Urgent News – KM is Apparently Data Storage/Mining!

What's Wrong With This Picture? See it? Look closely!

I’ve been kicking around a thought related to the term “knowledge management systems” and then a couple of days ago stumbled onto an article that discussed “some ways to ensure success in knowledge management projects.” That article was actually about another article in which that author discussed the “challenges of knowledge management.” Both of those articles are perfect fodder for discussing what’s been running through my mind about the term “knowledge management systems” and what happens when someone reduces KM to what is essentially data storage and data mining. So let’s give it a toss and see where we land.

The first article that I mentioned above was “Some Ways to Ensure Success in Knowledge Management Projects” and in that David Sims was commenting on an article by Chiedozie Chukwu, “Overcoming the Challenges With Knowledge Management.” And on the surface both seemed like them might be interesting reads. Turned out that they were interesting reads, but probably not for good reasons.

Sims’ article was discussing that Chukwu had pointed out that failures in KM happened when the KM efforts were focused upon the technology side of things. Okay, no problem with that. Nor with the suggestion that failing to address the “non-technology issues of the organization” is detrimental. But I found myself headed to Chukwu’s article after reading what Sims presented as Chukwu’s definition of knowledge management:

“Businesses must focus on sharing knowledge across the organization,” Chukwu said, “storing it for future, lesser experienced employees, categorizing massive amounts of data, and using or purchasing tools to mine this data. This is knowledge management.”

And that’s the point where I got my first “huh?” moment. To me that definition seemed to want to talk about knowledge management, but yet it left me feeling that it was much more technology-centric. Did it come across that way for you also?

So I zipped over to Chukwu’s article to directly read the rest of what Chukwu had to say. It didn’t start out all that well as Chukwu then made the bold statement that, “In business today, you can never have access to enough information.” Which pretty much glosses over the whole issue of information overload and the impacts upon people and organizations.

Chukwu then presented various “pitfalls” regarding KM implementation — but they were defined as the “many things to consider when attempting to implement a new Knowledge Management (KM) system, or when trying to manage the growth of an existing one.”

Ah-huh. System. Technology. I was getting a bad feeling about this one because I just wasn’t getting that warm, fuzzy, KM-ish feeling and was instead left wondering what about the “non-technology issues of the organization” that I’d been promised to hear about.

Specifically, Chukwu presented a total of seven supposed pitfalls and in the end, six of the seven were wrapped around the technology/systems thingie. Sigh – so close, and yet….there it was right up front for me to have read, but I didn’t catch it my first read-through: Chukwu was a “senior IT consultant.”

Which brings me around to that thought of mine that I’d been kicking around for a bit – regarding “knowledge management systems.”

I have been pondering just why some (many) folks will sometimes (usually) talk about implementing a “knowledge management system”? Why do they say that, and what’s the impact of doing so?

Let’s consider cars for a moment. Everyone I know has said when they were doing so that they were buying a new “car” — and not a new “transportation system.” A car is not the only component in a “transportation system” which also consists of buses, trains, planes, bikes, motorcycles, pedestrians, and so on, as well as roads, highways, bridges, overpasses, etc. etc…..so it wouldn’t make sense to describe a car as a “transportation system.” A car is just one tool that you happen to be using at that moment to meet your transportation needs. Park the car and then start walking on down the road, you haven’t left the “transportation system.”

So why then refer to a particular piece of technology as a “knowledge management system”?

I think that the problem with referring to a piece of technology (selected from the vast universe of potential technological “solutions”) as a “knowledge management system” then is that as the term is used it implies that once you’ve bought and installed that IT system thingie, then you’re doing “knowledge management.” And nothing may be further from the truth. As referenced in that way, a “knowledge management system” is probably just a repository. Or another content management system. Or whatever. They’re all just tools, used (hopefully) to support an organization’s knowledge management effort. But just a tool, not “THE” knowledge management system. To view implementing a content management system as doing “knowledge management” is an extremely myopic view of what may all be included as knowledge management. And that doesn’t even address the whole issue that, for example, a “content management system” (defined as “the collection of procedures used to manage work flow in a collaborative environment”) could consist of people (records keepers) who manually manage content – meaning that you don’t HAVE to have technology to do content management, although the IT can certainly make it easier to do so.

A car without a driver isn’t going to do anyone much good. Nor would it be effective if there were no established roads or highways to take you to your destination, or if we had no way to determine where they were or how to access them or where they could take us.

The thing is, when you choose to drive your car you likely have in place a plan to go somewhere (the reason or purpose). You know where that is (distance), when you want or need to arrive (time), and so on. And so you make a decision based on those parameters to drive your car instead of choosing any other mode of transportation.

But you’d never tell someone after you’d arrived that you had just parked your transportation system. If they asked how you got there, your reply wouldn’t be that you used your transportation system. You’d answer that you’d driven your car.

And so by the same rationale, I really don’t think that a document repository, for example, is a “knowledge management system” because there are many other systems (including people) that together comprise the “knowledge management system.” Suggesting that a document repository is a “knowledge management system” is clearly techno-centric but more importantly that ignores a basic concept of what a system is all about – the interacting or interdependent components which have a purpose (the integrated whole). Having in place a document repository doesn’t actually accomplish anything. Documents don’t on their own improve business processes or make an informed decision. Documents are used by people, and for those purposes.

I liken this argument to a discussion of “decision support systems” and how they fit to that bigger picture. A decision support system (DSS) is a “computer-based information system that supports business or organizational decision-making activities.” And in that case, simply installing a DSS wouldn’t then be referred to as “decision making.” DSS is intended to help with decision making. But decision making is bigger than that, and it involves many other aspects beyond installing the IT support tool. And the same I think could be said for knowledge management, where you may have “knowledge management support systems” used to knowledge management activities that are part of the organization’s overall “knowledge management system.”

In the end I guess that the point that I’d like to make is that when someone talks about their “knowledge management system” in fact what they’re probably really referring to is not much more than a “knowledge management support system.” I think that a “knowledge management system” is much bigger than a repository, or a social networking tool, and that it must necessarily consist of both the IT systems and the other organizational systems (which includes people). In short, I think that’s a really bad usage of the term and that it tends to imply that once the IT is installed, “ta-dah” now you’re “doing” KM.

Dr. Dan's Daily Dose:
Over coming challenges to implementing “knowledge management support systems” isn’t the same as overcoming challenges in implementing knowledge management. And knowledge management isn’t simply “storing it (knowledge) for future, lesser experienced employees, categorizing massive amounts of data, and using or purchasing tools to mine this data.”

Oh – for those wondering – what was wrong with the above picture is that the keystone on the bridge is inserted upside down, and it would simply fall out rather than support the bridge.

About Dr. Dan Kirsch