Snake-Oil for the New Millennium

The Knowledge Management Scam

Red Shoes & Walking Bags, by moriza, with Creative Commons licenceIt’s been a busy week for the information overlords. No, I don’t mean Bill Gates or whoever it is keeping the Internet’s main servers chugging along, although they’ve probably been busy too. Who I actually mean are the snake-oil salesmen of the Cyber Age – those who utter the term ‘knowledge management’ with illogical conviction.

Here in Hong Kong we’ve just had the local Knowledge Management Society’s forum, desperately attempting to ride in the ill-defined wake of Web 2.0. And one of the local newspapers ‘featured’ a thinly disguised advertisement for associated services this week. Not a good start, but let’s broaden our consideration for a while. One question is just begging to be asked: what the heck is knowledge management?

Over the last 20 years we’ve had tortured managerialisms like 360-degree assessment, Six-Sigma (though still with many defenders), business process re-engineering (from the ashes of methods and procedures analysis) and downsizing – that earnest attempt to re-focus business that became a vicious excuse to sack people. Downsizing is still alive and well, with major banks like HSBC excelling at it even though they’re earning record profits, despite claims of hard times after the sub-prime mortgage fiasco. The other methods are faltering, and will eventually fall behind newer fads, one of which is already fading. That’s knowledge management. But it’s not going down without a fight.

If You’re Not Confused, by B Tal, with Creative Commons LicenceSo much for the background – what does ‘knowledge management’ actually mean? Ray Sims recently posted an answer in cyberspace. Well, many possible answers really. Fifty-three all told. These aren’t similar, hairsplitting overviews, but “substantially different. There are only five attributes that are seen in 30% or more of the definitions”. At the Information Research blog, Tom Wilson commented that “in spite of all this he still calls ‘knowledge management’ a discipline!” Indeed.

Somewhere buried in this confusion it’s fair enough to claim that knowledge management is about the control and use of ‘knowledge’, broadly defined, in an organisation – be it a business, a government, or even a large club. And as organisations are essentially groups of people doing the same or similar things, this has a social element to it. David Gurteen, a self-described “independent knowledge consultant” puts it this way.


Fair enough, but other practitioners push back the boundaries, claiming that information is now out of control and organisations can’t handle or absorb it properly. But, wait . . . did you notice I skipped from discussing knowledge and its management to information control? Knowledge managers do the same, but they don’t seem to notice the difference.

T.D. Wilson wrote about this sort of oversight five years ago in an issue of the Information Research e-journal. There’s a fairly simple distinction between knowledge and information: knowledge is internal and information is external. In other words, knowledge is the sum total of how we make sense of the world without being aware of it and information is how we broadcast that knowledge. It might seem like a fine distinction, but to claim that knowledge, which is tacit or indefinable, can somehow be managed is just plain silly. Not that knowledge management professionals haven’t seen the lighter side of it, as this performance by Professor Gervaise Germaine, a.k.a Patrick Lambe, attests.


So why do the knowledge management fraternity persist, even though they know the limitations of their calling? Let’s get back to the knowledge management forum that wrapped up in Hong Kong yesterday. Much of the focus was on how knowledge managers could benefit from or bring benefit to online social networking, via MySpace, Facebook and the like, and even blogs. You might think that the use of these new networks is running along fine, thank you very much, without interference from managers. And you’d be correct. Did anyone think ‘self-organising system’?

But managers need something to, well, manage, which brings me back to the sneaky advertorial in the South China Morning Post this week. The main article, republished online by Lexis-Nexis, highlighted the activities of IRM Strategies, which claims on its website to make “intangibles visible”. Defying logic it can promote knowledge management, which it did by participating in the Hong Kong forum. But the article focused on something more logically tangible. It seems that most of what the company does is organise documents, working with other organisations that can’t do so themselves, given volume and other constraints.

Photocopier Button, by Chris Campbell, with Creative Commons licenceNot surprisingly, the print edition of the article appeared in a document management ‘special report’. Other articles on the page profiled executives from Ricoh and Fuji Xerox, peddling ‘solutions’ for ‘multifunction devices’. That’s execuspeak for ‘photocopier upgrades’.

It’s curious that anyone would believe this convoluted, euphemistically delivered idea to be worthy of consideration. But, then again, the six-sigma number crunchers hand out ‘belts’ as though they’ve devised a martial art. There must be a bit of a thrill in that. And Myers-Briggs personality testing combines bastardised Jungian psychology with a hefty fee to identify where staff members should be heading. That seems fairly popular.

It’s a puzzling world.

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2 Responses to Snake-Oil for the New Millennium

  1. John says:

    Oh Mike! I have a feeling that a very, very long chat over a glass might be in order 😉

    I personally do not care for the KM moniker either – it is on its second cycle through fad-dom in some circles. Nonetheless, it is knowledge–or lack of same–that is what makes it all work…even your blog, eh?! Paying attention to managing knowledge within a defined context is simply good management. Yes, there have been plenty of fads in that arena…so what? There’s substance in many fads, and it isn’t the substance but the fickle nature of fad chasers that takes a focus on improving and turns it into vendor hype and buyer disappointment. Too many prefer to place responsibility on “the solution” instead of assuming accountability or actually working on the challenges themselves. Don’t get me started!

    Back to km, it’s basically about leveraging the value of knowledge gained through doing work. Is that so bad? If a business is NOT creating an environment in which it gets the most out of knowledge resources: people and the information they rely upon for decisions, then frankly its not a business–or a government-I want building the airplane I fly on, or teaching my child or, thinking locally, providing health care. Sadly, the focus on an obedient, compliant workforce that does not make waves gets in the way of excellence. It’s an old story and KM might just offer some means to move beyond it.

    Thanks for caring enough to blog on the topic…intangibles on another day 😉

  2. Mike Poole says:

    John, now you’ve given me even more to think about! Buyer disappointment is certainly an interesting phenomenon – I spoke to a commercial client not long ago who insisted that I not include Six-Sigma in the brochure I was writing for him because it had failed his company. He couldn’t clearly articulate how that had happened, so I expect being fickle might have had something to do with it. Incidentally, that sort of thing happens in my field all the time – fickleness is the curse of the editor and copywriter!

    I should mention, if only in passing, that I included Six-Sigma as a fad in the post less because of that comment than because it has been attracting criticism in some of the business magazines, especially BusinessWeek.

    I do appreciate your point about a business needing to make the best use of its resources. Whether it happens under the rubric of information or knowledge, the process of learning still has to continue. Even in something as seemingly straightforward as a small editing department, which is what I run when I’m not blogging!

    Still, I have reservations about how knowledge is conceptualised in the field, and about other aspects that I covered in my further two posts on the topic. Much of that is also covered as part of the discussion at Green Chameleon. But the whole issue has led me to think more about what knowledge really is. Patrick Lambe, who criticised my position at Green Chameleon and left a comment on my second post here at Greetings Earthlings!, Knowledge Management Revisited, pointed me in some interesting directions in that regard, and I’ll post on what I learn when I get a chance.

    One thing I really must say before I finish is that people who deal with knowledge management are definitely ready to engage in debate about it. I’m very glad for that, and only wish it were true in other areas!

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