is both a Greek divinity and a mode of knowing. It helps Ulysses to be successful in his Odyssey, it permits Zeus to reign with serenity on the Pantheon, it helps the hunter to trick his prey, it leads the boat in a violent sea, when compass, radar and maps are not to be discovered until 18 centuries later. In this heterogeneous Greek world, a persistent model of knowing and perceiving emerges at all levels of society, from the fisherman and the hunter to the sophist and the politician.”

          In terms of how we, as KM practitioners might consider it in our work, he makes this point:

          “To make this mètis more familiar to the social researcher, one would say that it is a form of tacit knowledge, learned from experience, that makes an individual a valuable asset for an organization or a political party, regardless of his technical know-how (techne), of his science (episteme) or of the depth of his social involvement and expertise (phronesis). It is what the flair, the knack and bent of the successful politician is made of : a form of knowledge at the opposite end of metaphysics, with no quest of ideal, but a search for a practical end; an embodied, incarnate, substantial form of knowledge.”

          Great food for thought.

    3. Tom, this is an excellent article, thank you. I have also wondered when companies will get it. However, one way I have found it useful is to describe KM in terms of something they already know and are familiar with – ie process documentation. We often refer to our work as process documentation 2.0. This is where process management, knowledge management and change management come together. Keeping our clients in the familiar has allowed us to bring the principles of KM into a wide variety of well known organizations.

      For example, we are documenting a new financial information system for the Ontario Medical Association. They may not know it yet, but they will end up with a wonderful platform for building and sharing knowledge.


      Graham Westwood

      • I like your approach, Graham – KM by stealth! I started to let go of using the phrase “knowledge management” several years ago for the same reasons you cite. It really doesn’t matter what we call it as long as we are clear about what our objectives are, and how they support value creation in the enterprise. I’d rather have an incremental solution that is readily adopted and is internally branded however it makes the most sense; rather than a comprehensive solution that is positioned as “knowledge management” and requires constant selling and pushing to gain any traction.

      • KM by Stealth is well known. There’s even a book by Sinclair with that title. He and I discussed the concept years earlier:-) I’ve used it myself and it was quite successful. UNTIL…

        The project has succeeded; benefits have been demonstrated, and it is now time to grow. To grow beyond project scale, one has to stick one’s head above the organizational parapet. That is a very vulnerable time for KM. Do not be complacent; do not believe that good work will be recognized and embraced.

        That’s when the territorial defenses are brought to the fore; when the feudal moats are widened and walls are strengthened, when a host of derailing tactics are employed (I have a long list!), and a chorus of “Not out of my budget, you don’t” surfaces.

        Bottom line – For “KM by Stealth” to succeed, it is essential that the transition from project scale to a program, branch, or enterprise scale be very carefully planed in advance, an executive-level champion is prepared to do battle, and the process is orchestrated with careful attention to how things get done in an organization.

    4. As an example of our stealth approach, we are presenting a series of webinars to the Healthcare Financial Management Association on “Protecting your revenue cycle during an emergency”. Sounds rather innocuous, but is in fact a deep dive into why getting your knowledge from where ever it now buried and making it accessible, actionable and current is so important. KM will not be mentioned. However I expect that at least some of the attendees will experience a “aha moment”.


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