Dead KM Walking

In the land of taxonomy there are only two species: the Lumpers who gather related things together and look for their commonalities (these are the categorisers), and the Splitters who look for the distinctions between things and separate them based on those distinctions (these are the classifiers).

After a fascinating, robust and sometimes sharp discussion with Larry Prusak and Dave Snowden a couple of days ago in Kuala Lumpur on the topic “Is Knowledge Management Dead?” I have come to the conclusion that I am a Lumper and they are Splitters, when it comes to the utility of the over-arching label of knowledge management. Plus they think that KM as a field has been irredeemably corrupted by the many false plays and hijacks it has been subjected to, while I still have hope. Watch the podcast for the full story, and a million thanks to Larry and Dave for a great conversation. (I’m probably going to get a lot of flak from librarians about a comment I make near the end).

17 Comments so far

Patrick - I think you are correct - librarians who want to do KM leave libraries - because their managers cannot understand that librarians can do anything more than lend out books (speaking from experience here - to quote my last Branch Head in an Australian Government Department - you are not supposed to be doing anything else but lending books - I left as soon as I could).  the worst part was discovering that this Branch head had the full support of the Senior Executives in that Department.
Luckily Andrew Campbell, former Executive Director of land & Water Australia offered me my dream position which I still hold - Program manager, Knowledge for Regional Natural Resource Management - absolute heaven 8-) see
I get to use all the skills and knowledge I developed during my career as a librarian and make a difference out in the real world

Posted on July 04, 2008 at 09:14 PM | Comment permalink


quote: “In the land of taxonomy there are only two species”

Gotcha: you’re a splitter, deep inside.

Posted on July 04, 2008 at 11:21 PM | Comment permalink

Matthew Rees

It’s good to see Dave Snowden finally coming round to my view that KM (or whatever you want to call it) is just one of the tools that you bring to bear to address a specific business issue.

This is the approach that I documented several years ago when producing the KM Strategy for a Local Authority in the UK.

Posted on July 04, 2008 at 11:48 PM | Comment permalink

Patrick Lambe

Lol, Christian, trust you to spot the joke, that Lumpers and Splitters are really Siamese twins, joined at the hip…

Posted on July 05, 2008 at 05:57 AM | Comment permalink

Organisational power structures have long been too top-down. This is reflected in the hierarchical approach to managing knowledge, which was doomed to fail due to the domain ontology and taxonomy evolution problems. In an increasingly fast-moving, fragmented environment networks of smaller organisational units can adapt more quickly. But for this to happen, knowledge sharing has to be emergent. Collaboration has to arise locally if and when required, by-passing both domain and evolution problems. Semantic analysis tools can help by identifying implicit relationships rather than focusing on categorisation, and by clustering profiles of organisations and individuals by context to support ad hoc team building.

Posted on July 05, 2008 at 11:16 PM | Comment permalink

Jaap Pels

Amazing simplifications is what frightens me. The explanation of KM must make as few assumptions as possible, but - as attributed to Einstein - not too few.

And the question! All space to get away with anything where a simple yes would have been enough to wait for a better question. What about ‘ why try to define a phenomena in two? In splitters and lumper or men and women, North and South, West and Old world… Way to go Christian!

Now I am going to watch two men, two zoon echon logon having fun.

Posted on July 06, 2008 at 02:19 AM | Comment permalink


Thank you for a very interesting interview. So many dualities to balance! I reckon there’s nothing wrong with zombiedom – something can be dead and alive at the same time. Governments, academia, established industry, and cutting edge innovative businesses don’t all run at the same pace, nor should they. A label can be a rallying call and a cheap marketing trick at once. Perhaps the lifecycle from cutting edge to established practice to obsolescence is getting too fast now and people can’t keep up, but I don’t think that feeling is new. Thanks too for the idea of the book knowing more than you. It reminded me of Plato’s Phaedrus, which ends up about knowledge management essentially – truth, persuasion, and the effect of writing on memory. We’ve been concerned with these issues for at least a couple of thousand years already. I can’t see them going away soon!

