Knowledge Management as Trojan Horse:
The Subversive Aspects of an Age
Knowledge management has been easily dismissed by some as just the
latest management fad. Dilbert has lampooned it. Untold software vendors slap
el of KM on their packages and tout miraculous cures for all our
knowledge failings. Yet, behind all the jargon and the hype, we find companies
engaged in serious efforts to manage their most precious asset
L. Prusak (in his forew
ord to Rumizen, 2002, p. xv)
The Special Libraries Association (SLA) announced the creation of a
new professional interest division for members who are currently practicing or
have an interest in knowledge management in their organizations. The
Management (KM) Division of SLA will focus on the characteristics
and processes through which organizations facilitate the creation, sharing and
use of knowledge. …
‘Smart and savvy management of information is vital to any company’s
success, and our memb
ers are moving into the field of KM with such enthusiasm
and interest,’ said SLA Chief Executive Officer Janice Lachance. ‘Information
professionals and librarians are armed with the expertise and training to be
valuable assets to their organizations and f
lourish in the knowledge
management role. SLA will continue to expand our offerings in KM with more
programming and professional development opportunities based on the needs
and interest [sic] of our members.’
from press release ‘SLA Forms Knowledge Manag
PR Newswire (September 14, 2006)
Knowledge management (KM) is an apparent oxymoron
that, in other guises, is
at least as old as recorded history and, crucially and fundamentally, has little to do with
information technology, a point ma
de eloquently in a recent article by McCollum (2006).
Yet KM is as fresh as this morning’s coffee and as hip as the latest MP3 player, a point
reiterated in a recent spate of business reviews (e.g., Neal, 2006). ‘In fact,’ summarizes
Prusak, ‘there is ampl
e evidence that senior executives are just being struck with the
notion that knowledge is a factor of production potentially greater than the traditional
triad of land, labor, or capital’ (in his introduction to Prusak, 1997, p. ix).
he short answer is that we reached a tipping point at the beginning of this
century, induced by a convergence of several powerful factors: what had been taken for
as the source of innovation and competitive advantage, was
ly and desperately in need of
. The world
economic, technological and professional forces are outlined below in the first
introductory section that defines and describes KM.
The distinction between KM and the more traditional
(IM) flows from the distinction between
alternatively the contrast between
, explored in section 2.
When the subversive implications of the key concept of tacit
knowledge are fully
grasped, when the
is understood, the radical implications for
organization and management are revealed. In section 3 the resulting
or better, with Choo (2006), the
communities of practice
are briefly described. In short, the postmodern
organization of the Information Age requires a radically different type of manager:
perhaps a MISt rather than an MBA, a point taken up in the concluding remarks.
Definition and Background of KM
What is KM, a ‘new emphasis on an age
old subject, one that occupied Plato and
Aristotle, and a host of philosophers after their time’ (Davenport & Prusak, 1998, p. ix),
yet a ‘concept that has emerged explosively in the bu
siness community over the last few
years’ (Skikantaiah & Koenig, 2000, p. 3)? Unfortunately, it is difficult to say, since this
increasingly inclusive term has been hijacked by software vendors, management
book publishers and other vu
ltures of a management fad. ‘KM has
become a potpourri term and a bandwagon on which many partners have jumped for
various and sundry reasons’ (Skikantaiah & Koenig, 2000, p. 8).
There is no end of definitions. Rumizen (2002) provides a useful one
systematic processes by which knowledge needed for an organization to succeed is
created, captured, shared, and leveraged’ (pp. 9, 13). A commonly cited definition of KM
in the literature is attributed to the Gartner Group (
A discipline that promotes an integrated approach to identifying,
capturing, evaluating, retrieving, and sharing all of an
enterprise’s information assets. These assets may include
databases, documents, policies, procedures,
uncaptured expertise and experience in individual workers
(Skikantaiah & Koenig, 2000, p. 3).
