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What’s In a Name? The Future of “Knowledge Management”

Oct 26, 2015
Tieja Thomas Tieja Thomas
Research Associate
The Conference Board of Canada

During the week of September 28 in Toronto, The Conference Board of Canada’s Technology and Innovation team brought together the Council on Information and Knowledge Management (CIKM), Council for Innovation and Commercialization (CIC), Council of Chief Information Officers (CCIO), and Council for IT Executives (CITE) for an executive event focused on how to build dynamic and adaptive organizations. We had the privilege of hearing from Jim Lee, Senior Adviser, Knowledge Management at APQC, a U.S.-based organziation focused on benchmarking, best practices, and knowledge management research. During his presentation to our executive councils, members were asked a number of questions relating to the role and processes of knowledge management (KM) within their organizations. Results of this informal poll revealed something very interesting; while 71 per cent of our members responded that they believed KM is a valuable capability that can be used for organizational improvement, 35 per cent of members don’t have or don’t know if they have a knowledge management strategy in place within their organization.

This begs the question: If knowledge management is viewed as a potential asset to organizations, then why is there a hesitancy to adopt or engage with KM processes?

Over the course of the event and during private deliberations of the Board’s CIKM, a general consensus emerged that resistance toward KM results, in part, from the relationship between the term “knowledge management” and certain organizational procedures. For some, KM conjures up notions of ad hoc and add-on processes that serve to augment employees’ existing workloads, without providing a corresponding boost to their efficiency, productivity, or learning. Non-intuitive KM technologies and processes and poorly communicated KM visions were identified as culprits contributing to KM’s negative reputation.

Obviously, this isn’t a reflection of every KM process or outcome occurring within today’s firms. Members of the CIKM shared experiences and examples of how KM has led to improvements in risk management, performance, innovation, and knowledge sharing and transfer. Despite this, it seems as though the term “knowledge management” is not well-received by all audiences.

Has the term fallen out of favour to the point that it now threatens the future of both organizational learning and the field of KM itself? Have we become bogged down in KM jargon to the point that we can no longer communicate its value to non-experts?

When asked to reflect on the future of the field, Jim Lee suggested that in the next 5 to 10 years, the term “knowledge management” will no longer be relevant. That is not to say that the KM behaviours we are currently familiar with will become irrelevant; rather, different terms will emerge to better describe the processes that support peer-to-peer collaboration and knowledge sharing and preservation within learning organizations.

If this suggestion is taken to heart, then KM leaders must begin to focus their efforts on developing user-friendly ways of talking about the knowledge management processes and behaviours that will be most relevant and desired in the future. In other words, KM professionals need to take a page from their information technology counterparts and learn how to effectively communicate with the business. As a starting point, reflecting on the following can help leaders identify plain language to communicate KM’s role and value within their organizations:

  • What do you want to do with KM? Preserve and archive information? Connect people with different expertise within your organization? Enhance collaborative processes? Answers to these questions indicate what knowledge and behaviours need to be cultivated and how they might serve your firm in the future.
  • What people, processes, and technologies best support your KM strategy? A self-service, IT-focused approach? An approach that’s process-based or focused on project management? An approach focused on communities of practice or the peer-to-peer transfer of best practices? Answers to these questions indicate what existing KM strategies you may be able to adopt within organizations.
  • What do individuals at all levels of your organization need to know about the value of your KM strategy? Will it streamline workflow? Will it increase employee efficiency and productivity? Will it facilitate collaboration and intergenerational knowledge sharing? Will it help capture implicit knowledge? Answers to these questions indicate your potential return on investment; knowing this will help you effectively communicate the potential impact of your KM strategy to relevant stakeholders and develop appropriate metrics for assessing its success.

There is no doubt that organizations seeking to remain adaptable, dynamic, and innovative in the future must attend to the practice of knowledge management. As Jim Lee eloquently pointed out, ignoring KM is no longer an option for today’s organizations: “Good KM is like the air that you breathe: when it’s there you don’t think about it. When it’s not, you know something is missing.” However, it is also important to find accessible, jargon-free ways of talking about and cultivating necessary KM behaviours in order to encourage organization-wide adoption.

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The Council of Chief Information Officers (CCIO) provides the opportunity to discover how leading-edge private and public sector CIOs are addressing emerging challenges and building strategic advantage through information technology. The Council addresses executive leadership challenges such as strategy, change management, and innovation, through a CIO lens. By design, the Council allows for deep exploration of emerging topics and the formation of meaningful peer-CIO relationships, all in a closed door, private setting.

The Council for Information Technology Executives (CITE) helps strengthen capacity to effectively address the challenges of today’s rapidly changing business environment and stay competitive. CITE brings together senior IT executives to investigate and discuss leading-edge issues related to the field of information technology. This Council acts as the common voice of both private and public sector organizations to develop best practices, nurture the growth of Canadian IT specialists, and partner with influential bodies to increase awareness of the IT profession. The Council is made up of CIOs from small and medium sized organizations, and senior IT executives from large organizations who are direct reports to a CIO.

The Council for Innovation and Commercialization (CIC) provides innovation executives in Canadian firms with the contacts, concepts, tools and learning experience to improve innovation performance. Through networking with peers and facilitated discussion, members share experiences, best practices, and methodologies thus strengthening their innovation capacity. The Council is a broad-based membership spanning innovation infrastructure in Canada, including SMEs, large businesses, non-profit organizations, academia, and governments. This ensures that members have the opportunity to explore different facets of innovation in Canada while at the same time achieving focus on the needs of their own organization.