Posted on July 14, 2008 at 01:57 AM | Comment permalink

Nerida - Could not agree more. I moved over as an information specialist/librarian to being a knowledge manager. Though without leaving the library. In fact: our corporate library is being dismantled. Because management believes information management is over (everybody can ‘google’ their information, isn’t it?) and knowledge management is the key. Yeah right. I think they tend to forget that everything starts with good information management. That stimulates the rise and creating of knowledge somewhere, somehow.
But: librarians and information specialist are extremely under-rated.

Posted on July 14, 2008 at 02:38 PM | Comment permalink

The main point was missed. Knowledge is the raw material/strategic resource of the 21st century global economy. How can managing such a resouce be dead when, without it, our economy cannot function? Until we recognize this principal fact, we will continue to muddle through the daily functions of running an enterprise. I have yet to see a CEO who has an inventory of their intellectual capital. My definition of KM: leveraging relevant knowledge assets to improve efficiency, effectiveness and innovation.
KM has indeed been hijacked by those who view it as a strategy, or a program or a technology, or a COP. It may be all those, but more important, it’s the true wealth of a country and organization. Try running your enterprise without it.

Michel Stankosky, DSc
Lead Professor, Knowledge Management
The George washington University
Washington, D.C.

Posted on July 17, 2008 at 04:16 AM | Comment permalink

Patrick Lambe

Nice transcript guide notes to the conversation by Jack Vinson here

Posted on July 25, 2008 at 01:47 PM | Comment permalink

enjoyed subsequent comments nevertheless the basic fact that when a company is awarded as fortune-500 company whether they tilted towards only revenue or verify other pillars like KM. a company which don’t have e-mail facility for 75 percent of staff members and allowed to be enjoyed by junior supervisors to top only, besides in 210 ten years of its existence it has not yet declared yet as best places to work nor best employer. Obviously i am talking about State Bank of India having corporate centre in india.

Posted on August 13, 2008 at 02:23 PM | Comment permalink

Comments KM

I have done a PhD on library KM. The way I see the problem is as follows.
Any one single person’s dream of managing knowledge is what Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle put in the mouth of his detective hero Sherlock Holmes.  A “man should keep his little brain attic stocked with all the furniture he is likely to use, and the rest he can put away in the lumber-room of his library, where he can get it if he wants it”. Every person from the dawn of civilization has tried to do something similar. But for modern living this was not enough. So we have KM.  The system of document and information management almost breaks down when information problems of modern organizations are faced. So also we have KM.
KM is nothing but transforming experience (potent tacit knowledge) into information. This part of the game of informational processing is beyond any librarian’s or information manager’s turf. Moreover what is being termed, as KM in libraries is not KM in any way.
Because of many diverse notions about KM among library professionals many confusions and misunderstandings prevail. As custodians of knowledge or information librarians have sometimes shown a tendency to be wiser than corporate CEO’s, CIO’s and CKO’s. The extent of confusion can be illustrated by many examples. A library started making some of the employees accustomed with the technology (the front end and back end of the library automation software). As a follow through of this programme, employees were taught how to serve better and make people understand that the services (because of automation) turned towards the best. This was designated as serious KM. There is not only misunderstanding but also a sort of psychological block about KM among many library people. It is not an exception that a library director expressed the view that she did not try to go for KM because KM was too much of technology.
Indeed to my opinion KM is not dead. A new era of KM can usher in with pragmatic ideas of library KM. We have called this globalized customer service KM. In brief it is serving a homogeneous group of participants through open archiving, knowledge portal, utilizing input of expert commentators, etc. along with normal services of hard copies and offline and online virtual documents through a knowledge corner. The participants can reside anywhere. The library KM portal and corner can serve as the little (or big?) brain attics for the participants.

Posted on August 14, 2008 at 12:36 PM | Comment permalink

i agree with Professor Micheal and Sarmistha on how we should view knowledge management. Indeed we are talking of organizational assets that improves efficiency, effectiveness and innovation in organizational operations. All we need is to harness these tacit and explicit assets. Once that is done then we should be able to leverage them to where they are critically needed. Otherwise looking at KM as an IT platform or Just COP creates serious gaps in the whole KM function.  We should not forget that KM is a social science as such so may practices in other disciplines complement KM practice.

