I've always been somewhat cynical on Knowledge Management. I would consider myself an enthusiast on the topic and hopeful that we can move this discipline forward, but somewhat jaded because of all the hype, false expectations and pushing of technology as the solution. The first wave of “irrational exuberance” around this topic back in the nineties focused too much on content-related technologies (search, taxonomies and document repositories). The thinking was that if we captured all the "knowledge" of people in the organization (generated via documents) and stored them in a centralized collection, associated them with meta data and surrounded them with proper tools, then everything would be wonderful. But people tend to turn around and ask a friend rather than read lengthy reports. Or ask someone from their tribe (community or social network) when they get frustrated by not being able to find what they are looking for. Who wants to read or waste more time when they can hear a story or get to the bottom line in a couple of minutes?
I call this the "age of the supply siders". I don't disagree with the importance of managing information. I think information management is one of those foundational disciplines that an organization needs to achieve in order to sustain a knowledge management strategy. But documents are not knowledge. Strategists are kidding themselves if they believe that documents themselves represent someone's knowledge. It's simply an over-simplification. Documents contain a lot of explicit information. And they do indeed reflect insight (tacit knowledge). But I believe people should view documents as part of an evidentiary trail someone follows as they become knowledgeable about something. The point is that people gather and re-interpret information within documents and build a new (or extend an existing) mental model. That activity is where information becomes transformed into knowledge (not the document). The point of technology is to create a connected environment. Documents are just one point of connection so to speak.
Now at some point, there’s a knowledge angle here around the collective value of a repository and how it’s mined and how one can visualize associations and uncover information patterns. I don’t want to completely trivialize the importance of enterprise content management, search, mining/mapping and visualization tools and their contribution to KM efforts. But are documents “knowledge”? I don’t think so. Why aren’t data warehouses and data marts considered knowledge then? There’s no XML schema to represent knowledge. So how can we really say that it’s anything more that doing a great job of information management?
Then portals rolled in like a tsunami and people treated them as equals. If you were doing a portal project you were doing a KM project and visa-versa. I could live with that to some extent because portals offer a contextual user interface based on preferences, roles and rules. The dynamic nature of portals enables a user to see a palette of content, application and collaboration components that really can help them in terms of productivity and performance. Portals can improve a user’s “peripheral vision” – being aware of things that are related to the task at hand. But still – I think it’s a stretch to think of portals as anything more than a unification mechanism for knowledge transfer. They are a best practice for enabling people to make "connections" -- to documents, people, workspaces and so on. Portals are very important, but just another means to an end and not the end itself.
Lately though, I think we're finally getting closer. People are associating collaboration and learning strategies with KM efforts more and more. And that’s great. KM has always been all about people to me (work practices, learning, teams, relationships and social capital). To make KM “go” in this sense requires you to reach a certain maturity level around information, process and collaboration so that it’s all connected. That’s why KM is not driven by any singular technology but by an integrated set of infrastructure services intelligent enough to understand work context and semantics. It’s environmental. Once you have established the right habitat (and that includes all the organizational and human capital things that need to mature to properly lead, communicate and motivate people with clarity and fairness) then teams and networks flourish.