Enabling the creation of new knowledge: "Knowledge Management" that matters

Jamie MacKinnon
copyright 2003: all rights reserved

The key value-adding activity in most leading companies is the creation and application of knowledge. And increasingly, firms that learn how to effectively manage this creation / application process will be the firms that succeed. I take these statements to be non-contentious.

Why then is so much Knowledge Management literature banal, breathless with excitement but lacking in new ideas?

Why, despite lip service to the idea that “information is not knowledge,” do we still see thousands of articles promoting information management tools (document management systems, data mining systems, groupware, etc.) as “solutions” to knowledge management problems?

Why, when the challenge for most companies is to develop new ideas to bring innovative products and services to market, is there such an emphasis in KM literature on codifying and “sharing” old knowledge?

Put differently, if creating and applying knowledge is where the action is, why the focus on IT and organizational learning? And why dress up IT and learning – important as they are to the success of business – as knowledge management?

Part of the reason, it seems to me, is the need to be au courant, up with the latest trend. Too many consultants seem to think their work appears more important if they describe it as a form of “knowledge management.”

And there’s a deeper reason. Many of the consultants and business theorists who write about KM view knowledge as a commodity – an input to be codified, stored, retrieved, and judiciously added in a business process. This view of knowledge is reflected in expressions such as “We’ll have to acquire the knowledge.” Would that it were so simple!

Knowledge isn’t a commodity. Or more precisely, the more knowledge resembles a commodity – the more easily it can be “captured,” packaged, stored, and transferred – the more trivial it’s apt to be. Generally, this kind of knowledge is procedural, and thus suited to automation (and possible obsolescence).

Valuable knowledge – complex knowledge – is contingent, contextual and “messy.” It can be inscribed in a document or book, but it can’t be “shared,” “retrieved” or “transferred.” When you read a book, a business proposal or marketing literature, you’re not retrieving knowledge so much as “constructing” it. Relating new ideas and information to previous experience, beliefs and understanding, you construct new, and highly personal, knowledge. (If people “retrieved” knowledge from complex texts, there wouldn’t be book club discussions, there wouldn’t be user support lines, and people would always do what advertisements tell them to do.)

Unlike most commodities, complex knowledge, when used or applied, a) doesn’t get used up, and b) mutates and grows – that is to say, it renews itself.

Old knowledge is important in business. Knowledge that’s developed inside a company has to be protected, made available, and applied. And companies need a good deal of outside knowledge to attain “best practices.”

But to thrive, to lead, even to survive, companies need to develop new knowledge. It’s this activity that leads to long-term gains in profitability and competitiveness.

But when it comes to developing new knowledge, KM literature doesn’t have a lot to say.

Perhaps this is as it should be. Every business is unique, and new ideas come from the rich specifics of given situations. So don’t wait for a Knowledge Creation master plan; it’s unlikely to emerge. In this important realm, you’re on your own.

The ideas you come up with are likely to be provisional, and never fully satisfactory. In a nutshell, you need to carefully examine the why, who, where, what, when and how of knowledge creation in your company. Let me amplify briefly.

Consider which aspects of your business most require new ideas. Concentrate on the processes and value chains related to the core business functions. (You may also want to do the reverse: determine which aspects don’t require new knowledge, i.e., where best practices are satisfactory.)

For each aspect you’ve identified, ask yourself the terribly simple question: Why do we need new ideas and knowledge in this area? What would the knowledge do? How does it fit with strategy?

Locate the current sources of knowledge creation in your business. Do most new ideas come from a knowledge creation silo (i.e., Research and Development)? If so, should that be the case? How could the organization chart be more supportive of knowledge creation? Don’t just ask your innovators and ideas people this question. Ask all employees.

Think about the performance management system. Are new ideas rewarded, both in real-time feedback and at appraisal time?

Consider the calendar. To what extent is innovation planned, locked into a timetable, in the form of strategic planning sessions, environmental scans, project planning, etc.? Should new thinking be explicitly encouraged at other times, as part of other routines?

Finally, think about writing. Most people view writing as a knowledge product, a container for knowledge, but writing is also the pre-eminent means of creating knowledge in most businesses.

It’s in writing that we assess problems, invent and compare possibilities, and plan action. Do employees have the business and audience information they require for the documents they write? Is the write-and-review cycle efficient and supportive of knowledge creation? Would your company profit from an audit of writing practices?

These are but some of the possibilities for enhancing knowledge creation practices in your business. You know your business and you’ll have your own ideas. But if you agree that knowledge creation and application is KM’s greatest possibility, don’t get distracted by all the talk about IT solutions and knowledge sharing. Get on with what counts: making your company a knowledge-creating enterprise.

Jamie MacKinnon is a writing and knowledge management consultant in Ottawa, Canada.