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November 08, 2005

Knowledge Management: Broadening and Narrowing

I realized recently that my philosophy on where knowledge management should go seems a little contradictory. On one hand, I have been arguing that knowledge managers should view the field more broadly. In other respects, I’ve argued for a narrower approach. I’ll explain in this blog entry.

KM, as traditionally defined, addresses the capture and distribution of textual knowledge with IT. Even though organizations typically try to capture the knowledge of all their employees across the entire organization, this is a narrow objective in a sense—there are many other things that companies can do with KM. For example, I’ve argued that companies can focus on such things as knowledge creation, knowledge work and workspace redesign, employee and customer suggestions, and business intelligence. I could do a blog entry on each of these knowledge worker “interventions”—and I probably will—but the key is to take a broader approach. If KM doesn’t get broader, it’s probably not going to survive. And from the customer’s standpoint, your generic knowledge worker doesn’t really care whether what’s offered falls into the “knowledge” category or not—they just want to do their work better.

At the same time, however, I’d argue that KM has to be narrower. If we’re going to do more things, we have to focus them on particular audiences. KM may potentially benefit everybody, but the greatest benefits of knowledge-oriented interventions will come when we focus them on a particular job, role, or knowledge work process. I’ve seen some great successes with interventions into particular roles at such organizations as:

- Partners Health Care (with doctors)
- BT (for call center workers)
- Internal Revenue Service (collections agents)
- Fisher-Price (toy designers)

You can’t boil the ocean, and you can’t improve every knowledge worker’s performance at the same time. So it’s really important to pick some knowledge workers whose performance really matters to your organization’s success. In recent months I’ve heard that Intel, Accenture, and several other firms have adopted a similar philosophy.

So there you have it. Broader and narrower—the key to success in dealing with knowledge and knowledge work.

Posted by Tom Davenport on November 8, 2005 11:37 PM | Permalink

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I think "broadening and narrowing" makes perfect sense. The range of interventions needs to be broadened and their focus needs to be narrowed. This implies that broad, sweeping KM programs won't be effective and, by their nature, are doomed to failure or, at best, destined to fall far short of expectations. I suspect that any successful KM initiative is essentially a "one off" effort, focused on a particular problem in a particular organization.

That said, I still agree with Drucker: it is knowledge work that must be made productive, not the knowledge workers. To focus on the workers is, as submariners say, to "take your eye off the bubble" - and we all know where that leads: straight to the bottom.

Posted by: Fred Nickols | November 28, 2005 04:22 PM

Great post Tom. It is interesting to think about both approaches in a time context. I wonder what the implications of the concept you expose are regarding a Knowledge Management Program.

It could be interesting to take a narrow approach in a first phase, in order to demonstrate the value of the KM initiative internally, and later broaden its scope.

Posted by: Lucas Rodriguez Cervera | November 28, 2005 11:18 AM

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