For a raft of recent definitions, see further Firestone & McElroy (2003, pp. 63
Another way to come at a definition is to see a breakdown of
components of KM. First, there are the traditional collections and policies of IM:
, with an emphasis on quality, accuracy and timeliness
of information. Second, there is
(OL) that ‘emphasi
zes that the
efficiency and effectiveness of knowledge workers depends mostly on how workers
communicate and collaborate in their efforts and expose themselves to communities of
practice within the institution as well as outside the institution’ (Skikantai
ah & Koenig,
2000, p. 9). Third and finally, there is the IT infrastructure that facilitates the
of IM and OL: it is the integration that leads to the holy grail,
further Choo, 2006, pp. 8
Finally, another way to u
nderstand KM is to identify the forces that converged in
1990. The rate of information
technological change took a quantum
leap with the introduction of hypertext mark
up language (HTML) in 1990 and the
launch of the world
wide web. The
was born, in which, according to the OECD, ‘the production, distribution and
use of knowledge are the main drivers of growth, wealth creation and employment for all
industries’ (cited by Al
2003, p. 2). Other major factors include:
1973 economic malaise, induced in part by the removal of traditional
manufacturing to so
called developing countries, and partially offset by the burgeoning
market bull beginning in the late 1980s, in which the disconnect
between the market value of a company versus its underlying book value (valuation of
tangible assets) was explained in terms of
ne & McElroy, 2003, Figure 10.1, p. 276; see further, e.g., Stewart, 1997);
the reliance on buzz
saw ‘rightsizing’ to rescue flagging corporate profits, revealing that
‘middle management provided much of the connective tissue of the organization’
iah & Koenig, 2000, p. 32)
the rash of popular books on the Information Age by management gurus such as Toffler,
Quinn, Reich, and above all Senge (1990) and the self
described ‘insultant’ Drucker in
al conferences, e.g., the Knowledge Imperative Symposium (September 1995)
sponsored by the American Productivity and Quality Center and the accounting firm,
Arthur Andersen; and the KM Expo Conference (Chicago, October 1998);
professional developments, esp
ecially the rise of the
(Chief Knowledge Officer, see
further Davenport & Prusak, 1998, pp. 114
122, and Rumizen, 2002, chap. 3), with the
crowning recognition by the Special Libraries Association (SLA) in its creation of a KM
division in the fall of 2
006 (excerpt in epigraph above);
perhaps most importantly, the growing chorus of KM success stories, beginning with the
seminal 1995 book by Nonaka & Takeuchi in which the secrets of Japanese genius are
revealed; lists of KM programmes read like a who’s
o of major international high
and pharmaceutical companies (e.g., Rumizen, 2002, pp. 11
2. Tacit Knowledge: The Key Concept
All the groupware and portal interfaces in the world will not make a knowing
organization: this is the fallacy that Ru
mizen (2002) identifies as ‘Build IT and They’ll
Come’ (pp. 254
Rather, the hallmark of Choo’s
harnessing and integration of
This section examines this key
KM concept; an in
depth philosophical ex
ploration can be found in Mooradian (2005).
