During my attendance at KM World's KM Summit meeting in 1998, I was rather surprised at the apparent level of confusion surrounding the definition of KM. This article is written in an attempt to dispel some of this confusion.
Based on conversations and the perspectives expressed by the participants, I decided that rather than attempt to provide a short succinct definition of knowledge management, I would define it in terms of the set of interactions that comprise it. In other words, if you look at a set of interactions, you know that knowledge management is occurring if certain requirements are met. What follows, therefore, is a description of the process interactions associated with knowledge management. As it turns out, this allows the description to be completely technology independent, while at the same time providing the underlying technology requirements for an environment that enables knowledge management.
For purposes of this paper, the term "environment" encompasses the hardware and software in use, the people with whom one interacts (either directly or online), the knowledge base, and the whole set of interactions between these components. It is these interactions which set the stage for defining knowledge management.
We begin with an individual, me for example, and a situation I wish to change. The situation may be a problem or it may be a future state I wish to create. Either way, whether there is a problem to solve or not, there is a gap between the current state of affairs and the desired state of affairs.
In addressing this situation, I must interact with an environment which will assist me in developing an appropriate approach for attaining the desired future state. This leads directly to the first interaction requirement for knowledge management.
Interaction Requirement # 1: There must be a motivation for me to interact with the environment to address the situation. As such, I must believe that the interaction will result in my receiving greater value than my inaction. This value may be that the interaction results in the development of an approach that saves time, improves the quality of a product or service, or provides some other perceived value that I wouldn't accrue if I chose not to interact with the environment.
It is also considered essential that the environment itself continuously evolves over time so that it is able to provide more appropriate or expansive guidance in the future. This perspective essentially dictates another interaction requirement, this one in the area of evaluation and feedback.
Interaction Requirement # 2: Interaction with the environment must be such that I am motivated to evaluate the approaches I access and provide feedback. (For example, was a recommended approach clear and easy to follow? Was it too vague?) This feedback will act as a foundation for the continued evolution of the environment as approaches are modified in response to feedback.
The approach I seek may not already exist within the environment. This leads directly to the third interaction requirement, one regarding situation capture and resolution.
Interaction Requirement # 3: Interactions with the environment must motivate individuals to define to the environment situations for which approaches do not currently exist.
The environment's continuous collection of situations for which approaches are desired leads to another requirement.
Interaction Requirement # 4: The environment must deliver value to those who interact with it and individuals must contribute approaches for situations that do not yet have them. The environment must facilitate the development and delivery of these approaches in an acceptable time frame.
In conjunction with the preceding requirements, there is an underlying realization that "you can't be all things to all people." This leads to the following requirement, which is actually the most appropriate place to begin when designing the environment.
Interaction Requirement # 5: The specific set of situations the knowledge base is intended to support (it's domain), must be explicitly defined.
If the domain is ill-defined or too broad, it will make it impossible to deliver on the intent . This will essentially end in the failure of the intent as individual expectations will not be met, and individuals will shy away from interacting with the environment. My advice would be to determine the smallest valuable domain which will deliver value to some community, develop it, and then grow the applicability of the domain over time.
My response to the question, "What is knowledge management?" now takes the form of:
"Knowledge Management consists of all the activities required to
develop, maintain, and evolve the environment described above,
and support its interaction with people."