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Is knowledge management a fad? Essay

Abstract

Knowledge management is a broad term that includes tools and theories from various fields. T.D. Wilson had been impeaching the need for knowledge management and he had come to the conclusion that knowledge management is just a fad started by consultancy companies and IT/ICT departments. This paper examines the righteousness of this proclamation and provides explanations and specifications of some conclusions that had T.D. Wilson provided in his work “The nonsense of ‘knowledge management’”.

Is knowledge management a fad?

1 The need of KM in information society

With the instantaneous global information sharing is arising the need of knowledge management. This is based on the evolution and transformation of society. Every year the amount of the whole human knowledge is doubled. The role of information in current organization has transferred from peripheral and incidental to central and fundamental. Management is no longer supervising their employees, but instead is prioritizing feedback from the employees and therefore the function of the manager has shifted from pure decision making to information processing (Brunet-Thorton, 2010).

Information society is characterized by the interconnection of information sources, the ease of transferring categorizing and saving information with the help of applied use of data digitalization. In the definition of information society has the large importance the fact that inner telecommunication structures are more and more dependent on outer telecommunication systems. An example of this interconnectedness can be the internet, which is for our society nearly indispensable. And therefore is enabling the impressive growth of communicational and informational business organizations. With the beginning of the 21st century we can observe strong globalization tendencies – huge networks if users, which are able to communicate and share information without the presence of third persons.

This way the volume and amount of knowledge information and data is astonishingly expanding. The communication infrastructure is slowly becoming the infrastructure used for knowledge sharing. The information society is indirectly enabling smaller companies and businesses to get involved in global trade market. For accomplishing their business objectives, these companies can get advantage in using new paths for trading such as on time production and delivery, online publishing, teleworking and network based virtual teams. The rapid evolution of information-globalized market is supporting the transformation to perfect market – from the economical perspective. New businesses opportunities are emerging form these technology shortcuts.

Specific examples from the present can be Google or Facebook, which have so far used the information globalization most prospectively. Information society can bring new paths to advance the economy and contribute to increasing the number of highly skilled jobs, but at the expense of reducing the number of working positions with lower or no qualifications. A key factor is the role of education and retraining of unskilled workers, especially in government and public administration.

This is closely related to other difficulties emerging from information society – safety and protection of information. You will need to modify the legislation together with the development and emergence of new information technologies. The fight against cyber-crimes, data protection, information privacy, i.e., to prevent fraud with the certification authorities and prevent the spread of malicious code should be a top priority in the developing information society.

2 Data, Information, Knowledge

We can define data as a “crude facts relating to things and events that have not been processed or organised” (Thorton, 2010). An example can be database filled with numbers. Without knowing the context – what the abbreviations describing each column mean we cannot get any information from these data. Another example can be a text in a foreign language. Without knowing this language we are not able to transform data (characters) into any information (meaning of whole words and sentences) and consequently we are not able to obtain any knowledge from this text. Data become information, when they havebeen manipulated permitting its meaning to be understood. (Thorton, 2010) One of the tons of definitions of knowledge is: “Knowledge is directly related to understanding and is gained through the interpretation of information. Knowledge enables us to interpret information i.e. derive meaning from data.

The interpretation of meaning is framed by the perceiver’s knowledge.“ (Mark Sharratt & Abel Usoro, 2003, p.188). The definition of knowledge management becomes more interesting then definition of knowledge, because of the various views on this term as Wilson points out (Wilson, 2002, What is ‘knowledge management’?, para. 1). Despite the recent lack of agreement on what is meant by knowledge management, the definitions of knowledge management aim at three core components of knowledge management: knowledge/information repositories, communities and networks and experts and knowers. (Chatti & Jarke & Frosch-Wilke, 2007, page 406)

3 Tacit explicit and implicit knowledge

Wilson has also raised the question about explicit knowledge. He is literally asking the reader “Does it make any difference to the argument if, in the diagram, we replace “tacit knowledge” with “knowledge” and “explicit knowledge” with “information”?” He is not answering his question, so it may seem unanswered, but while reading the whole paragraph, which is quite critical to the established distinction between explicit knowledge and information, I stopped looking for the answer, because it quite evident that this question is just rhetorical.

