Knowledge management needn’t be an oxymoron

The evidence about corporate knowledge-management programs keeps rolling in, and it isn’t pretty.

Companies have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on computer hardware and software, on hiring knowledge management experts, and on maintaining data warehouses of best practices and past experience.

The designers of these systems imagined they were inventing electronic libraries that would provide every employee with quick and easy access to a firm’s collective wisdom.


The reality is that most information warehouses have become “junkyards,” databases cluttered with forgotten information. In fact, they are seen as a waste of money by the very people they were meant to help.

The most valuable employees often have the greatest disdain for knowledge management. These people are the most talented, so the clueless curators of these so-called junkyards badger employees to enter what they know into the system, even though few people in the company actually use the information.

Knowledge-management programs have problems because their designers often have false beliefs about how people turn know-ledge into action.

One fallacy is that knowledge is a tangible thing, like a stock or quantity of merchandise that can be obtained from the use of that thing. This belief leads to wasted effort when leaders decide that knowledge should be “managed” by a group that knows a lot about technology but little about how people actually use knowledge on the job: Who needs what information, and in what form they find it most useful.

A second problem is that data warehouses are useless for capturing “tacit knowledge,” those job skills that can’t be translated into words, numbers or drawings, and can only be learned by watching and doing the work.

Tacit knowledge is more critical to successful task performance than explicit knowledge in almost every job, from police work to heart surgery.

A third problem is that knowledge is of little value unless it is turned into products, services, administrative innovations and process improvements. These are things that such systems can’t help with and that knowledge management personnel usually don’t know much about.

Knowledge management systems work best when the people who generate the knowledge are the same people who store it, explain it to others and coach them as they try to implement it.

Hewlett-Packard’s Strategic Planning, Analysis and Modeling group members, for example, use electronic systems for storing past lessons, but they treat it as a reminder of what they have thought and done rather than an accurate historical record.

Corey Billington, the head of this group, describes his job as “part librarian, part consultant and part coach.” His group has been successful at transferring skills about supply-chain management – which has been implemented at many HP divisions – because the people who do this internal consulting are also responsible for storing and disseminating this knowledge in the company.

These systems are not inherently useless, but they often fall into the hands of the wrong specialists.

People who are charged with actually implementing what is known, not those who understand information technology but have only a dim understanding of what the company does and needs to do, should manage the systems.