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KM, Schma-em

by Carol Rozwell  |  November 4, 2011  |  4 Comments

Any Gartner analyst knows that interest in particular topics waxes and wanes, sometimes for discernible reasons and sometimes we don’t know why. This week’s topic was knowledge management, or as the aficionados call it, KM. The first client call was a review of a KM strategy and then other discussions progressed from there. What comes up frequently – and did again this week – is a confusion over KM, collaboration and social media. What do these terms mean, how are they different, or are they even different?

I’m not known for engaging in definitions debates. While it is important to be clear and accurate in one’s communication, I derive little joy from discussing how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. What is important is not what term is used (as my friends in the mid-west say, “it don’t make no never mind”) – but clearly defining the value you expect to get from the initiative. The critical questions that need to be answered are “what do you want to achieve?” and “how will this make your target constituency’s life easier?” Both of these questions must be answered with a very high degree of specificity if the initiative will be successful. (Gartner clients may want to read my research note describing a process for doing this.)

In most cases when I talk with clients about KM, collaboration or social media, what they want to gain is similar: they want to get more benefit from the information assets inside or outside their organizations. The complication is that as the problems they are hoping to solve by applying these knowledge assets increase in complexity, so does the likelihood that the knowledge needed to solve them cannot be neatly codified.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I should mention that I’ve been a member of the Boston KM Forum for more years than I care to think about. The KM Forum is ably guided by Lynda Moulton and Larry Chait. Periodically we will discuss whether a name change for the group is required. After all, KM has certainly changed a lot over the past decade. But somehow we just haven’t come up with a better term and so we stick with what we have (and then of course there would be the expense of changing all the fancy stationery (grin)). And we acknowledge that topics that fit under the KM banner include content management, learning, innovation and collaboration.

So don’t worry too much about what you call that project that aims to get more value from information assets. Instead, spend the time looking for ways to get people better connected and allow them to filter out the useful knowledge from wealth of information that surrounds them.

Category: change-management  collaboration  community  knowledge-management  social-media  social-networks  social-software  

Tags: change-management  collaboration  collaboration-dynamics  communities-of-practice  community  community-of-practice  cop  knowledge-management  rewards  social-analytics  social-media  social-networking  social-networks  social-software  

Carol Rozwell
VP Distinguished Analyst
11 years at Gartner
21 years IT industry

Carol Rozwell is a vice president and distinguished analyst on Gartner's Digital Workplace team. Read Full Bio

Thoughts on KM, Schma-em

  1. Nat Welch says:

    Great question and I think that you are right that KM, social media, and collaboration are related and yet we also try to separate them so that as individuals we can be specialize and sell that expertise that we have. It’s the natural tension between integration and differentiation, between belonging and being unique.

    For a good model, that helps to manage this tension, I really like what the folks at the Learning Innovation Laboratory at Harvard’s Grad School of Education do with their framework on this topic. It allows both the uniqueness of one to be highlighted and yet it’s relationships to others is also mapped. Imagine a triangle where each vertex is one of the following three pairs 1) Knowledge/Learning, 2) Community/Collaboration, and 3) Change/Innovation. any topic that they cover fits somewhere in that triangle balanced somehow it how it relatively attracted to one or more of the vertices. Their noun/verb structure has supported their work with CLO’s and CKO’s for over 10 years. Check them out at

    So I think that you are on the right track, and that these are closely related domains with many overlapping and complementary parts.

  2. David Flint says:

    I guess we all know that the IT industry is a world leader in buzzword creation but KM has been around a long time. One danger in that is that people become emotionally – even financially – invested in the term.

    So – focus on the benefits the business needs, use whatever term resonates with the bosses and use the means – from phone calls to AI engines – that work best

  3. Thanks Nat and David for your thoughtful comments. Benefits and value are certainly key words!

  4. Chris Jones says:

    Great post, Carol. I’ve been tracking your insights since your “Sea Change” post in 2009.

    The storm is still brewing on the horizon. But maybe now it’s approaching? Waves a bit more choppy?

    I’ll be the first to confess to propogation of buzzwords, but I think there is a deeper issue working here. To me, it’s about the organic flow of information and knowledge in (and across) organizations, which social tends to enable but which KM often constricts. It’s not that KM intends this to happen. In fact, it’s the opposite. KM practitioners are huge (if not leading) advocates of knowledge exchange and collaboration.

    What we need is to relax the top-down, hierarchical thinking that derives from strict taxonomies. Burton group did a great paper a few years ago on “folksonomy” and the value of a hybrid approach to metadata.

    Think domain models with soft edges.

    Think ubiquitous user-defined tags, moderated to blend with the official enterprise tags.

    The magic is in the middle, a balancing act. But old habits die hard, even in the relatively young practice of KM.

    More to come –

    Chris @sourcepov

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