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KM's complex questions

I tried to warn the interviewer. "I'm not likely to be able to help you," I told him. It didn't matter; his editor had me on a list of people to call. "So," the interviewer continued, "for this primer on KM, I was wondering if you could tell me what you think knowledge is and what's the best way to manage the knowledge asset."

In logic, this is known as the "complex question," a question that assumes a proposition that is itself questionable. The standard (and sexist) example is "When did you stop beating your wife?" to which the hapless defendant replies, "I haven't stopped! I mean ...," by which time the prosecutor has dismissed him.

In this case, the assumptions hidden in the interviewer's question were: "knowledge" has a meaning and this knowledge thingy is an asset. But as I explained to him why I couldn't answer his question as asked, it struck me that I was being awfully harsh on KM, which has done some excellent things for companies. It's just that, from my point of view, it's hard to talk about them under the rubric of KM.

So, here's my complex answer to the young interviewer's complex question. (Well, it's more like what I should have said. But, as they say, history is written by those who get in the last word.)

"Knowledge" is one of the most pondered words in our history. It's been the object of philosophical reflection for 2,500 years. Then, one day, it got sucked into the business world by vendors looking for a way to extract cash from--I mean, add value to--companies. Everyone from imaging companies to indexing companies to international consulting firms began to recast their offerings in terms of KM. So, you want to know what "knowledge" is? It has so many meanings that it has no meaning. All that's left in this husk of a word is a plea for help making sense of the sea of information that's drowning us.

From there, KM starts to go really wrong. We start to look for "knowledge," thinking that it's a particularly significant type of information. This is akin to looking for a big hunk of lumber to hold on to after a shipwreck rather than learning how to swim. Or how to sail in the first place. The solution to the information problem isn't more information or especially good information. That's why knowledge isn't a asset that can be inventoried, deployed and managed.

Rather, we need to build smart organizations. Especially these days, a smart person isn't someone with lots of interior content. It's someone who knows how to find things out, and--most important--who makes the people around her smarter. More important than having a head crammed with facts is their ability to talk, to be respected, to be liked, to listen.

So, what do we make of KM systems that narrowly focus on the husbanding of valuable information? They're useful. Of course! But they tend to be one big Duh. Should we be noticing which practices work best and letting other people know about them? Well, duh! Should we be gathering as many hints and tips and workarounds as we can from our best tech support folks? Well, duh! Should we be providing smart navigation tools for the sea of information? Well, duh! These are all good and obvious things to do, but they add up to less than what the grandiose phrase "knowledge management" implies. And if they lead us to think of KM as a type of bank for the especially large denomination information notes, we will lose sight of the real "knowledge asset:" people who make the people around them smarter.

David Weinberger is editor of Journal of the Hyperlinked Organization.

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