Knowledge management — as most people think of it — never existed. So anyone proclaiming its "death" can't be right. How can something that never existed die?

Let me explain.

Knowledge Management Meets Enterprise 2.0

Last week I read an interesting article by Nick Inglis (@nickinglis), “Knowledge Management rises from the dead.” In it, Inglis suggests the resurrection of KM is due to Enterprise Social Networks (ESN), which got me thinking. In spite of what I said above, I do believe knowledge management is alive and kicking in various forms and doing very well in specialist niches across a number of industries. I use Claire McInerney's definition for KM: “KM is an effort to increase useful knowledge within an organization. Ways to do this include encouraging communication, offering opportunities to learn, and promoting the sharing of knowledge objects or artifacts.”

The post argues that many KM initiatives fizzled out in the late 90s or early 2000s because the technology tools could not facilitate the capabilities required for a broader uptake. My take — what many people consider to be KM is actually Information Management, and that in the late 90s and early 2000s, many organizations were doing good things on the unstructured information management front. That time saw the introduction of Enterprise Content Management (ECM) strategies, many ECM suites and platforms, a focus on metadata and taxonomies and web based collaboration tools. And then came Enterprise 2.0.

MIT's Andrew McAfee coined the phrase Enterprise 2.0 in early 2006 to describe the use of new web 2.0 tools and techniques to internal enterprise systems. This concept worked for me because McAfee provided us with the SLATES model for assessing systems and their use. Move forward one year and a lot was going on in the E2.0 world:

  • Dion Hinchcliffe (@dhinchcliffe) expanded on the original E2.0 model with his expanded FLATNESSES model
  • David Gurteen (@davidgurteen) coined the term KM 2.0, suggesting that E2.0 “social” technologies would push us into a new way of looking at KM
  • Microsoft release SharePoint 2007, a huge improvement over the 2003 version and introducing basic social tools like blogs and wikis to many enterprises (and with add ons such as NewsGator, even more functionality).

So eight years ago we had a major KM luminary like David Gurteen suggesting E2.0 / social would push us into a new way of thinking about KM. In the eight years since, not only has SharePoint moved on by two major versions (both of which have been somewhat deficient in social collaboration functionality), but the market has proliferated with tools and platforms like IBM Connections, Jive, SalesForce Chatter, TIBCO Tibr, Yammer, ThoughtFarmer, ThreadKM and many, many more, reaching new levels of maturity, and being joined by start ups on a regular basis.

Nothing That a Teaspoon of Social Wouldn't Help

Back to the article. Inglis states that knowledge serendipitously captured in a social collaboration platform is in essence "feral knowledge" (as opposed to well classified knowledge). This concept doesn't work for me. Writing something down in a platform doesn't constitute “knowledge capture.” I believe knowledge is mostly tacit and in our heads. Efforts to capture and share knowledge generally turn it back into information, which brings us back into information sharing and information lifecycle management. 

Inglis goes on to write:

“One major problem that ESNs have is not the capture of knowledge, but the transfer of knowledge from the individual to the collective. Yes, ESNs are searchable, but they often live in a disconnected space, separate from primary systems for managing information. To move from Capturing Knowledge to Transferring Knowledge throughout an organization, ESNs need to continue their march from fringe outlier systems to connected enterprise systems.”

On this we agree. Social collaboration functionality does need to be embedded in business processes and into the major business applications that facilitate them. And enterprise search platforms can provide an enhanced capability for linking information content residing in various silos.

Let’s take a look at Hinchcliffe's FLATNESSES E2.0 model with a KM viewpoint, to see how social is continuing to change our view of KM. 

  • Freeform: “Old style” KM platforms were criticized for making users jump through hoops to enter additional content. The freeform nature of social tools helps with usability and user experience while enabling information capture
  • Links: Link to content and perhaps more importantly to people, through rich profiles or content they published, their comments, likes, etc. Finding the right people (expert finding) has always been a key KM concept
  • Authorship: The egalitarian approach to content creation. Although I don’t necessarily agree that “capturing” your every working moment in a blog constitutes knowledge capture and transfer, it certainly can build up the searchable corpus of useful information
  • Tagging: Potentially one of the most useful elements of E2.0, the use of simple and situationally appropriate metadata without recourse to overly broad or complex taxonomies is highly important to KM
  • Network Oriented: Small pieces of information, that are re-usable, but are also easily discoverable an addressable across the network, that can be surfaced in a news feed
  • Extensions: “Other customers who purchased this book, also purchased these ones” — extending the references to an individuals previous transactions or operations. In a KM context this can be useful for gauging both provenance and authority of a source and assisting in navigation towards other useful information
  • Search: A crucial element from a KM perspective, the search capabilities of a social platform, or its abilities to open up and be indexed by an enterprise search platform actually under pin many other functionalities. There is no point in capturing all this stuff if search cannot surface it for re-use
  • Social: The truly transparent exchange of information either within groups, or across the enterprise as a whole — this can only benefit a broad KM strategy
  • Emergence: “The sum of the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.” In other words, patterns and structures which have a meaning at a higher level of abstraction than at the lowest levels of detail. In a KM context, harvesting valuable insight from those high level perspectives may illustrate patterns or trends that constitute knowledge objects themselves
  • Signals: RSS, email alerts, news feeds and other elements which can send signals to users that something of interest is taking part makes for highly contextual KM

So can enterprise social collaboration platforms help push KM? It depends on your definition of KM, and what models and concepts within the broad academic area of knowledge management and related studies you subscribe to. I believe “social” has a very important part to play in information capture and information sharing. Social collaboration platforms democratize content creation and information sharing, in smaller “bite size” chunks, which may in some situations constitute McInerney’s “knowledge objects.” I also firmly believe that you cannot enact a knowledge management enabled strategy without good information management, and that social collaboration platforms or social intranets have a role to play.

Has social resurrected KM from the dead? Not really! KM was, in the words of Miracle Max from the Princess Bride, only “mostly dead” — but it can certainly be invigorated by a dose or two of social.

Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License Title image by  James Loesch