OBSERVATIONS ON KM: Past, Present, and Future
As KMWorld enters its 32nd year of publishing, it’s a good time to look at where the field of knowledge management has been and where it’s going. The underlying concept powering KM has not really changed. It’s all about sharing knowledge, recognizing the importance of being able to capitalize on insights gained through knowledge, and leveraging aspects of information and knowledge assets through their reuse. KM’s concentration on linking various information sources to create new knowledge in innovative ways contributes to organizational success, customer satisfaction, and employee well-being.
In his Perspective on Knowledge column, David Weinberger points to document management as the origin of much of what we now consider to be KM. Thinking back to 30 years ago, documents were the format in which much institutional knowledge appeared. Document management, records management were the terms of art—and in many instances, still are. There remains a fair bit of overlap among them.
New forms of information
What comprises knowledge within organizations has grown in scope and formats within the past few decades. It’s not just documents, it’s video, audio, messaging, chats, and images. Even the notion of what constitutes a “document” has changed to encompass unstructured information. And, of course, many of the “documents” are not digital. No longer do we rely on paper locked away in file cabinets. Organizations have, to the regret of most knowledge managers, created silos of digital information that mimic the file cabinets of old. It’s probably not intentional, but locking away relevant data in separate silos makes knowledge sharing exceedingly difficult and presents a challenge that KM platform builders seek to solve.
Expectations regarding formats have evolved as well. A list of links is no longer optimal. The trend is toward providing actual answers—and those answers might appear in the form of a video, an image, a form to fill out, a PDF, or a referral to a subject matter expert (SME). Codifying the knowledge of SMEs is of growing importance to KM platforms. This has the dual purpose of saving the SMEs from constantly answering the same question, which gets boring and is way too time-consuming, and of preserving their knowledge if they leave the company or move to another job within the company.
Early on, KM highlighted the importance of tacit knowledge. It differentiated between explicit knowledge, which is written down in some form, and tacit knowledge, which exists between people’s ears. One example is a map that shows the best route for a truck driver to follow versus the knowledge stemming from the driver’s experience. The driver knows a shortcut that isn’t on the map or that the recommended route actually has severe potholes that will delay the travel time.
The line between tacit and explicit knowledge has blurred with the advent of social media. Internal collaboration tools such as Yammer, Slack, and Microsoft Teams have come close to automating the transition of tacit knowledge to explicit knowledge. In today’s organizations, information contained in phone calls to customer service can be recorded and placed in a knowledge hub, joining similar data culled from text messages, tweets, and other public social media sites. Making organizational tacit knowledge explicit has long been a goal of KM, and the reality of achieving this is much closer than it used to be.