Wednesday, August 20, 2003

A definition for Knowledge Management... or lack thereof

I have found it very difficult to determine a suitable definition for KM. I've taken some solace in a passage written by the Canadian architect Witold Rybczynski (if only Scrabble allowed proper nouns!). In his conclusion to the book 'Home', Rybczynki discusses the problem of defining the concept of domestic comfort. I've provided an extensive quotation with the word 'comfort' replaced by '[knowledge management]'. It seems to work:


These qualities are something that science has failed to come to grips with, although to the layman a picture, or a written description, is evidence enough. "[knowledge management] is simply a verbal invention," writes one engineer despairingly. Of course, that is precisely what [knowledge management] is. It is an invention--a cultural artifice. Like all cultural ideas--childhood, family, gender--it has a past, and it cannot be understood without reference to its specific history. One-dimensional, technical definitions of [knowledge management], which ignore history, are bound to be unsatisfactory...

This is the problem with understanding [knowledge management] and with finding a simple definition. It is like trying to describe an onion. It appears simple on the outside, just a spheroidal shape. But this is deceptive, for an onion also has many layers. If we cut it apart, we are left with a pile of onion skins, but the original form has disappeared; if we describe each layer separately, we lose sight of the whole. To complicate matters further, the layers are transparent, so that when we look at the whole onion we see not just the surface but also something of the interior. Similarly, [knowledge management] is both something simple and complicated. It incorporates many layers of meaning--[intellectual capital, information systems, change management]--some of which are buried deeper than others.

The onion simile suggests that not only that [knowledge management] has several layers of meaning, but also that the idea of [knowledge management] has developed historically. It is an idea that has meant different things at different times... Each new meaning added a layer to the previous meanings, which were preserved beneath. At any particular time, [knowledge management] consists of all the layers, not only the most recent. (Rybczynski, 1986 p.230-231)


I highly recommend Rybczynski's work. He excels at elucidating the intersection of technology and society-

Amazon Lite link to 'Home'

REFS: Rybczynski, W. (1986). Home : a short history of an idea. Toronto, Penguin.