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KM: the forest for all the trees

The late 20th century was full of business enthusiasms and fads (let's be blunt), but knowledge management (KM) is unlike any of the rest. It is quite literally in a class by itself.

We could begin to recognize that difference a few years ago. In 2002, Leonard Ponzi and I--building on previous work by E. Abrahamson, who had looked at previous business "fads"--demonstrated that knowledge management was behaving quite unlike those other management fads, and that KM was at the least an unusual and long lasting management fad.

Previous management fads (as measured by the number of articles in the business literature on the topic) showed a consistent pattern of boom and bust over a roughly 10-year cycle, with four or five years of explosive logarithmic growth, followed by an only slightly longer period of almost equally dramatic decline. On page 30 (KMWorld, Vol. 15 Issue 4), you can see the various graphs for "Quality Circles," "Total Quality Management" and "Business Process Re-engineering." Notice how similar the pattern is.

The profile of KM, however, is dramatically and fundamentally different. See the chart at right.

With four more years of data, it is clear from the chart that KM is now in a pattern all its own: first, the typical four- or five-year burst of explosive growth, but since then a pattern of stable, mature growth--not a pattern of boom and bust, but a pattern of boom and continuity.

Nice to know that KM is here to stay.

But there is something else unique about KM: It is beginning to become clear that KM is really the forest for all the trees of information management, content management and IT management.

Think of all the management fads and enthusiasms of the late 20th century, 1975 to 2000. Below is a list of those management fads, enthusiasms and topics, which to some considerable degree have to do with the management of information, or the management of the technology (IT) or the processes to manage information. There have been quite a few.

The trees in the forest of information, knowledge and IT related business fads and enthusiasms, starting with the most recent first, include:

  • Enterprise content management (ECM)
  • Supply chain management
  • Customer relationship management (CRM)
  • E-business
  • Enterprise resource planning
  • Knowledge management
  • Intellectual capital
  • Data warehousing/data mining
  • Core competencies
  • Business process re-engineering Hierarchies to markets
  • Competitive intelligence
  • TQM and benchmarking
  • IT and organizational structure Information resource management (IRM)
  • Enterprisewide information analysis
  • MIS to DSS and external information
  • IT as competitive advantage
  • Managing the archipelago (of information services)
  • Information systems stage hypotheses
  • Decision analysis
  • Data-driven systems design (the basis of structured programming)
  • IT and productivity
  • Minimization of unallocated cost

The conclusion that jumps out is that the topics above are the trees in a forest whose scope and importance we are still coming to recognize, a forest of information and knowledge management.

What is also striking is that after a quarter of a century of business fads, there have been no new significant business fads in the last few years. The conventional explanation offered for that paucity of new fads is that the dot.com bust created a period of skepticism and a climate unreceptive to new enthusiasms. The real explanation is that of the forest and the trees, we have begun to realize that the important phenomenon to recognize is that of the forest. As new trees are observed, they will be recognized as part of the forest, and they will be far less likely to be touted as the newest, greatest thing that will solve all problems.

The forest is not going away, and KM is coming to be the name of that forest. We have always had trouble defining KM, and now we have another definition, or more exactly a new metaphor: KM is the name for the forest of information, content, knowledge and IT management.

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