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Let me count the KM ways

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If you want to see what's right and wrong about Knowledge Management, just read the April 5 issue of Informationweek. An excellent round-up article called Get Smart, by Beth Davis and Brian Riggs, collects real-life KM success stories ... and shows exactly why KM is such a troubled discipline at the conceptual level while providing real value at the practical level.

The article isn't concerned with the theoretical or conceptual underpinnings of KM. It just wants to present a range of companies benefiting from implementing KM systems. But precisely because the authors have no ideological case to make, it's plain as day that there is little -- and possibly nothing -- these poster children of KM have in common:

Tacit knowledge. A representative of Hallmark says: "Knowledge exists in peoples heads and in the interaction between people, work, and the problem to be solved. KM, then, is a matter of making tacit knowledge explicit."

Best practices. At Shell Oil, engineers in 11 refineries across US access best practices.

Extranet publishing. Employees at Schneider Automation share knowledge with the parent company via an extranet.

Data mining. Sears has three terabytes of data. They're going to mine that data so that when a service call for a broken dishwasher reveals its 25 years old, the next bill will contain a coupon for a new dishwasher. (Notice, the implicit plug Sears gives itself, implying that their dishwashers last 25 years.)

Information aggregation. Scient has a tool that aggregates document information with information from ERP systems. (Scient also apparently has an excellent PR agency.)

Process automation. Schneider will also be using workflow software to automate business development and technical support.

Collaboration. Scient is adding project collaboration tools to its KM offering.

Ad hoc knowledge sharing. Hallmark is wiring 100 retailers so they can communicate, chat, and share best practices.

Knowledge communities. Platinum is enabling 1,500 salespeople to access authenticated info aggregated into six knowledge communities."

And this doesn't even cover all the theoretical varieties of KM.

What do all these entries have in common? They cover different types of data, different people, different delivery means, different purposes.

What they have in common is that all were included in the same article, as if it were obvious that they are examples of KM. This is not insignificant. First, it tells us that we have evolved a way of seeing that things as seemingly far apart as best practices and data mining are in fact related in some important way.

Second, Socrates was right. The right way to understand a term is to gather clear, uncontested examples of the term and then see what they have in common, rather than trying to define it purely in the abstract.

So, if these are our examples, what is KM? It seems to have something to do with growing and harvesting insubstantial stuff such as ideas, practices, and information. It seems to have something to do with groups and communities, not individuals. It seems to have something to do with organizations acting smarter.

You can try to smush all three of those points into a single phrase if you want, but it's bound to come out sounding like the normal mystical consultant happy talk. If, however, we can agree that the cases in the article are in fact examples of KM, then even if we can't define it in a phrase, more than ever it seems like when it comes to KM, there's a *there* there.

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