Tacit knowledge as a concept in cognitive psychology would normally be
attributed to the linguist and philosopher N. Chomsky. As any good introduction to
linguistics explains, the fundamental difference between a
native speaker’s ‘knowledge
of language’ and other types of knowledge is that the latter can be made
. A native
language is not learned explicitly, and judgements of grammaticality cannot be expressed
explicitly. Accordingly, we describe our ‘know
ledge of language’ as
The linguist’s remit is to figure out what it is that people
act as if they know
This, however, is not the source of the concept in the KM literature. Rather, the
concept can be traced through the seminal Nonaka & T
akeuchi (1995) to the philosopher
scientist Polanyi, specifically to his book
The tacit dimension
(1966), the heart of which
appears as an excerpt in the collection by Prusak (1997, chap. 7, pp. 135
quirky fact of the KM literature raises two re
lated problems: Polanyi’s concept is
problematic philosophically (Mooradian, 2005); the confusion with other definitions is
Nonaka & Takeuchi (1995) introduce tacit knowledge into their definition of
organizational knowledge creation
, by which
they mean ‘the capability of a company as
a whole to create knowledge, disseminate it throughout the organization, and embody it
in new products, services, and systems’ (p. viii). Crucially, they contrast two types of
licit knowledge, they claim, is the dominant Western
mode, and it is the domain of IM. It can be ‘articulated in formal language including
grammatical statements, mathematical expressions, specifications, manuals, and so forth’
and also transmitted. The mo
re important kind, they argue, is
which is hard to articulate with formal language. It is personal
knowledge embedded in individual experience and involves
intangible factors such as personal belief, perspective, and the
value system. Tac
it knowledge has been overlooked as a critical
component of collective human behaviour. At the same time,
however, tacit knowledge is an important source of Japanese
companies’ competitiveness. This is probably a major reason
that Japanese management is se
en as an enigma among Western
people (p. viii
Elsewhere they add that tacit knowledge ‘consists of schemata, mental models, beliefs,
and perceptions so ingrained that we take them for granted’ (p. 8).
Choo (2006) captures the radical implication by
: ‘The use of
also underscores our view
that knowledge is the result of collective action and reflection, and not simply the
acquisition of things and objects that somehow “contai
n” knowledge’ (p. 1). Tacit
knowing cannot be embodied in hardware or software but in
that leaves for
home every night. Collective reflection requires an organization that is not a hierarchical,
bureaucratic factory. It requires a revolution.
ostmodern Management for the Knowing Organization
‘Learning organizations demand a new view of leadership’ (Senge, 1990, p. 339).
A revolutionary vanguard is required to create a knowing organization, and it is unlikely
that MBAs will be the standard
rs, but rather the educators, specifically what were
once called librarians (cf. p. 340). The new knowing organizations must be anti
bureaucratic and democratic
an ‘open’ organization, as it were.
Instead of top
down control, management
becomes a process of
organizing to know
Addleson in Skikantaiah & Koenig, 2000, chap. 9, p. 138; cf. Senge, 1990, p. 5).
detailed review of the process as the
see Choo (2006, pp. 8
(Nonaka & T
akeuchi, 1995, esp. pp. 20
, see further Borghini (2005).
‘It is no accident that most organizations learn poorly. The way they are designed
and managed … create[s] fundamental learning disabilities’ (Senge, 1990, p. 18). N
& Takeuchi (1995) devote their chap. 6 ‘A New Organizational Structure’ to the topic.
Every author explicitly recognizes that knowledge creation requires a new ‘supporting
organizational culture’ (Rumizen, 2002, p. xviii). What would this look like?
‘I’ve never been in a culture that had an open road to knowledge management
with no cultural barriers. No organizational culture is a knowledge management nirvana’
(Rumizen, 2002, p. 174). Translation:
organizing to know
remains a utopian dream.
002) identifies three major impediments to the transition: the authoritarian
personality’s resistance to change; the failure to understand the facilitating role of middle
management in knowledge creation (p. 178
179); and the misalignment of rewards and
cognition (pp. 179
Generally speaking, the nirvana would more or less be a
community of practice
COP (e.g., Rumizen, 2002, chap. 8; Al
Hawamdeh, 2003, chap. 7; cf. Lehaney et al.,
2004, section 3.5, pp. 46
51). ‘Slowly over the past few years, com
munities of practice
have come to be acknowledged as the killer application for knowledge management. And
rightfully so’ (Rumizen, 2002, p. 85). Unlike teams, in which members are temporarily
drafted by management in pursuit of a specific goal, COPs are vo
oriented and open
ended (p. 87)
more like an knowing
As many managers know, managing a co
operative in the nonprofit sector is
much different than managing the typical for
profit corporation: the contrast is
. Asking an MBA to engage in KM would be much like
asking a tyrant to engage in participatory democracy.
