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Can you really manage knowledge? October 30, 2008

Posted by stewsutton in Knowledge Management.
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Most would agree that knowledge is the stuff that we carry around with us in our heads.  It’s a combination of experience and the ability to draw on that experience as we do things.  In many instances we may agree that when the right knowledge is applied, that is an example of “good judgment.”

So how can we “manage” this stuff?  Is there a special technology device that can be hooked up to a person that identifies, orders, and extracts this stuff we call knowledge?  And if such a device exists, will it really be able to create a product that would give sufficient emphasis to the context of “when, how, and why” to apply the extracted knowledge?

Most knowledge that we seek to “manage” is of a form that is described as “explicit”.  It’s the tacit knowledge that we generally refer to as residing in our brains and embedded within our experience.  So with that clarification, can we really manage the explicit stuff?  These are things that we can write down.  Say for example you have a really good technique for doing a particular task.  If you are able to write that technique down and it can be followed by another person based on your written instructions, then you have an effective example of explicit knowledge.  Let’s call that gem the “expert task procedure” to continue this example.

Once that a piece of knowledge has been articulated explicitly it is a candidate for being managed. Since we have the expert task procedure in an explicit (written) form, it can be managed.  To manage this knowledge we need to accommodate the following three elements:

  1. stewardship –  knowledge needs to be updated and maintained in proper context
  2. distribution –  knowledge must be shared and made available to others
  3. access control – only those with the correct permissions can use the knowledge

A formal approach to knowledge management will assure common procedures following corporate process and leveraging enterprise technology accommodate the three preceding elements.  Knowledge must be applied in proper context to have value.  Stewardship (including the original authorship) is directed at that objective.  Stewardship may be as simple as ensuring that the written procedure has a caretaker that will keep it “up-to-date” and address different variations that might need to be articulated to tune application within a different context.

Once the expert task procedure is created, it is not going to really add value to the organization unless it is made available to others in a form that assures its “accessibility”.  Sending out the explicit knowledge in a “one-time” email is probably at the other end of the spectrum of “good knowledge management.”  Also, just posting the knowledge on a “web site” may be a bit better, but it fails to address the need to classify and present knowledge according to explicit inquiry.  So the distribution of knowledge in explicit form is generally done through some form of knowledge management system (that is really a fancy database system with a friendly interface to address “search and locate” needs).

Once we have knowledge recorded in explicit form, and there is an agreed procedure following standard process to assure that the knowledge is “up-to-date” (stewardship), and that knowledge under stewardship is placed within a special data system where it can be easily located and referenced, we must consider how to “protect” and manage access to that knowledge so that only those with proper authority (according to organizational policy) can get to it.

Access control to knowledge moves into the field of “identity management” and at the enterprise level it requires that knowledge systems integrate with enterprise identity systems.  This can be complex technically but it is essential in assureing that knowledge is properly managed. Let’s say for example that you had everything in place except for access controls.  Then the knowledge of that expert task procedure could benefit many, including the competitors to the company that gained access to the knowledge system with the open front door!  Protecting knowledge is essential to leveraging knowledge for competative advantage and that is also what makes it so difficult to collaborate and share across organizational boundaries.