Dogma and definitions

August 24, 2006

The hoary old question of definitions raised itself on one of the KM list serves this week. The argument was put forward to the effect that the KM profession should get its act together and produce a definition of KM. This stuff normally comes from people trying to sell certification courses in the field. They need it defined, with a set of established practices etc so that they can produce modular training programmes. I am totally opposed to any attempt to certify people in a developing field such as KM. In accountancy possibly where we have 400 years of practice and established professional bodies, but not KM. It amazes me that people have the arrogance to think they can set up a commercial company (normally disguised as a not for profit group, with a commercial company owned by the promoter providing services) and start to issue letters to put after your name etc. etc. Willingness to take this approach seems to be inversely proportionate to experience or original contribution in the field by the way. You can also get some nasty wars, with splits and counter-splits and accusations that remind me of the worst excessise of the revivals in 19th century Wales which produced the famous village with one house, two pubs and eight chapels.

Either way, on this occasion a practitioner came into the thread with their definition of KM and suggested that it had been validated in multiple conversations and would therefore work. I had a quick look and there were some obvious problems. Firstly it assumed a tacit-explicit knowledge distinction which while it is the norm, is also subject to challenge by myself and others. It also assumed that “social capital” as a term would be understood and accepted by all. I made a comment to the effect that the defintion proved my earlier point – attempting a definition of knowledge management that would be accepted by all was a waste of time. The response managed to use the word “bright” as an insult (the anti-intellectualism of some cultures worries me) and argued that the failure to reach an agreement was the reason why people did not trust KM. It also argued strongly that the protagonist (Tom) had used the definition with lots of people and they had liked it. My response is reproduced below. The final paragraph is the key one.

I’m sure it does Tom (your definition working for people you work with), just as Larry’s definition worked for him and the definitions I have used in a multitude of consultancy assignments and training courses have worked for me. My point is a simple one – you cannot and should not attempt a single definition and even if you try it will be a waste of effort. However I am surprised that if you are so confident of yours, that you end up your post with the unwarranted assertion that the world does not trust people in KM

If we take you problem with Part 2. I can see that it might be garbled for you (Tom had said that my criticism of Social Capital was garbled) as I am challenging something that is very much a part of US culture to the point where it is unquestioned. Namely the “capital” concept with its emphasis on assets and their exploitation. You are assuming a common understanding and agreement to something, that from the point of view of your culture is “self-evident”. The English used to be like this when they had an empire – they just assumed that everyone wanted to be English, rather like the Romans and now …..

My point is not to tear your ideas apart – happy to have a go in the spirit of debate and understanding if you want – but my argument is that you, Doug and others should cease attempts to define the field. You can only achieve that by narrowing it. The question of what is or is not a planet (referenced by Tom in connection with the current debate about Pluto) is a very different case and can ultimately be determined. We could equally agree some definitions of aspects of knowledge management (for example SNA) if we also noted disagreements etc.

But to define KM? Well to do that you have to define knowledge and a lot of people have spent several thousand years working on that without reaching an agreement. The debate has been a lot more interesting and useful than if they had all agreed a definition in Athens a few centuries ago in order to make their profession more respectable. If we attempted to agree a definition of KM we will have ceased to learn – and the world should loose trust in us

Incidentally, my apologies for the blog flow drying up for a couple of days (although some may be pleased). Recovering from a trans-pacific flight and prioritizing time with my son who is over in Singapore for a week took priority

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