The Ultimate Knowledge Business

There is a new buzzword making the rounds in the media. It is “knowledge management”. I am tracking the use of this phrase because I think that its evolving use tells us a lot about a trend. In the old days, knowledge management was a rather fragmented affair. One kept records (a form of knowledge management) and one did training and mentoring (another form of knowledge management) and one had meetings (yet another form of knowledge management). Many complained that this fragmentation made it impossible for organizations to know what its workers know. Ooops!

More recent usage of the word reflects an attempt to reduce that fragmentation. To “capture” learning from experience and plug it back into strategic thinking, which in turn informs the development of better problem solving and best practices. The hope is that technology wedded with new skill sets (like facilitation) will provide us with tools that make this easier.

Will it work? It is already working in one respect. It is changing our notion of what people need to bring to the job and what they should learn once they are there. In the old days, one thought that workers should bring certain pre-fab skill sets to their new place of work. So, for example, freshly minted law school grads should be very good at legal research, even if they would not know a client from a buffalo. These skills are still important. But we are starting to wake up to the idea that there is something even more important. That is an orientation of what the place of work is trying to accomplish. You don’t get that from skills training. You get that from pre-work contact with employers. In other words, gaining an earlier understanding of why one works rather than diving into how one works. This idea comes out nicely from Traci Donnelli’s post at HBR.

Traci is concerned with helping offer better opportunities to disadvantaged youngsters. A good idea. But the idea applies much, much more broadly. The ultimate knowledge management programme is about managing why we do stuff. Until we get better at that, we will not be very good at adding value. And we should keep in mind that sooner rather than later, computers will be able to do everything better than we can — except for one thing. Understanding why we do that stuff.

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