Other authors are fairly more specific about the term of explicit knowledge. One of the views is offering Stenmark: The fact that routines, procedures, rules, manuals, books, blueprints, and all the other examples given above are useful does not make it knowledge. They all need knowledge to be decoded and are therefore not knowledge but information, albeit interwoven with the knowledge required to create it. Knowledge, which remains tacit, is also needed to interpret the information. Although some argue that “knowledge” may be embedded in a text (e.g., a balance sheet where columns and totals have predefined meanings), the reader cannot appreciate it without bringing the required personal knowledge (2002, page 6). As a conclusion I think a can say that the term explicit knowledge can be used synonymously with information.

4 Knowledge in VSE courses

In order to show the importance and purport of knowledge management I am presenting here the syllabuses of few courses from The University of Economics, Prague that engaged with knowledge.

4IZ210 – Information and Knowledge Processing

Aims of the course: To familiarize students with basic methods for both information storage and retrieval, as well as for acquisition and processing of formalized knowledge. Furthermore, the aim is to highlight the interrelationship of these areas and outline anticipated developments. Learning outcomes and competences:

Find and process information about companies and present the processed information, especially for analysis of the competitive environment. The emphasis is put on working with electronic information resources. Apply the selected method for knowledge discovery in databases on a given data and publish acquired knowledge to an expert. The emphasis is put on working with association rules. Understand the basic methods selected for processing information and knowledge within presented subjects. Course contents: The method for storing and retrieving information, methods of obtaining and processing of formalized knowledge, solving practical problems. (4IZ210 syllabus, n.d.) This course is dealing with all free levels of intelligence produced by humans: data information and knowledge. Student should be able to distinguish between these three easily and they should also be capable of transforming one to another. 3MA661 – Management of Knowledge Workers

Aims of the course:Introduce students to modern tools and methods of management convenient for management of knowledge workers. Demonstrate those tools and methods in real life corporate situations. Learning outcomes and competences: distinguish between tacit and explicit dimension of knowledge, use basic tools for work with explicit and tacit knowledge, identify knowledge workers in organization and classify them to groups in relation to their importance for organization and style of work, manage and develop knowledge workers in relation to their personality type, manage personal development of knowledge workers, initiate and manage process of knowledge sharing among knowledge workers, create visions and get the support of knowledge workers for them.

Aims of the course:Explain importance of knowledge for business and management. Present key concepts and processes of knowledge management and demonstrate them on case studies. Explain the term tacit knowledge and teach students to work with it. (3MA661 syllabus, n.d.) This syllabus is quite unspecific about specifying knowledge management tools used for managing knowledge workers. It seems, just from the text of this syllabus that this course is overlapping with majority of the topics with the Knowledge management course. 4SA320

Information Management Basics

Aims of the course: Course offers basic theoretical background as well as practical application of information management. It presents information management as multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary science, which integrates knowledge in three areas – modern management, system approach and informatics. The content of the course accents global overview of the information society, its development and presents main topics of managerial work in conditions of actual information society. Upon successful completion of this course, students will be able to know the legal frame of information society in conditions of the CR, work with components of Integrated Management System, actively know how to use basics of knowledge management in the area of enterprise informatics. (4SA320 syllabus, n.d.) I absolved this course last year.

From the syllabus it seems that student will have to do lots of with knowledge. So thought I, and although I wasn’t really able to tell much difference between information and knowledge, my expectations were aimed on knowledge – from my today’s point of view. But this course is purely focused on Information management. It peeks more into technological and legal fields than in management of knowledge itself.

And as the last I would like to present not a course of The University of Economics, Prague but a student’s site called vseborec.cz. It’s not primarily a knowledge management tool, but rather an information sharing site. But from simple sharing site for student’s notes to lectures it has developed to a ‘database of student knowledge’. It’s quite interesting that has expanded to today’s proportions thanks to the sharing and unselfish naturel of students on a school which aim is to teach its student to compete and not to share. You can find out what will be the professor and his lectures like even before enlisting in the course.

5 Web searches analyse

To support or refuse the formulation of Wilson that knowledge management is just a fad (2001, “Conclusion”, pa. 1) I made an analyse of web searches on Google in the period of the last six years. If the term ‘knowledge management’ is in the business world used just as a synonym for the term ‘information management’ the total amount of searches for the term’ knowledge management’ should be increasing to the prejudice of the term ‘information management’. The absolute amount of web searches for both, the information and knowledge management, has been obviously decreasing in the period of the years 2004 and 2007.

