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KM: Why do we care?

This article appears in the issue May 1999 [Volume 8, Issue 5]

The KM industry has spent much of its short time on earth defining itself, in contradictory ways, with only the slowest growth in industry agreement. But we-the industry, the market-have persisted. Why? Why do we insist that there be such a thing as KM? What’s the impulse underneath it? What do we feel is lacking that we think something called "knowledge management" might bring?

On the one hand, the answer is obvious: As more and more information pours in, we feel stupider and stupider. We’re not keeping up. The knowable business universe is expanding far faster than our puny brains. So, we need KM, whatever that turns out to be.

But that’s not enough to explain the spawning of an industry literally out of nothing but a yearning.

I think the existence of KM speaks to two phenomena further beneath the surface. One has to do with knowledge and the other with management. How neat!

Knowledge

First, our insistence on KM points to our unhappiness with mere information. All the printouts, all the database dumps, all the nicely formatted reports and spreadsheets with embedded charts are not describing our world to us. It’s just not adding up. We have statistics but no understanding. And adding more and more information only increases the noise level. So, we want something better than information.

We’ve decided to give this something better the name knowledge. But that takes us down a certain path, unwittingly.

The problem with going down the knowledge path is that it makes us think that there’s something beyond information that is a type of super-information (in some to-be-defined sense). And we call this super-information knowledge.

The idea that knowledge is super-information keeps us from seeing that what is beyond information isn’t another type of information at all-it is understanding.

Understanding isn’t a type of information any more than health is a type of healthy food.

What is understanding? You already know. I’m not using it in any special sense. And however we try to articulate its meaning, it’s very clear that understanding is not itself a piece of information, or even some super-information like knowledge.

Management

Second, our rush to find something called knowledge management is based on the assumption that we can move past information and still remain within the realm of managed stuff. But the fact is that information isn’t enough for us precisely because it’s managed. Information is-by definition-the stuff we know how to use, technology to control, sort and neatly publish.

I mean this literally. Information in the computer sense is stuff that fits into a computer application (preferably in rows and columns format). To make it fit, we have to trim off irrelevant bits of fluff-sometimes its heart, soul, voice and sense of humor. There are good reasons to do that, but it does strip away context. And information isn’t enough for understanding because ultimately you cannot reassemble a context by reassembling the information you pulled out of the context.

Information is unsatisfying precisely because it’s managed.

So, now we decide we need something beyond information, and we decide to call it knowledge. But because we think that knowledge is a type of super-information, we think we can have our knowledge and manage it, too.

We thus repeat the mistake that made us unhappy with information in the first place. In managing information, we reduce it to information.

If what we’re really after is understanding, we shouldn’t try to manage it as much as to find it, grow it, teach it. To do that, you have to engage in the pre-computer human world of stories, metaphors, myths, perspectives, humor, insights and dumb mistakes.

Also, you can’t do it yourself: All understanding is social. By definition.

So, manage your information. But don’t get sidetracked by the impulse to manage as you go beyond information to understanding. Understanding that gets filtered into manageable information gets reduced once again to mere information.

There’s much that we can do to help our organizations get beyond information all the way to understanding. But managing knowledge, where knowledge is a type of super-information, is always going to be self-contradictory, self-defeating and a distraction from the real need to understand.


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