The new knowledge consensus

Knowledge Management is still a young discipline that often suffers from a lack of consensus about its meaning and goals. To avoid holy wars, much of KM focuses on the "what" and the "how" of KM (ie immediate activities to undertake) while being weak on the "why" (long term objectives). Without a strong "why" though, it has been easy for skeptics to dismiss the importance of KM.

But I'm beginning to sense a shift in the wind.

With an increased recognition of the complex nature of organisations, there is a turn away from command and control approaches to managing knowledge by demanding individual changes in behavior. Instead, people are embracing a more holistic and integrated view.

When organisational and community knowledge becomes indivisible, focus shifts from whether any individual "possesses" knowledge to how well patterns of organisational interaction act to enhance institutional learning and preserve institutional memory.

The success of institutional knowledge is measured like any other knowledge: by how well it helps the institution survive by enabling it to be adaptable, resilient and innovative.

Examples of where I've seen this idea coming together include:

  • Dave Snowden's recent focus on distributed cognition and disintermediation, as well as his ongoing use of micro-narratives as a tool to neutrally analyse organisational knowledge
  • Social media advocates get that the emergent effects of knowledge transfers between individuals are far more powerful than direct attempts at manipulation
  • The uptake of third-generation quality management and its recognition that organisational processes must be responsive to and be driven by the interests of internal and external stakeholders
  • The Australian Federal and particularly the Victorian Governments, who are beginning to get behind the idea of organisational resilience and emergent outcomes in government papers

This new consensus around institutional knowledge as the key to resilience and adaptation is a huge opportunity for KM. We have the opportunity to take a leadership position as the experts in understanding and enhancing institutional memory and knowledge.

The answer to "why KM" then becomes: Just as a psychologist understands how complex interactions in your biochemistry affect how you think and act, we (KMers) understand how the complex interactions in your organisation affect how it thinks and acts.

Admittedly, there is still a long long way to go before we understand organisations as well as the body of knowledge established around psychologists. But right now, I do think that the KM discipline holds the pre-eminent position as institutional knowledge experts and we should seek to capitalise on that.

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