Knowledge Management, obsolete??
May 26, 2006 7:04 AM   Subscribe

Does Knowledge Management have any validity as a professional field of expertise or have internal wikis made it obsolete?

I am consulting to a large (30, 000 person) organization that is seeing a large turnover as half of its workforce is, soon to retire, baby boomers. Although a lot of the expertise in this organization is technical in nature, most of it is specialized and anecdotal in nature. Most of the anecdotal knowledge will be lost without a knowledge management strategy.

I know Knowledge Management was a big deal about 6 years ago but seems to have disappeared off the map. Have wikis made it moot? The organization is looking at knowledge management strategies and as decided that an internal wiki will be the answer to their problem. I have argued that a wiki is just a small part of a knowledge management strategy and that they should look at several options beside wikis.

What tools should they be looking at beyond wikis? Is there a case that can be made for knowledge management as field of professional expertise?
posted by Xurando to Work & Money (8 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
What tools should they be looking at beyond wikis? Is there a case that can be made for knowledge management as field of professional expertise?

Well, gee. Some blatant but well-informed opinionating will follow.

Knowledge Management is not about the tools, it's about the organizational processes. Wikis and other forms of knowledge bases are not going to do much good if key stakeholders are not given incentives and time to participate, as well as some scaffolding for distilling their expert knowledge into a form that is useful for others. A few Wikis are really really great resources. Many others are badly structured, badly written, and loaded with out-of-date and inaccurate information. Some communities would rather meet at a convention once a year than participate in an electronic system. So, YMMV.

There are other ways of facilitating vertical and horizontal transfer of this kind of information as well that might actually work better. Face to face knowledge sharing is hugely important and offers a different set of advantages and disadvantages. I worked in a place with an extremely rich knowledge base. The knowledge base took care of 90% of the problems, and 5% of the most critical involved knowing who to call.

I don't know if Knowledge Management alone should be a separate discipline, or should be considered as part of human performance technology. Good arguments can be made either way.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 7:36 AM on May 26, 2006 [1 favorite]

As an MLS student, I can say that we've heard a lot of buzz about KM, and most of the professionals I know say its not a trend and is in fact its own discipline. A recruiter I know told me that the development of Content Management Systems that utilize web 2.0 are the next wave for Knowledge Management.
posted by sswiller at 8:41 AM on May 26, 2006

It isn't wikis that killed KM, it was the post dotcom bust. KM is one of those "Yeah, that'd be nice..." areas of expertise and many companies couldn't justify paying for it as income fell. KM was pretty consistantly one of the first things cut.

Most organizations have always always performed some degree of KM, it just wasn't until recently that all those little tasks got put together and named. I think that the tools for KM are getting easier and easier to use, which may be hampering its ability to come back after the bust. Orgs would rather pay for a piece of software than some weird consultant who drifts in with power points and handwaving about knowledge sharing.

When KM was still cool, many library programs latched on to it as a way of making them relevant ("Look! KM! That's what we've been doing all along!"). Now these same librarians are finding themselves competing against the old KM consultants corps for jobs as the KM folks flee consulting/constant threat of being cut to more stable libraries. At my academic library, fully half of our senior management team are KM types without any real practical library experience. Whether or not this is a good or bad thing, I dunno.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 8:54 AM on May 26, 2006

I'd kill for a good knowledge manager. Our system (driven by mediawiki) relies on a KM to keep things consistent, organized and up to date. People can submit all the knowledge they like, but it's up to our KM to make sure it's presentable to the community as a whole.
posted by boo_radley at 8:58 AM on May 26, 2006

I worked as a Knowledge Manager for a major banking group here in the UK and I agree, it's a discipline in its own right that's here to stay.

KM at its simplest is about taking raw information and data, deciding what is (and isn't), important, organising it and making it available for others to use and learn from. A wiki is just one of the tools that a KM team can use.

Any knowledge base, wiki or not, needs to be managed to ensure that the information remains accurate and relevant to the end users needs. And as companies increase their knowledge base they need people to manage it, so KM remains relevant.

Personally, I've just been made redundant (although not from a KM position..), and I'm now exploring KM consultancy roles. As KM technology becomes simpler, I'm finding that smaller companies no longer need a full time KM position but are more than happy to employ consultants.
posted by Nugget at 9:12 AM on May 26, 2006

"KM at its simplest is about taking raw information and data, deciding what is (and isn't), important, organising it and making it available for others to use and learn from. A wiki is just one of the tools that a KM team can use."

On that note, The New Yorker has a really interesting article about the SITE Institute, an open source spy agency that mines the Internet for Knowledge on Terrorism.
posted by sswiller at 9:24 AM on May 26, 2006

You might want to read the Harvard Business Review Case, "Managing Knowledge and Learning at NASA and the Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL)". It's very cheap and sounds very close to the situation you are describing. I just finished my MBA and we used this case in our Project Management class.

The case boils down to a decision to spend money on IT-based knowledge management programs or to spend that money on "softer" types of knowledge management. I actually never got to find out what happened in reality, but it should be an interesting read for you.

I agree with everyone else. I think knowledge management includes a whole lot more than just wikis or software tools. You need to have an organizational change to make it effective. How to create that change is the hard part.
posted by Sasquatch at 10:37 AM on May 26, 2006 [1 favorite]

I helped to start the KM Practice at a large consulting firm and then benefitted from the awesome KM network set up at another firm when I took more of a frontline consulting job.

KM has definitely suffered from budget cuts, but it can be extremely beneficial to companies, especially those where the product is knowledge (law firms, consulting, accounting firms, etc.) Just like human resource development (more than just change too), KM is one of those disciplines that many executives don't see the benefit of unless they've experienced really quality KM programs. That is a catch 22 when those programs don't exist.

KM went WAY beyond content management and IT in the environment where I worked. We had KM journalists who were producing audio programs, interviewing key stakeholders, and acting like an internal news team. We also had incentives for participating, after project reviews, firmwide documentation of projects that detailed major learning points, etc. The best KM combines the library sciences with organizational change, the learning sciences and journalism (IMHO).

A major obstacle to KM that Web 2.0 and the earlier Internet culture is helping with is the "knowledge is power so I must hoard it" mentality prevelant in many knowledge is the product firms.

Northwestern has a graduate program that specializes in KM in their School of Education that is linked to Kellogg, but I think it could also benefit with a relationship to a Library Sciences program. Unfortunately, there are few of them in Chicago.
posted by jeanmari at 5:24 AM on May 27, 2006

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