Wiig on past and future of KM, ten years ago
A former student forwarded me the Karl Wiig article, Knowledge management: Where did it come from and where will it go? from the July 1997 issue of Expert Systems with Applications (Vol. 13, No. 1), which was a special issue on knowledge management. I decided I wanted to read through to see how well Wiig predicted the future. Here's the abstract:
Knowledge management came for some as the proverbial bolt from the blue. This paper traces the history of knowledge management from its modest beginnings in the early/mid eighties to its current status. It shows that knowledge management is, to a certain extent, the logical next step in a sequence of societal developments that has already been going on for a very long time. The likely future of knowledge management is explored along four perspectives: The management practices perspective, the information technology perspective, the organizational efforts perspective and the development, supply and adoption rate perspective. The conclusion is that knowledge management methods and technologies will, until the turn of the century, be provided in a ‘technology push’ manner. After that time a more ‘demand pull’ way is foreseen. For the average company the full operation period will probably be in the first quarter of the next century. And, as will happen with every new approach, it will become outdated somewhere in the second quarter of the next century.
Wiig's history of KM pushes back to 1975 with a reference to work of Chaparral Steel and into the 1980's with several references to expert systems and artificial intelligence work around Knowledge Based Systems. The first direct references to knowledge management show up in 1986 and 1987. He does this via a time line of developments in the field of knowledge systems and knowledge management. I'd love to know if anyone has updated or maintained this list.
The article also provides some definitions and models of knowledge management, which relates to his discussion of where KM is going in the future. He lists a set of focus areas for KM efforts: business strategy; intellectual asset management; personal knowledge; knowledge creation; knowledge transfer. And he also talks about how the fundamental strategy of an organization (is it focused on operational excellence, product leadership, or customer intimacy?) colors all other work, including that of knowledge management. This absolutely rings true in my mind: work that is linked to the organization direction is the work that matters. As an aside, this is why frequent "direction changes" in business so frustrate the whole business. You get people pulling in one direction and then decide they all need to go another way. Newton's first law in business.
What about the future? As the abstract says, Wiig focuses on four areas. Under management practices, Wiig suggests what I've seen many others say: that KM will spend time as an explicit activity and then blend into the larger frameworks of management as part of the-way-things-are-done. He gives this a decade or more. My take is that we are still generally in the phase of explicitly discussing practices related to KM, though we are not always calling them KM. I'm thinking that the value of knowledge transfer and knowledge sharing are well-understood, and it is the practical aspects of how to make that happen that are of interest. I particularly like Wiig's take on how this will impact the individual worker:
Many organizations will expect that each employee will take on personal responsibility for their continued development - for their personal knowledge building.
This is the heart of the idea of the knowledge worker and personal knowledge management. Not only are individuals responsible for development from a career-path perspective, but also for their own learning and networking.
The second area where Wiig looks into the future is the impact of information technology on KM. Surprisingly, for an article published in an expert systems journal, his focus on technology is the support role, not the IT-as-KM that came about in the late 1990's. His focus is much more on the anticipated improvements in processing power and representational capabilities to support knowledge management activities. As has frequently been the case with technology predictions, they are terribly difficult. Wiig expects "substantial improvements in the levels of intelligent-acting behavior" of technologies, and while some of this has happened, there is also the hype of artificial intelligence that has never come to full fruition. That said, there are things we can do with technology today that continue to blow our minds. I get the sense that KM is undergoing some renaissance because these technologies are finally so well-embedded that we can get beyond the question of the technology and look at how it is used and what knowledge problems can be solved with it.
The third area of the future for KM is the organizational efforts viewpoint. Wiig provided a list of as-known-then KM efforts within organizations in his discussion of the history of KM. He expects that the number of efforts will have expanded. Of course.
The final perspective on the future of KM was in the development, supply and adoption of new KM practices, methods and technologies. What Wiig is examining here is the dispersal of KM as concepts are developed and made available through consultancies and eventually adopted within organizations outside of the developer and supplier communities. I think the late-90's model that Andersen and other big consultancies were driving reflects this: they adopted KM principles and then developed mechanisms to bring KM to their clients.
Wiig closes this section with some thoughts on how KM effectiveness could be monitored or measured, suggesting a variety of methods such as intellectual asset accounting that was gaining credence at the time. Unfortunately, I don't think there is a single "KM effectiveness" metric to this day. While this may seem a damning issue, there are so many directions in which KM has gone, and so many levels at which it might apply, that it is difficult to describe a single measure. My preference is to look at Throughput, Operating Expense and Investment as the key measures (thanks to TOC).
One important idea that showed up several times throughout the paper was the suggestion that research is getting more sophisticated at "explicit understanding of ... how people work with their minds." This is one of those areas where I have ongoing interest, and I agree that as we understand how people do knowledge work, we can get better at supporting that work for individuals and for collectives in teams and organizations.
For those that don't know Wiig was one of the early voices promoting knowledge management with a few books in the mid 1990's and a new one in 2004, all on the topic of KM. He runs the Knowledge Research Institute, and I see there is a KM 20 Years Later (pdf) presentation he did in 2004.
A similar, though shorter, reference is Larry Prusak's Where did knowledge management come from?, published in the IBM Systems Journal special issue on knowledge management (Vol. 40, No. 4, 2001). He provides his own view on the history of KM and suggests that it has two possible futures: become embedded in the organization, or get waylaid by opportunists. Both have happened to some extent.
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