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Knowledge and why it matters?

Knowledge and knowledge management

There is, unfortunately, no universally recognised definition of ‘knowledge’. People have been arguing about what knowledge is since the time of Aristotle and Plato – probably longer.

This matters for two reasons. First, our understanding of ‘knowledge’ determines the way we approach knowledge management. Second, if ‘knowledge’ can mean different things, how do we know whether we are talking about the same things when we talk about knowledge and knowledge management?

More about knowledge management

The table summarises some of the characteristics of the three different perspectives.

  Structural perspective Process perspective Practice perspective
Knowledge Knowledge is a resource that can be captured, accumulated and shared. Knowledge is more a process of knowing than a 'thing'. It is negotiated in social interactions. There is a part of knowing how to do something that you can learn only by doing it.
Decision making Individuals make independent, logical and reasoned decisions based on facts. The way people make decisions depends on the social setting and 'the way we do things round here'. The way people make decisions is based on shared practical understanding of the work they do.
Where knowledge resides Mainly in the heads of individuals, and in documents and processes. Knowledge doesn't reside anywhere specific, it exists in social groups. Knowledge doesn't reside anywhere, it is part of what people do.
Where knowledge
comes from
Knowledge is discovered by experts through scientific study. Knowledge is created by groups of people reaching a shared understanding. Knowledge is created within and between groups of people who do similar work.
Typical approach to knowledge management Capture knowledge and disseminate it to people. Encourage people to relationships, networks and trust so they will share knowledge. Group people with similar backgrounds and work together to share knowledge. Create overlaps between these groups to solve problems.

Alignment between knowledge perspectives, approach to knowledge management and knowledge management practices

Lack of alignment between an organisation’s understanding of ‘knowledge’, its approach to knowledge management, and what it actually does to manage knowledge can lead to confusion, misunderstandings and poor focus.

Sometimes organisations make a conscious decision to adopt an approach that doesn’t match its understanding of knowledge. Organisations that run projects over very long timescales – the nuclear power industry, for example – might choose to adopt a ‘capture’ approach because knowledge has to be shared between several generations of people, even if the organisation has a more sophisticated understanding of knowledge.

Some organisations adopt a ‘capture’ approach as a first step in knowledge management. This isn’t usually the best place to start knowledge management, as it can lead to confusion between knowledge and information that makes it difficult to change the approach later on.

Survey results: perspectives on knowledge

We asked people 33 questions about their understanding of knowledge, then analysed the results to identify each respondent’s dominant perspective. As individuals, most people have a process understanding of knowledge. 

When the views of individuals who work for the same organisation are combined to give the prevailing perspective in each organisation, the process view is even more dominant. In some organisations, this is simply because the ‘process’ thinkers outnumber people with the other perspectives. In other organisations, though, there is strong agreement between individuals about the meaning of ‘knowledge’. Often this coincides with strong leadership of knowledge management and clear definitions of knowledge and knowledge management.  This indicates that what organisations do to manage knowledge influences individuals’ understanding of what knowledge is.

Survey results: perspectives on knowledge and perceived approach to knowledge management

We asked people to identify their organisations’ overall approach to knowledge management. For the two organisations in which the prevailing perspective on knowledge was unclear, one had a process approach to knowledge management and the other had a mixed, unclear approach. For the organisations with a prevailing process understanding of knowledge, the results were mixed:

Only 65 per cent of the organisation with a process understanding of knowledge had a matching process approach to knowledge management.

Survey results: perspectives on knowledge and perceived approach to knowledge management

We asked people to identify their organisations’ overall approach to knowledge management. For the two organisations in which the prevailing perspective on knowledge was unclear, one had a process approach to knowledge management and the other had a mixed, unclear approach. For the organisations with a prevailing process understanding of knowledge, the results were mixed:

Only 65 per cent of the organisation with a process understanding of knowledge had a matching process approach to knowledge management.

Read part two find out what is going on

What’s your perspective on knowledge?

Use the table in the article to identify your dominant perspective on knowledge. Are you a structural, process or practice person? Or is your understanding of knowledge a mixture of more than one perspective?

What’s your organisation’s approach to knowledge management?

Use the table to identify your organisation’s overall approach to knowledge management. Does it match your personal understanding of ‘knowledge’? If not, why do you think this is?

Additional resources:

 

APM Knowledge Specific Interest Group

Knowledge management The holistic, cross-functional discipline and set of practices concerned with the way organisations create and use knowledge to improve outcomes. 

Communities of practice A type of learning network used within and between organisations to maintain, develop and share knowledge.

Definition from APM Body of Knowledge 7th edition

APM Knowledge Specific Interest Group

APM Knowledge specific interest group

APM Body Of Knowledge 7Th Edition Promo Image

APM Body of Knowledge 7th edition

The APM Body of Knowledge 7th edition is a foundational resource providing the concepts, functions and activities that make up professional project management. It reflects the developing profession, recognising project-based working at all levels, and across all sectors for influencers, decision makers, project professionals and their teams. 

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