Knowledge Management, (KM) is a concept and a term that arose approximately two decades ago, roughly in 1990. Quite simply one might say that it means organizing an organization’s information and knowledge holistically, but that sounds a bit wooly, and surprisingly enough, even though it sounds overbroad, it is not the whole picture. Very early on in the KM movement, Davenport (1994) offered the still widely quoted definition:
“Knowledge management is the process of capturing, distributing, and effectively using knowledge.”
This definition has the virtue of being simple, stark, and to the point. A few years later, the Gartner Group created another second definition of KM, which is perhaps the most frequently cited one (Duhon, 1998):
“Knowledge management is a discipline that promotes an integrated approach to identifying, capturing, evaluating, retrieving, and sharing all of an enterprise’s information assets. These assets may include databases, documents, policies, procedures, and previously un-captured expertise and experience in individual workers.”
Both definitions share a very organizational, a very corporate orientation. KM, historically at least, is primarily about managing the knowledge of and in organizations.
The operational origin of KM, as the term is understood today, arose within the consulting community and from there the principles of KM were rather rapidly spread by the consulting organizations to other disciplines. The consulting firms quickly realized the potential of the Intranet flavor of the Internet for linking together their own geographically dispersed and knowledge-based organizations. Once having gained expertise in how to take advantage of intranets to connect across their organizations and to share and manage information and knowledge, they then understood that the expertise they had gained was a product that could be sold to other organizations. A new product of course needed a name, and the name chosen, or at least arrived at, was Knowledge Management. The timing was propitious, as the enthusiasm for intellectual capital in the 1980s, had primed the pump for the recognition of information and knowledge as essential assets for any organization.
Perhaps the most central thrust in KM is to capture and make available, so it can be used by others in the organization, the information and knowledge that is in people’s heads as it were, and that has never been explicitly set down.
What is still probably the best graphic to try to set forth what KM is constituted of, is the graphic developed by IBM for the use of their KM consultants, based on the distinction between collecting stuff (content) and connecting people, presented here with minor modifications (the marvelous C, E, and H mnemonics are entirely IBM’s):
Another way to view and define KM is to describe KM as the movement to replicate the information environment known to be conducive to successful R&D—rich, deep, and open communication and information access—and deploy it broadly across the firm. It is almost trite now to observe that we are in the post-industrial information age and that an increasingly large proportion of the working population consists of information workers. The role of the researcher, considered the quintessential information worker, has been studied in depth with a focus on identifying environmental aspects that lead to successful research (Koenig, 1990, 1992), and the strongest relationship by far is with information and knowledge access and communication. It is quite logical then to attempt to apply those same successful environmental aspects to knowledge workers at large, and that is what in fact KM attempts to do.