Sins of Knowledge
core tenet of any organizational learning project is that without detecting and correcting errors in "what we know" and "how we learn," an organization's knowledge deteriorates, becomes obsolete, and can result in "bad" decisions. Because systematic attention to knowledge management is relatively recent, it is particularly important to detect these errors so that knowledge management does not become yet another management fad that promised much but delivered little. If we do not identify and try to resolve these errors, "what we know" about knowledge management may become little else but mythology. As a consequence, we will be faced with the ultimate knowledge irony: efforts to manage knowledge are themselves based upon faulty knowledge principles.
The purpose of this article is to draw attention to a set of pervasive knowledge management errors. These reflections are based on the authors' observing or partaking in over one hundred knowledge projects over the past five years or so. The focus is on fundamental errors, that is, errors that if left uneorreeted inhibit genuine knowledge from being developed and leveraged. These are errors associated with the concept of knowledge itself: how knowledge is understood in organizational settings and how that understanding impedes knowledge management.
Error I: Not Developing a Working Definition of Knowledge
If knowledge is not something that is different from data or information, then there is nothing new or interesting in knowledge management. Yet many managers seem determinedly reluctant to distinguish between data and
CALIFORNIA MANAGEMENT REVIEW
VOL40, NO. 3
The Eleven Deadliest Sins of Knowledge Management
information on the one hand and knowledge on the other; and, more importantly, they seem reluctant to consider the implications of these distinctions. The tendency to avoid grappling with what knowledge is should not be surprising. There is little in the education, training, or organizational experience of managers that prepares them for the deep-seated reflection and understanding required by the concept of knowledge. Moreover, this situation is exacerbated by some recent popular management literature that directly advocates not making distinctions between these concepts. The argument advanced by these authors is that contemplation of such distinctions distracts managers from the necessary task of managing,' However, reflection upon concepts and the distinctions among and between them is the essence of the process of "knowing" or learning.
This is a critical error. It contributes directly to all of the errors noted below. Also, avoidance of grappling with a working understanding of knowledge leads to a dysfunctional environment for knowledge work. Many executives have told us they were extremely reluctant to even use the knowledge word and that they felt the anti-knowledge culture of their organizations compelled them to do knowledge work by stealth. "We had to disguise our knowledge project within a data warehousing architecture plan" is a true and representative response. In fairness, firms have been assaulted, at least since the 1960s, with multitudes of theories and nostrums that have often proved to be of questionable value. This has made many executives skeptical, if not downright hostile, to new ideas and programs.
Error 2: Ennphasizing Knowledge Stock
to the Detriment of Knowledge Flow
When knowledge is equated with information, it should not be a surprise to find it defined principally as a stock rather than as a flow. It is viewed as a thing or object that exists on its own, that can be captured, transmitted among individuals, and stored in multiple ways within the organization. Indisputably, this "stock" perspective tends to dominate organizations' thinking about knowledge. This has come about in part because several early examples of...
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