Is "Knowledge Management" Bunk?

As we delve into the history and question the future of knowledge management (KM) this week, a nagging thought kept creeping into my brain - is the entire concept of knowledge management just a bunch of hooey? Dixon did a terrific job of explaining the history of KM and its progression from explicit to experiential to collective knowledge, but in one moment she discusses knowledge management as “a good idea” while in the next breath lamenting its largely across-the-board failure. It might be a good idea, but by the time that idea was developed and codified, was it already obsolete? Was knowledge management doomed from the get-go?

Davenport made an interesting point that knowledge management-related searches were no longer appearing as frequently in Google searches. When one Googles “knowledge management” or related phrases, it is clear that much effort has gone into influencing search engine optimization (SEO) to point toward pages from a few KM speciality firms. That could speak to these companies’ relentless focus on SEO but could also represent an industry-wide abandonment of knowledge management as an overall strategic priority, leaving only a few consultants actively pushing the product.

One theme I see emerging over and over again in this week’s readings is the need for a hybrid system, not of knowledge management, but of knowledge leadership or knowledge coordination. In Leading Digital, the authors used the example of Pernod Ricard, its “share a new idea every day” employee communication initiative, and a specific commitment to a “top-down and bottom-up mobilization” to change the company’s digital culture. Jarche’s “ways to make social learning work in the enterprise” were similarly revealing: “Think and act at a macro level (what to do) and leave the micro (how to do it) to each worker or team. The little stuff is changing too fast.” Although I would argue that acting at the macro level requires participation from all stakeholders and not just traditional management, this struck me as sensible top-down, bottom-up advocacy.

In education, a thought leader relevant to this hybrid style would be Rick DuFour. He famously authored In Praise of Top-Down Leadership, but his larger point was the effective coupling of “loose” and “tight” systems. For example, a superintendent sets a non-negotiable standard for the district’s faculty - we will collaborate (tight). How the faculty collaborates is a question put directly to the faculty (loose). Holding people accountable to produce results from that collaboration is in the purview of district leadership (tight).

To bring Kelly into the mix, if we are all endless newbies and constantly becoming, we need knowledge leadership that reflects a growth mindset as opposed to a static one. If all the world’s knowledge is now flowing instead of fixed, we need knowledge leaders who are comfortable serving as islands in the stream, not as obstacles but as facilitators. In the discussion on sharing, Kelly incorporated the wisdom of “a small amount of top-down smartness to offset the dumbness of a massively bottom-up system,” thus we need knowledge leaders who can help focus the energy of the massive (and massively sharing) crowd.

In other words, the web and the cloud may have killed knowledge management, but they have breathed life into knowledge leadership. Those who are willing to stand amidst the flow, and here I am thinking of Malcolm Gladwell’s “connectors,” those may be the champions of our post-PC, pre-AI society (and perhaps into that future, as well). There is still a place for expertise, but we will need fewer mavens and more connectors.

Increasingly important, we will need to connect to the right information. We have been slow to react to the scourge of “fake news” and other threats to a productive flow. The Russians are back on a Cold War footing, actively working to disrupt our elections and undermine democracy throughout the West, and we are not yet fully awake to or engaged in counteracting the threat as a populace. Companies can contribute through traditional knowledge management gatekeeping functions, but information, even the fake variety, wants to be free. As leaders, we may not be able to manage knowledge, but we can certainly help filter it. Our connectors can help. Ultimately, if James Madison was right, attempting to shut down fake news may take us in a despotic direction that would be worse than allowing fake news to proliferate. Theoretically, faction will be made to counteract faction and we should be able to find ways to control for the effects of fake news without compromising our values of free speech. Theoretically.

Last week, I investigated the web tool Feedly. It is a perfect example of Web 2.0 flow and how, with everyone having access to streams of knowledge, value will be created in curating that knowledge or leading a collaboration with access to that knowledge (or both!). Thus, to my mind, the old concept of knowledge management wasn’t necessarily bunk, but it was certainly shortsighted. Look at how far we’ve progressed in just the last 30 years. Just imagine where we will go from here.