Posted on August 19, 2008 at 03:40 PM | Comment permalink

Moria Levy

Knowledge Management; Not dead; Living and Kicking
Yes; I listened to the interview of Patrick Lambe with Prof. Larry Prusak and Dave Snowden. I heard it twice. And I read the comments all around the net. The interview included many statements, each a subject for a full discussion. I want to concentrate on the main question that Lambe raised: “Is Knowledge Management dead?”
Listening to the full 42 minutes, one may examine that there are many nuances to the answer, and everyone can understand whatever he or she wishes. Yet, the title of the interview, as well as the loud pronounced answers, both by Prusak and Snowden, is definitely: “Yes, Knowledge Management is dead”. Prusak provides a list of the dead knowledge components starting with knowledge technologies, through documents and repositories ending with knowledge measurement and knowledge outside people. Lambe notes: “they are still walking” and Prusak answers: “They are dead but they won’t lie down”. Snowden agrees: “Once governments adopt something, you know it has died”.
Later on, they soften. Prusak is pro knowledge, against management; Snowden speaks about the re-invention of Knowledge Management.

No, Knowledge Management is not dead! I work with many organizations and have the privilege to see people sharing knowledge and developing new knowledge. All these are enabled as result of Knowledge Management initiatives: KM programs or KM projects. I experience difficulties and failures, and there in no garden rose easing the path, but Knowledge Management activities fostering Knowledge Management are indeed not dead. There may be fewer conferences every year, but as Lambe stated, this indicates mainly the level of technology KM interest, as they sponsor most conferences; nothing else. I can state that in Israel, where I live and work, our annual KM summit on 2008, was one of largest and most successful KM conferences within the past decade (600 attendees). And though we are a small country, it was not the only one held.

A few points:
Social computing is appealing. We see its affect on social networking culture across the web and we are fascinating. Let me remind us all that the same happened with the first generation of the internet. We saw the discussion groups and its success and immediately copied it into our organizations. Now we seem to be disappointed that it did not work as we wished. Well, the same thing, I assume will happen with the WEB2.0 technologies. They will be adopted as part of the Knowledge sharing and developing tools. Whenever used wisely, in the right conditions, they will succeed. As they are fashionable, they will be overused, and therefore, will be accompanied with disappointment; a lot of disappointment.  I disagree with Dave Snowden who speaks about the re-invention. I understand the phenomenon as an evolution rather than revolution. This is the most natural thing to happen as the KM is still on its maturation stage. We are yet unstable. New technologies seem to shake it all, but we are on the right path and the shakes are getting smaller as time passes.

The KM categorization is not going to die so fast. Over-categorization was a mistake, and in the coming years I believe that search engines will be smarter implemented enabling much more auto-categorization. The technology is already there, it is mostly an implementation issue. That will eliminate the deliberate codification. What must be clarified is that the WEB2.0’s unorganized nature cannot give us a good enough solution for managing the so important asset of organizational knowledge. WIKI’s and blogs have their benefits, but are certainly, the way they are designed, no substitute for the main Knowledge retention and sharing effort; they are too unorganized. Over the corner, WEB3.0 is promising us a better solution. We shall wait patiently and hope to find the right balance between categorization and natural knowledge work. We did not reach that balanced point yet, but cannot kill everything on the way, until we do.
Documentation and repositories are part of Knowledge Management. Information Management is part of Knowledge Management. If we ignore them, we return to the stage of managing everything in our heads only and limiting the level of pure knowledge sharing and retention. We just must promise ourselves that we do not settle for Information Management only, but deal with higher levels of Knowledge Management as well.