Here’s the rub, then: what kind of
‘vanguard’ manager could engineer such a revolution?
4. Conclusion: Knowledge Management as Life
The American Empire has provided numerous illustrations of abysmal failures in
KM and their consequences, from Vietnam to 9/11 to Iraq. Choo (2006) draws attention
to parade examples involving NASA: the
(chap. 6). No matter where we look, we seem to arrive at the same conclusions as Choo
(2006): (1) a failure of experts to express their tacit knowledge in a way that managers
can understand, and (2) a failure of understanding on the part of managers be
their bad habit of satisficing (pp. 260
261). The promise of KM is precisely the
harnessing of tacit knowledge in order to improve decision
The fundamental question in KM is whether or not this fatal flaw, this deadly
disconnect, is ‘an in
herent element of all organizations characterized by complex
structures, deeply held histories and cultures, and compartmentalized knowledge’ (p.
250). Often this question is raised instead as the (im)possibility of
to move from the detection of errors to the fundamental questioning
of the norms and structures that give rise to errors in the first place (Al
146; cf. Choo, 2006, pp. 308
314). ‘[M]ost organizations and individuals are
unwilling to e
ngage in double
loop learning because it involves the disclosure of errors
and mistakes as well as the questioning of existing assumptions, norms, structures, and
Hawamdeh, 2003, p. 146).
Notice, crucially, that this ‘double
would have little therefore to
do with IT. KM, as many authorities emphasize, ‘is fundamentally more an issue of
corporate cultural transformation
than it is of information technology and its
deployment’ (Skikantaiah & Koenig, 2000, p. 4, emphasis mine).
It is ironic, then, that
much of the KM literature is written from the IT viewpoint, while “very little has been
written from the viewpoint of those who need to be central actors in this unfolding
the information professionals’ (Skikantaiah & Koenig,
2000, p. vii). À propos
the underappreciation and sidelining of the information profession within KM, J. Albert
Unless we [information professionals] can insinuate ourselves
into the management structure of knowledge management, we
will lose a
position that ought to be our birthright. However, I
have yet to see the professional literature that addresses what
knowledge management means below the corporate management
level, which concentrates on professionalizing what we already
do in the context
of knowledge management, rather than trying
to leverage knowledge management into making us a different
profession (J. Albert in Skikantaiah & Koenig, 2000, chap. 5, p.
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construct meaning, create knowledge, and make decisions
(2nd ed.). New
York: Oxford University Press.
H., & Prusak, L. (1998).
Working knowledge: How organizations
manage what they know
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Drucker, P.F. (1993).
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Firestone, J.M., & McElroy, M.W. (2003).
Key issues in t
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Kermally, S. (2002).
Effective knowledge management: A best practice blueprint
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Lehaney, B., Clarke, S., Coakes, E., & Jack, G. (2004).
Beyond knowledge management
: Idea Group.
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creating company: How Japanese
companies create the dynamics of innovation
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The complete idiot’s guide to knowledge management
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The fifth discipline: The art and practice of the learning
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Srikantaiah, T.K., & Koenig, M.E.D. (Eds.). (2000).
Knowledge management for the
. Medford NJ: Information Today.
Stewart, T.A. (1997).
Intellectual capital: The new wealth of organizations.
Wall, A., Kirk, R., & Martin, G. (2004).
Intellectual capital: Measuring the
II. Recent Papers
Borghini, S. (2005).
Organizational creativity: Breaking equilibrium and order to
innovate [Electronic version].
Journal of Knowledge Management, 9
Chua, A., & Lam, W. (2005). Why KM projects fail: A multi
case analysis [Electronic
Journal of Knowledge Man
Lim, T.T. (2002). Organizational culture and knowledge management.
Information & Knowledge Management, 1
McCollum, D. (2006). Mark Twain and knowledge management.
