Even after so many years, the disciplinary boundary of knowledge management (KM) remains porous. Anything that has some semblance to knowledge can legitimately be labelled as KM. A person working on the technical task of identifying bots that spew fake news on social media can stake a claim on the KM turf as much as another who studies organizational impediments to knowledge sharing behaviors. It is unsurprising that KM-related journals deal with a wide variety of topics, ranging from text-mining and taxonomy to innovation and human resources. And for good measure, business strategies and IT project management can also be thrown into the mix.
There is no problem with thematic heterogeneity. The KM community is happy to extend the hand of fellowship to anyone interested to be part of the fold. But what can be of concern is the ignorance of the fundamental assumption with which KM is approached. The parable of the blind men groping parts of the elephant illustrates this point best – how our individual idiosyncratic perceptions severely impair the overall understanding of a complex phenomenon. Our approach to KM is intricately linked to our assumptions about knowledge. Peering beneath KM’s veneer, at least three distinct assumptions emerge.
The first is ‘knowledge as an object’. Here, knowledge is handled as if it were a commodity that can be manufactured, traded, stored, and weighed. And when transferred from its source to the recipient, knowledge retains its inherent essence. Sure, everyone agrees that knowledge can either be explicit or tacit. But when knowledge is assumed as an object, KM efforts will characteristically be structured, deterministic and predictable. So terms like critical success factors and knowledge audit questionnaires become common lexicons.
The next is ‘knowledge as a process’. The focus here is not merely on knowledge itself but on the interaction among people within an ecosystem. Just as wind is invisible but its effect can be felt, the amorphous nature of knowledge is recognized. The challenge of capturing knowledge in one context and realizing its value in another is non-trivial. When knowledge is treated as a process, KM efforts become developmental and tentative rather than executional and formulaic. So the motif of a community is often used to depict the dynamics of knowledge.
The third is ‘knowledge as power’. Here, knowledge is understood not to be a neutral resource but that it confers a sense of power and authority on those who possess it. Who decides what to share, whom to share and in what amount to share are all personal prerogatives. When seen in this light, knowledge hoarding does not appear to be too anomalous. It is in fact a natural, instinctive response particularly in a highly competitive environment. Likewise, knowledge sharing may not always be altruistic but intended as a signaling mechanism to boost image and status. Hence, forces that compel and restraint knowledge sharing are politically undergirded.
Our approach to KM is a function of our assumptions about knowledge. So, the next time someone comes along and talks about a KM-related consultancy or KM-related research, hopefully the conversation can flow from cliché-ish objectives or fancy strategies to something more deep-seated. When critical views on the core of how we see knowledge are exchanged, this is when the KM community progresses and the frontiers of KM pushed forward.