Review Paper 1: Wrapping our Heads Around KM

In this week’s readings, Prusak and Nunamaker Jr. et al. successfully provide a solid and informed definition for ‘knowledge management’ (KM), and why it is important.  Prusak establishes from the get-go that KM is not just about managing information, but about providing and maintaining access to “knowledge-intensive skills” (1003).  He also identifies the pitfall of reducing KM to simply “moving data and documents around”, and the critical value of supporting less-digitized / digitizable tacit knowledge (1003).  Prusak chooses to define KM based on its disciplinary origins, noting economics, sociology, philosophy and psychology as its “intellectual antecedents”, rather than defining it from a single perspective or its current application alone (1003-1005).   Nunnaker et al. take a different approach, defining KM first in the context of IT, that is, KM as a system or technology, and then presenting a hierarchical framework from which to understand its role.  In this sense, data, information, knowledge and wisdom all exist on a scale of increased application of context (2-5).  Except for this first theoretical framework that they present, Nunamaker Jr. et al. risk falling into the trap Prusak warns against; they define KM as the effort to organize information so that it is “meaningful” (1).  But what is “meaningful”?  Only context can determine meaning—fortunately, Nunamaker Jr. et al. at least account for this unknown quantity in their framework (3-4).  They also propose a unit to measure organizational knowledge: intellectual bandwidth.  This measurement combines their KM framework and a similar framework for collaborative information systems (CIS), and is defined as: “a representation of all the relevant data, information, knowledge and wisdom available from a given set of stakeholders to address a particular issue.” (9)  It is clear from their efforts to quantify KM and from the manner in which the frame KM as a system that Nunamaker Jr. et al. are writing for a particular audience, the technicians and IT specialists. Meanwhile Prusak is writing for a more general audience of practitioners.

One thing I felt was lacking from both articles was a clear statement and challenge of the assumptions of systematizing knowledge.  Nunamaker Jr. et al.’s argument for “intellectual bandwidth” is compelling, but I cannot help but be skeptical of any attempt to measure a concept as fuzzy as “wisdom” and “collective capability” (8-9).  Even Prusak clearly states that, as in economics, an essential knowledge management question is “what is the unit of analysis and how do we measure it?” (1004).  The underlying assumption is that knowledge can, in fact, be measured.  I am dubious about this claim (incidentally, this is also why I am dubious of similar claims often proposed in economic theory).  Certainly, there are other, qualitative forms of analysis that do not require a formal unit of measurement.  Assuming (a) that knowledge is quantifiable, and (b) that such a quantity is required in order to properly examine it, to me seems to lead down a quite dangerous and not altogether useful path.  The danger is that, in focusing on how to measure knowledge in a manner that lends itself to a quantitative analysis, one is absorbed in the activity of designing metrics and forgets that the purpose of KM is primarily to capture, organize and communicate the knowledge and knowledge skills within an organizational culture.  Perhaps this danger should be considered alongside and as an extension of Prusak’s pitfall of understanding KM merely as “moving data and documents around”.

Both of these articles, as well as the foundational article by Nonaka also under discussion this week, are valuable insofar as they lay the groundwork for knowledge management as a theoretical perspective.  Nunamaker Jr. et al. present much food for thought on how knowledge is formally conceptualized with their proposed frameworks. Meanwhile Prusak provides a sound explanation of the origins of KM and forecasts the future of the field by suggesting one of two possible outcomes; either it will become so embedded in organizational practice as to be invisible, like the quality movement, or it will be hijacked by opportunists (the unscrupulous, profit-seeking consultants Prusak disdains at the beginning of his article, 1002), like the re-engineering movement (1006).  Both papers were published in 2001, and a decade later neither of these predictions appears to have been fulfilled.  KM has been adopted by organizations much as the quality movement has been, but I suspect that knowledge workers are still trying to wrap their heads around how it is to be implemented and what it actually means.



Cited References


Nunamaker Jr., J. F., Romano Jr., N. C. and Briggs, R. O. (2001). A Framework for Collaboration and Knowledge Management, Proceedings of the 34th Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences – 2001. 1-12.


Prusak, L. (2001). Where did knowledge management come from? IBM Systems Journal 40(4), 1002-1007.

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