Mark Twain and Knowledge Management

By McCollum, Duane | Information Outlook, September 2006 | Go to article overview

Mark Twain and Knowledge Management


McCollum, Duane, Information Outlook


The initial audiences for this article were my peers and managers at my own company. I was inspired to write it because I felt that the rhetoric of knowledge management writing is overloaded with ambiguous terminology. That rhetoric makes it difficult for information professionals and managers to fairly assess the applicability and merits of knowledge management initiatives and their supporting technologies.

For example, knowledge management discourse frequently uses phrases such as "preserving knowledge," "sharing expertise," "eliminating stovepipes," "collaboration for new knowledge," "innovating for greater productivity," and "knowledge management for organizational competence," with little regard for their meaning.

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Titles of recent books on knowledge management declare they will show us how "Preserving Corporate Knowledge and Productivity When Employees Leave" is essential; that "Improving communication and creating a Knowledge-sharing culture" is the new key to efficiency; that "The New Knowledge Management" is all about "Complexity, Learning, and Sustainable Innovation"; and that "An intelligent organization (made up of) integration performance, competence and knowledge management" is something to which companies must aspire. (i) "Survival" is another term frequently used in knowledge management discourse. "Knowledge management," Kevin C. Desouza wrote, "has moved from being a phenomenon in the minds of industry leaders to a requirement for survival in today's fiercely competitive marketplace." (ii)

Knowledge management is an important professional and academic field of inquiry, and knowledge itself has been made out to be an important economic resource. (iii) Some corporations have added the corporate-level executive position of CKO (Chief Knowledge Officer). The term as it is used today became popular among management and information professionals around 1996. (iv) A Wikipedia entry on the topic claims that knowledge management has already gone through the first of two stages of evolution, the first being "the capture of information and experience so that it is easily accessible in a corporate environment." (v) In the second stage, practitioners having acknowledged that "knowledge is not a commodity but a process," knowledge management now (supposedly) "gives priority to the way in which people construct and use it." (vi) Contemporary knowledge management development parallels innovations in Internet and intranet technologies. Web portals, content management systems, collaboration systems, expertise location systems, the semantic web and its "intelligent agents," and digital support systems (DSS) are sometimes thought to be all we need for knowledge management. Thus, many knowledge management articles seem to have a "heavily prescriptive quality proffering knowledge management tools (usually biased toward information technology), and methodologies." (vii)

In my company, knowledge management is defined as "(a) discipline that promotes finding, selecting, organizing, distilling and presenting information in a way that improves an employee's comprehension in a specific area of interest"--a definition we appeared to have borrowed from The Gartner Group without acknowledgement, I am sorry to say. (viii) Michael E.D. Koenig and T. Kanti Srikantaiah, in their Knowledge Management for the Information Professional, affirmed the conventional wisdom that since we live in a "knowledge era" then our "organizational knowledge is a strategic corporate asset that needs to be garnered, retained, updated, disseminated, and applied to organizational problems." (ix) Most knowledge management discourse has a corporate setting concerned with how to extract, store, and direct knowledge to the people who need it to perform some sort of activity important to a business. However, it often sounds as if what corporations really want is not knowledge management but instead a knowledge vacuum cleaner to stick on people's heads, suck out all their knowledge, and then discard the bodies. …

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