The drop of searches is simultaneous for both of the terms, therefore we cannot say that knowledge management is replacing information management, at least in the sphere of web searching. Among the most popular places around the world for searching the term knowledge management in the period of last 12 months is leading South Africa followed by Kenya Malaysia and India. But in the year 2004 in the top ten places for web searching ‘Knowledge management’ we can find countries such as United Kingdom, Italy and Australia. The shift of popularity from western countries to African and Asian areas is evident. (Google Insights, 2010) Graph 1 Web search worldwide (Google Insights, 2010)

This is the conclusion that has T.D. Wilson come up with: “The inescapable conclusion of this analysis of the ‘knowledge management’ idea is that it is, in large part, a management fad, promulgated mainly by certain consultancy companies, and the probability is that it will fade away like previous fads.”(Wilson, 2002, “Conclusion”, para. 1). And according to my web searches analysis it really looks like that knowledge management is just a fad.

The interest in knowledge management has been decreasing for the last six years. But I think that this is only due to the acceptance of knowledge management as such in western cultures and the simultaneous inception of knowledge management awareness not just in business world but also at universities and in a public sector. And due to this conclusion I presume that the growth of interest in knowledge management in South Africa, Kenya, India, Malaysia and other south Asian and African countries is because of the lack of general awareness about knowledge management and not because of the late arrival of “fashionable knowledge management” to less developed countries.

6 Reasons of knowledge management popularity rocketing

Wilson presented in his paper five arguments, why he thinks that knowledge management has been experiencing such a boom in the past decade. Here are they: First, and largely because of a fixation on internal organizational data, the term ‘information’ has become almost synonymous with data in the minds of organizational heads. For example, I’ve been told that the National Electronic Library for Health uses the term ‘Knowledge’ because in the NHS information=data and a different term was needed. We have to lay this, I think, at the feet of the information systems profession whose focus for years was data and data definitions, etc. In fact, they dealt not with information systems but with data systems. (Wilson, 2001, pa. 2)

This is, of course, misinterpretation of data and information. If is somebody using this terms incorrectly in one organization, that doesn’t mean that everybody else should take these terms as synonyms. Information systems are by definition “computerized tools that assist people in transforming data into information” (DiBiase, 2008) but data systems are just groups of facts presented in a specific order (pixels forming a picture, radio waves broadcasted at one frequency). Secondly, and opportunely for the software houses and IT firms, ‘km’ came along just as they were being hit by the wave of scepticism over the possibility of IT ever delivering more than problems – and certainly never likely to deliver productivity and performance. ‘Whoops, we’ve cracked it!’ cried the IBMs and MSofts of this world – ‘We should have been dealing with ‘knowledge’ all along, and now we are – Lotus Notes is no longer groupware and personal information management, it’s KnowledgeWare!’ So they are happily marketing the same product under a new name. (Wilson, 2001, pa. 3)

As I mentioned earlier, the term knowledge management is on its raise, not because of marketing strategy of IT/ICT companies, but because of its popularity increasing with the needs for better entitlement of the information society. Thirdly, the organization and management boys finally began to realise that all this text that people were creating on word-processors, etc., needed to be managed effectively and, indeed, organized, shared and disseminated more effectively, but they couldn’t use ‘information management’ because that was ‘information systems’ and data, wasn’t it? So it must be ‘knowledge’, right? If we can only get people to share their ‘knowledge’ performance must improve because it is the communication barriers that are preventing the free flow of ‘knowledge’ (i.e., information). So, now, every aspect of organization and management theory has to have a ‘knowledge’ dimension, otherwise you aren’t in the game.

In the literature, of course, this amounts to the token use of the term ‘knowledge management’ and the use of ‘knowledge’ as a synonym for ‘information’. (Wilson, 2001, pa. 4) Knowledge shouldn’t be used synonymously with information and I hope that this is not happening, at least at academic level. Also Wilson is not differentiating between data and information system which definitions are noted above. Fourthly, at the forefront of all this were the management consultancies – why? Because BPR and Organizational Learning were running out of steam. Amusingly, all organizational learning work appears to come under the heading of ‘km’ – more search and replace marketing. So, the consultancies grabbed at km in order to have something to sell at the end of the 90s. (Wilson, 2001, pa. 5)

The consultancies are always looking for the needs of business market and therefore they should be reflecting the needs of this market, at least to some point, so this point might be valid on a small extent of a scale. Finally, most (or at least many) departments of information management or information science, and departments of information systems in academia, are somewhat low on the totem pole in most of their institutions, and each needs to differentiate itself from the other in order to try to work its way up that greasy pole, so both have seized on km as an aid in the struggle.

