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“When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less”

A great comment by Anthony McL. Collins on my post on K(star) pointed to this paper on The nonsense of ‘knowledge management’ by T.D. Wilson. I do not often post a paper without providing a review it but this is worth reading it all.

Relevant to the K* discussion is his conclusion to the section related to use of the term by consultancies:

The conclusion to this brief exploration of consultancy Web sites is that ‘knowledge management’ means different things to different companies and that one or two of them that have previously dabbled with the idea have moved on to other things.

Here is Anthony’s comment:

I really like your comment “the proponents of K* have created more jargon”. In fact KM is indeed a jargon-ridden field. For a not at all new but still true and provocative view of KM, this very serious and detailed paper of 2002 by an eminent University of Sheffield professor is a must to read: “The nonsense of ´knowledge management´” :

The religious proponents of KM will be very upset, but the simple truth is that the “K” letter is really a fundamental misnomer. Knowledge is something elusive within the minds of people, while INFORMATION is what we actually manage. But it´s not nearly so engaging as a term to pontificate on and amplify as K* variants. Actually, when I first read this paper, I nearly collapsed laughing, as the frank description of what passes for KM in the world of consultants is hysterically funny, but also revealing of a sadly pseudo-scientific activity.

For a thoughtful comment on the Wilson paper “Knowledge Management in the Real World” is also worth reading:

As an aside, I am aware of a large global organization that initiated a KM program some years ago, then finally evolved the name into a KS ( =K Sharing) program, so that blogging, twittering and diverse other Web 2 social activities could be racked up as major global “KS” achievements within the program that barely achieved any KM. The fact that school children everywhere routinely do these … no further comment needed !

The Richard MacManus articule to which he refers summarises Professor Wilson’s findings of the study of KM journal articles:

  1. A concern with information technology.
  2. A tendency to elide the distinction between ‘knowledge’ (what I know) and ‘information’ (what I am able to convey about what I know).
  3. Confusion of the management of work practices in the organization with the management of knowledge.

Anyone who has worked in the sector will certainly have to agree with this first conclusion. The obsession with IT is palpable. Even the K* conference appears to have been covered by an army of bloggers and twitters.

Do read Professor Wilson’s paper -if anything for a good background on knowledge management- whether you believe it is nonsense or not.

(And, for the record, I accept the frequent misuse of the term: will do my best to avoid it in the future.)

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Hi Enrique. I usually have a lot of time for what you say on your blog. But I was surprised by your recent blog on the Kstar conference, and this follow-up post. You will of course be familiar with RAPIDs work on knowledge management between 2003 and 2007 which included a literature review, a study of knowledge strategies in 13 development agenceis and the publcation “Tools for Knowledge and Learning: A Guide for Development and Humanitarian Organisations” which remains one of RAPIDs and ODIs most popular downloads. That work, plus susequent work on complexity, networks and learning underpins much of your own work on the skills and approaches that can improve the likelihood that research-based evidence will contribute to development policy and practice. Even back in 2006 our emphasis was much more on “learning and knowledge-based strategies” than specific tools and only 5 out of the 30 tools in the toolkit were IT-related, of which 2 were e-mail and blogs. However much you may dislike the emergence of new terms like KStar, which itself recognises that many of the other “K” words really mean the same thing, the UNU sponsored conference covered a huge range of topics around the knowledge-policy interface, included participants (in person and by webex) from 41 countries, representing over 60 organisations, including most of the organisations that have been working on knowledge issues in international development over the last decade. I was further astonished that in support of your views you chose to showcase a paper on Knowledge Management that was written in 2002 and is very seriously out of date. It might have been better if you had referred people to more up to date literature on and approaches to the topic, such as that found on the excellent KM4Dev Dgroup, or even RAPID’s more recent work.


    May 1, 2012
    • I think you take this personally, John, which surprises me. As I say in the blog post I have, through my time in RAPID, contributed to the K literature, practice, sector, etc. I know those are extremely popular resources. And I know that they are, in fact, quite useful. I use the KM tools you mention on a regular basis. I agree with the learning focus in RAPID’s work (not least because I have been part of it). In fact, this focus on learning is what is behind my critique to the use of impact evaluations (and that language) in the assessment of the contributions that think tanks make to society. If learning is at the core then this is not the right approach.

      But I also want to make sure that I reflect on what I do -and say. I may be wrong in many things but won’t know unless I put my ideas out there and get feedback.

      There are some good points the 2002 paper addresses (I am not sure that the date should matter). To mentions a couple: the term, as we use it, comes from the world of management consultancies (we know this is true in RAPID because much of what we did came from Ben Ramalingam and he drew a lot form the corporate world -from where he came). I am not suggesting this is wrong; nor questioning Ben’s work -the KM toolkit I use so much is his. But it is important that we acknowledge that these terms and concepts have a history that can explain the confusion that the K* group tries to address (i.e. since it was mostly jargon it was never really thought through).

      So in away, the fact that development agencies do it or that over 60 organisations showed up in Canada is not really a reason to support this.

      There is another point and that is that often we get too focused on things that cannot be separate from the rest. KM cannot be separated from management more generally; or from communications; or from project management; or research; or recruitment; or fundraising; etc. And so I wonder if there is any use in having a separation in the first place. I do not know the answer to this.

      My concern is that those who sometimes we expect will think about this before jumping onto the bandwagon don’t always do. And so we go from one idea to another to another -which is a regular critique of donors and intentional NGOs by local governments and organisations: every year a new target and a new framework.

      As you must know, you and anyone else at RAPID is always more than welcome to contribute to onthinktanks with your views. I really have no agenda on this. I am only trying to get the conversation going.


      May 1, 2012

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