The main point, as I understood, that Larry Prusak was against, was Management. Knowledge and learning is OK, but do not try to manage it. I disagree. If we want focused and affective learning, we have to nurture it. If we want to less reinvent the wheel, we have to manage debriefing sessions, or experiences’ harvesting, or communities of practice, etc. We are not controlling the brains of people; we are running controlled projects that aid us to really succeed in the complicated mission of leveraging relevant knowledge assets to improve efficiency, effectiveness and innovation (thank you Prof. Stankosky for the wonderful definition). The main asset we have in this century, as Peter Drucker first stated ("Management Challenges for the 21st century"), is the knowledge, and managing the knowledge worker. Managing the knowledge worker is challenging. Managing their knowledge, as difficult as we experience, is probably one of the easy parts of it, considering other aspects (see my blog “Managing in an era of knowledge"- Prof. Prusak: If we will not manage these processes, it will be almost impossible to stand on the shoulders of giants (Neuton and earlier Bernard of Chartres). That is where Knowledge Management seeks to be. Sharing knowledge never makes the listener an expert; but it makes him a knower. The experience added, later on, enables him to turn into an expert. That is why we can stand on the giants’ shoulders only, and never stand on their heads. We never start where they finished. However, let us manage the knowledge and start, at least, from their shoulders.

Knowledge Management is not dead. I manage the Israeli biggest KM consultancy firm in Israel. We mainly work with the private sectors. They have the money. Yet, we work with some public and government organizations manage knowledge as well. This does not kill the issue, Mr. Snowden! In some cases, it only makes it more important. Not only managing knowledge for the sake of money. Knowing that when I review the daily discussion group of the social workers community of practice every night, those working with mental handicapped people, I see how they share their thoughts, difficulties, and mainly their experience. Thanks to the Knowledge Management program, one can ask the group how to deal with death of one of the people living in shelter, and get the best answer there is. Universities do not teach that. Thanks to the Knowledge Management program, another group of social workers, in charge of fostering services, developed new (innovative) knowledge how to identify signals and turn down the level of settlement collapses. Knowledge Management is live, kicking, and helping organizations. We have to do it right, we have to adjust to new technologies, and within five years, maybe we will be turn into a mature discipline. Knowledge Management will be taught much broader (also in management schools and as a basic course in many other schools); much deeper (as a formal program in most universities). Then, maybe organizations will know how to it right, and we will experience less failures and less disappointment. Then, we will not treat it as fad, rather as a business issue, and a management tool. The discipline will turn mature.
Until then, I hope that thought leaders like you two, Prof. Prusak and Mr. Snowden, will continue showing us the way in which to methodology wise do it better. We count on you. Do not kill Knowledge Management. Help us finding the way.
Thank you,
Moria Levy, CEO
ROM Knowledgeware

Posted on August 22, 2008 at 01:18 PM | Comment permalink

Leonard Kish

Here’s a reprint of what I wrote to a similar question on LinkedIn: “Will KM Ever be Popular?”

The short answer is no because it means so many things to so many people that it has lost its meaning as an identifier. Now it gets lumped in with whatever technology tools support it, like social networking tools.

Posted on August 24, 2008 at 11:55 PM | Comment permalink

Moria Levy is so right. If it’s about life issues (I was impressed reading his posts about the Knowledge Programme and the mentally handicapped people) it does not matter if it is KM or not. It has to work and if you have to put a label on it and it is KM, it’s OK. It’s just a label. It’s the working process that counts. And if you can manage the process, just manage it. That delivers the results.

Posted on August 25, 2008 at 03:43 PM | Comment permalink

Malcolm Ryder

The whole point of asking “loaded questions” is to either manipulate the possible range of answers, or, to provoke exposure of (not the range of answers but instead) the range of questions that people believe was just asked. In this case, unpacking the questions easily coughs up “what do we have now or impending, that is better than what we’ve had so far” as pertains to the Crowding of the Wise and what we can take (with us) from it? Aside from the unchanging structure of disciplined management to apply ( ), I am reminded for some reason of the basic point that usable knowledge is why knowledge management matters, however it is done. Seriously, there is no chance that this will stop until no one is on a need to know basis!

On the more elective side: rather like making an egg consumable, there may be only a few ways to prepare an egg in any certain given form (e.g. boiled, or fried, or whatever) but there is a vast range of ways to make an egg appropriately ready to eat. When the kids won’t eat them boiled any more or can’t get them made that way, maybe it’s time for scrambled, or maybe it’s time for nog! Maybe KM is, after all, a lot more like cooking than it is like anything else.

Posted on August 27, 2008 at 05:54 AM | Comment permalink

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