Short Takes

The evolution of knowledge management and the Technology Eras hypothesis

  • 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.