I foresee turf-wars over which department, where there is one of each, has the right to run degrees in km. Where only one of the kind exists, it will seek to make km all-embracing of management, computer science, information systems, etc., etc. – because the logic leads nowhere else :-) ‘If we deal with knowledge – then how can anyone else presume to do so?’ (Wilson, 2001, pa. 6) The logic of Wilson leads nowhere else, because that is exactly what knowledge management is about: people, culture, technology, processes. The knowledge management is closer with its aim to the management and organization and the departments of information management are rising from IT/ICT fields so the need to go up should be also emerging from management places and not from information management departments.

7 Conclusion

With the development of new technologies in information and communication sector the new term ‘knowledge management’ has begun to be used in business sector. The term as such is not useless and meaning less as suggested by Wilson in his research. Wilson is asking the readers in the conclusion of his paper:”If getting promotion, or holding your job, or finding a new one is based on the knowledge you possess – what incentive is there to reveal that knowledge and share it?”(2002, “Conclusion”, pa. 2). And my answer to this probably rhetorical question is: Your working experience, your social and cultural background and most importantly your education. From all of these you can predict the amount of knowledge one possesses. Although it cannot be evaluated by any empirical measures, the existing society is surviving without these accurate measurements and surprisingly she is doing quite well.

This is not to say that enabling people to contribute effectively to the management of organizations is impossible and that sharing knowledge and enabling people to use their creativity in innovative ways in organizations is impossible – simply that it is very difficult, and that it does not reduce to some simplistic concept of ‘knowledge management’! It demands a change in business culture, from the macho Harvard Business School model, to something more thoughtful and understanding of what motivates human beings. Organizations need to learn to think about problems, rather than grab at proffered ‘solutions’ – which often turn out to be expensive side-tracks away from the main issues (Wilson, 2002, “Conclusion”, pa. 3).

And that’s why knowledge management isn’t just a simplistic concept. It includes tools from various fields such as and uses them for improvement of knowledge culture within the organization. The slight decrease in popularity of knowledge management in the last six years shows not the recess of knowledge management as a fad, but it rather shows the wide acceptance of knowledge management in the western society. The views presented by Wilson are shocking and very easy to understand and that’s why I find this view presented by Wilson too simplistic and demagogic to some extent.

References
3MA661 – Management of Knowledge Workers FPH – WS 2010/2011 course syllabus, (n.d.), The University of Economics, Prague, Retrieved from: https://isis.vse.cz/auth/katalog/syllabus.pl?predmet=68577 4SA320 – Information Management – Basic FIS – WS 2010/2011 course syllabus, (n.d.), The University of Economics, Prague, Retrieved from: https://isis.vse.cz/auth/katalog/syllabus.pl?predmet=68886 4IZ210 – Information and Knowledge Processing FIS WS 2010/2011 course syllabus, (n.d.), The University of Economics, Prague, Retrieved from: https://isis.vse.cz/auth/katalog/syllabus.pl?predmet=69183 Brunet-Thorton, R. (2010) Knowledge management. Presented at The University of Economics, Prague 3MA624 Knowledge Mangement lecture. 11th November Chatti, M.A. and Jarke, M. and Frosch-Wilke, D (2007) The future of e-learning: a shift to knowledge networking and social software. Int. J. Knowledge and Learning, Vol. 3, Nos. 4/5, 2007 Retrieved from: http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.141.3202&rep=rep1&type=pdf DiBiase, D. (2008) Pennsylvania Spatial Data Access Glossary. Retrieved from: http://www.pasda.psu.edu/tutorials%5Coutreachglossary.asp Google Insights (2010) Retrieved from: http://www.google.com/insights/search/#q=knowledge%20management%2Cinformation%20management&cmpt=q Sharratt, M and Usoro, A. (2003). Understanding Knowledge-Sharing in Online communities of Practice. Page 188. Retrieved from: http://www.thestep.gr/trainmor/dat/%7B7a8f15e0-b7eb-404e-864a-ef0eb1403751%7D/article.pdf Stenmark, D. (2002), Information vs. Knowledge: The Role of intranets in Knowledge Management, Proceedings of the 35th Hawaii


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