Mooradian, N. (
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Neal, H. (2006). The rebirth of knowledge management: Information explosion has
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Choo, C.W., & Bontis, N. (Eds.). (2002).
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Coakes, E. (E
Knowledge management: Current issues and challenges
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. [electronic resource]
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. [electronic resource]
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V. Online Resources
Directory of Knowledge Management.
Emerging Knowledge Management Perspectives.
Knowledge Management Consortium International.
LIS 2176 website (Prof. Choo):
Rumizen (2002), Appendix B, “Web Sites.”
SLA online resources for “Knowledge Management”.
Wikipedia on “Knowledge Management” and related links.
Characterizations of KM as an ‘oxymoron’ are legion. M. Addleson puts it succinctly:
‘knowledge and management is an unlikely and uncomfortable pairing’ (chap. 9 in
Skikantaiah & Koenig, 2000, p. 139). See further Part 1 ‘Exploring t
he Oxymoron’ in
Nonaka & Takeuchi (1995) express the idea in more poetical terms: ‘The realization
that knowledge is the new competitive resource has hit the West like lightning’ (p. 7).
‘KM research tends to treat tacit knowledge as
the target of KM practice. Capturing
tacit knowledge is seen as the challenge to organizations that want to spread knowledge
throughout the organization or spur greater innovation. It is treated as a reserve deposited
deep within the ground that needs to b
e detected and then pumped out’ (Mooradian,
2005, p. 107).
Davenport & Prusak (1998) highlight this aspect. ‘The trend toward leaner
organizations has also contributed to heightened interest in knowledge, on the principle
that you really understand the
value of something once it is gone. … Some “expendable”
middle managers proved by their absence to have been
the key knowledge coordinators
; the loss to their firms went well beyond what their official job
descriptions would suggest’ (p. x
, emphasis mine).
The scope of this paper does not permit a detailed examination of KM tools, including
groupware and intranets, and practices such as benchmarking and information auditing. A
useful theoretical compendium of papers in this area is Ruggl
As Choo (2006) explains, the
is a tacit
machine. ‘Knowledge creation is achieved through managing the relationship between
tacit and explicit knowledge, and through designing social processes that gen
knowledge by converting tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge’ (p. 8).
The intermediate textbook used in the Linguistics Department, University of Toronto, is
Core syntax: A minimalist approach
(2003). Section 1.2 ‘Tacit Knowledge
12) gives a summary with references.
I wrote an e
mail to Professor Chomsky at MIT, asking for clarification of his concept
and the relation to that of Polanyi, Quine, and so on. He responded:
Polanyi’s book [
The tacit dimen
(1966)] is quite
interesting, but his topics are quite different from those I’ve
studied, involving knowledge that is inaccessible to
consciousness (like knowledge of language), hence ‘tacit
knowledge’ in one usage of that term.
I actually haven’t use
d the term much in referring to
knowledge inaccessible to consciousness. I have done some
work on the intellectual history of the notion, which is quite thin.
Traditionally, it was assumed that every aspect of mental life is
accessible to consciousness. Ev
en in the case of Freud, I think a
good case can be made that he assumed that too, though it’s
contested: I’ve written about it some, and it’s been debated. A
great deal of confusion has been introduced into these
discussions by some prominent philosophers
, W. V. Quine and
John Searle in particular. Have written about that too. (e
received November 22, 2006).
‘Organizing to know is based on the recognition that contemporary organizations draw
their strength and direction from the interaction of pe
ople with diverse capabilities,
different experiences, and varied perspectives. The focus is on people, in the form of
networks, teams, groups, or communities of practice. Organizing to know is an approach
to managing that is compatible with organizational
learning’ (M. Addleson in Skikantaiah
& Koenig, 2000, chap. 9, p. 138).
This implicates primarily management in the failures of KM. For an overview of the
multiple factors in such failures, see Chua & Lam (2005).