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PHOTO: Edward Howell | unsplash

Peggy Winton, president of AIIM and an old friend, recently asked which term people preferred: "knowledge management" or "organizational intelligence."

Organizational intelligence is a relatively new phrase introduced by Microsoft. In a white paper on content services from last year titled, "Growing Organizational Intelligence with Knowledge and Content in Microsoft 365," Microsoft stated its investments in content services will help with:  “How that collective knowledge within an organization is accessed, shared, and matured ...."

With Project Cortex and now Microsoft Viva, the term knowledge management has seen a resurgence within Microsoft marketing literature. AIIM has also shared quite a few posts on KM, but its recent release of an ebook developed in partnership with Microsoft is important in our current context: Building Organizational Intelligence with Connected Thinking (pdf).

Read the AIIM ebook and see what you think — it's pretty short, you can digest it in 5 minutes. But to Peggy's point: is it really a question of KM versus organizational intelligence? Does the language really matter, or are these just interchangeable buzzwords that only those of us on the inside really care about or understand?

What Does 'Organizational Intelligence' Mean?

Definitions are a good place to begin. The ebook provides a clear definition of organizational intelligence within its first page: "Organizational Intelligence is the ability to use information, technology, and people in ways that improves an organizations' performance."

OK, so it encompasses information management, people management, and of course, our use of technology. At first glance, process is missing, but that's only because I did not quote the line from the introductory paragraph that sets the context: “Choose any important business process and you will find that information drives the workflow.

So we are talking about the flow of information as the fuel for an organization's business processes. To make our organizations intelligent, we must examine the use of that information, the technology that enables it to flow, and of course, our greatest resource, the people who create, share, manipulate and manage the information in order to create value.

What is missing so far is any use of the word knowledge. Instead we are focusing on "information," which is fine. Many people use the words information and knowledge interchangeably. I am a KM purist who thinks this is wrong, and will happily sit with you in a pub over a beer and tell you why, but for now I will curb my enthusiasm and remain awkwardly pragmatic!

The ebook goes on to suggest that "connected thinking" can make our organizations operate more intelligently: "Organizational Intelligence is about making a connection between knowledge and people. The goal is to create a workforce of 'connected thinkers,' who can tap into information and access it at the point of need …."

Again, I see nothing radical here. We are now talking about concepts that KM theorists and practitioners have been pushing for decades: connecting knowledge and people. Personally, as information is re-introduced at the end of the sentence, I would have stuck with the theme of connecting people and information in order to generate knowledge, but connected thinkers is as good a phrase as any to encapsulate the concept. Connect the people (the thinkers) to the information they need, and to the other people across the organization in a well-structured, or well-managed way to remove friction, increase the efficiency of the information flows, and thereby improve the business processes.

Related Article: Reboot Knowledge Management for the Post-Pandemic Workplace

What Do We Mean by Knowledge Management?

I haven't yet provided a snappy definition of KM to compare and contrast with organizational intelligence, largely because there are soooo many to choose from. I do like this 2002 definition by Dr. Clair McInerny: “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.”

Increasing useful knowledge is an idea we can all get behind, right?

I have always explained that the difference between information and knowledge is that knowledge is mostly in people's heads, and therefore KM is a management discipline that should be largely focused on people. We discussed the well-known KM theory called SECI back in 2015, which posits that tacit knowledge can be converted to explicit knowledge. I don’t think it matters whether or not you subscribe to this point of view, but this diagram, which could have a lot more labels crammed into it, helps sum up the breadth of what could (and should) be encompassed in a KM strategy:

diagram of where the different elements within the workplace sit in relation to knowledge management
PHOTO: Jed Cawthorne

Related Article: Defining the Knowledge-Centric Digital Workplace

Does It Matter Which Term We Use?

Yes and no. Applied properly, knowledge management should be an enabling strategy for your organization (be wary of anyone who wants to sell you a “KM system”). KM is a management discipline, which means it has broad applicability and involves many elements, although obviously you can pick and choose which elements to add to your ongoing KM strategy.

If organizational intelligence is about creating a workforce of connected thinkers, then it would appear to be a sub-strategy that sits within KM, and yet the way we use language suggests that a KM strategy would be an enabler for achieving an intelligent organization!

Does it matter?

Language always matters. It is what separates us from other creatures, and allows us to communicate the most complex and intricate theories and ideas. And yet, in this case my answer would be no, it does not really matter. In the business environment, you must be both pragmatic and practical. Use the terms and phraseology that can be most easily understood by your stakeholders. Despite there being hundreds of academic definitions of KM, if you ask an attorney about KM, they will be able to give you a sentence based on the specific use of KM in the Legal industry. Interestingly the Microsoft / AIIM ebook has the top technology targeted for transformation as “Document and Knowledge Management” (64%), which is somewhat odd as outside of the legal industry, I would not necessarily have put the two together.

However, this reinforces my point: in your specific context, in your industry, with your stakeholders, you may gain more traction for digital transformation projects if you talk about organizational intelligence. Whether you talk about Digital Transformation (DT), Information Governance (IG), Organizational Intelligence (OI) or good old KM, make the alphabet soup work for you. Bend it to your will, and make the language resonate for your organization, and then it truly won’t matter what you call it, as long as your stakeholders can identify with it, and engage with it to improve their business processes.

Related Article: Knowledge Retention in Times of Disruption