Basic, better and best: three ways to find out about knowledge management

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Knowledge management (KM) is one of those subjects that’s difficult to describe in a single sentence. If you don’t already know what it is, how can you find out? If you do know what it is, how can you be sure your understanding is up there with current thinking?

Shared understanding is reached by interaction between people. This KM principle applies to understanding what KM is, as well as to planning and doing KM.

You might expect to find out what KM is from a business dictionary or from Wikipedia. Don’t bother with dictionaries. Wikipedia might help, but it depends what’s there when you visit. The problem with published definitions of KM is that some of them are out of date. If you don’t already know what KM is, how will you judge the quality of what you’re reading? And you can’t interact with published definitions to find out more.  


In the bar at a recent conference, I was challenged to explain KM in a single sentence. I struggled. None of the sentences I suggested satisfied my challenger. After a few failed attempts, it dawned on me that I was being asked to do the impossible. The words of Samuel Johnson popped into my head, "I have found you an argument; but I am not obliged to find you an understanding". I made my excuses and retired to bed.

Here are a few of the sentences I suggested. All are from reliable sources:

  • "management with regard to knowledge(BS ISO 30401 Knowledge management systems: requirements, 2018)
  • "a holistic, cross-functional discipline and set of practices concerned with the way organisations create and use knowledge to improve outcomes" (APM Body of Knowledge 7th edition, 2019)
  • "hire smart people and let them talk to one another" (Working Knowledge: How Organizations Manage what They Know, 1998)

The message? Definitions and short descriptions from reliable KM sources might give you a glimpse of what KM is about. Then again, they might not.


Three recent publications have made it easier to find out what KM is and how to apply it in project environments. As well as definitions, the ISO standard and APM Body of Knowledge 7th edition, describe KM using principles: a collection of statements that together convey what it means to manage knowledge. This is a much better way of getting to grips with the subject.

You can read the introduction (including the principles) to the standard for free on ISO’s online browsing platform. The KM section in APM Body of Knowledge 7th edition is not yet available online. If you don’t have access to a hard copy of APM Body of Knowledge 7th edition, please don’t be tempted to use the KM entry in APM Body of Knowledge 6th edition – it doesn’t provide the comprehensive description that’s in APM Body of Knowledge 7th edition.  

A third publication, Managing Knowledge in Project Environments* (declaration of interest: I am the lead author, but please don’t let that put you off) also describes KM using principles – but in more detail.


The best way to find out about KM is by interacting with people who know what they’re talking about. Think of knowledge as a process of knowing that happens when people interact in social and work groups. Interacting with others provides opportunities for checking your understanding of KM and for finding out what might work in your context: your project, your portfolio, your organisation.

To improve the understanding and practice of KM, the APM Knowledge SIG has produced a series of Courageous Conversation videos that cover various aspects of the subject. Each video is about 10 minutes long and designed to stimulate discussion. We’re always happy to engage in conversation – just get in touch using Twitter or by email:

The APM Knowledge SIG also runs occasional sessions at Branch meetings (free to APM members) and an annual conference. And yes, our events are interactive. The next one is the APM Knowledge SIG 2019 conference is on 30 October in London.

*Managing Knowledge in Project Environments (Judy Payne, Eileen Roden and Steve Simister, 2019) is published by Routledge in the Fundamentals of project management series.

Image: fotogestoeber/

Judy Payne

Posted by Judy Payne on 16th Oct 2019

About the Author

Judy works as a management consultant and reluctant academic specialising in knowledge management, collaborative working and learning. Her work is positioned firmly on the boundaries between academia and practice. Not the most comfortable place to be, but there’s such a huge gap between the two that there’s a lot of bridging to be done.

Judy works with public, private and third sector organisations to improve their management of knowledge, with universities to develop and deliver online degree programmes and with master’s students to help them learn how to do management research. At APM, she co-founded the Knowledge SIG and is co-chair of the K SIG committee. She has contributed new knowledge management sections to the sixth edition of the PMBOK® Guide and to P3O® Best Management Practice, and represents the UK as an expert on an ISO Working Group developing a knowledge management standard. She is writing a book on KM in project environments.

Judy is also known for introducing collaborative working and social software to the Henley Knowledge Management Forum and for being a member of the #teatowelclub on Twitter.

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