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The Three Eras of Knowledge Management

1 November 2011
Liron Rigal
A person sitting on a stack of books

Ever since the idea of knowledge management became familiar, it has gone through three different eras of development. Each era brought an evolution in the organization's perception of implementing and utilizing knowledge management. In this article, we will review the three eras of knowledge management and the process that knowledge management has undergone in its various aspects.

First Era: Leveraging Explicit Knowledge

Knowledge management focuses primarily on processes that preserve organizational knowledge in this era. During this period, efforts were mainly devoted to documenting knowledge in documents and establishing accessible information repositories for employees. The primary efforts were to find the most prevalent knowledge within and outside the organization to preserve it for future use. The prevailing idea was that knowledge management dealt with creating multi-document information repositories.

In the early 2000s, the limitations of this approach began to emerge:

  • Organizations found it challenging to encourage people to document the information they possessed and, even more so, to get others to use it. Many users refused to use knowledge created through significant financial and human effort.

  • Organizations began to realize that, in practice, documentation focused primarily on preserving explicit knowledge, such as that found in organizational documents. In contrast, tacit knowledge, found in less tangible layers such as feelings, emotions, and experiences, was not brought to the surface and documented.

  • Employees could not document tacit knowledge, not only because they were unwilling but also because they were unaware of the knowledge they possessed.

Second Era: Leveraging Practical Knowledge

During this period, after identifying the weaknesses of the previous era, the following facts were recognized:

  1. Most knowledge resides with employees; only a tiny percentage can be found in documents. Thus, despite acknowledging the need for explicit knowledge, most attention shifted to documenting the tacit knowledge held by employees.

  2. Most knowledge within an organization is dynamic and changes rapidly, so what is documented quickly becomes outdated.

  3. Knowledge is primarily the product of a social process created within a group working together on a shared task or project.

Indeed, during this period, activities supporting knowledge creation in a dynamic group process began to emerge, such as communities of experts, which allowed employees to create, receive, and apply knowledge in "real-time," thereby keeping the generated knowledge current and relevant. The Q&A method, which could be implemented in any group meeting situation, became one of the standard tools for obtaining quick answers from other employees according to the most urgent questions. The popularity of the initial assumptions of this period led to most companies implementing group knowledge-creation processes, such as communities of experts, by 2005. They also began to encourage the existence of groups whose role was to learn from mistakes made after implementing knowledge in the field (After Action Reviews). This was a working method to promote continuous learning within the group to refine and improve knowledge continuously. Additionally, expert maps helped employees identify where the person with the required expertise was located within the organization, an application that supported the exchange of information and knowledge between different units of the organization.

However, even after all this, certain limitations were still identified:

  1. It became pretty clear that knowledge was primarily transferred between peers and was mainly limited to other employees with whom the employee had regular contact.

  2. Knowledge management focused primarily on existing knowledge and attempted to generate information that represented the best output produced among expert communities. However, the method did not encourage the creation of new knowledge or original ideas.

Third Era: Leveraging Collective Knowledge

Companies engaged in developing collective knowledge are seeking new ways to involve the entire organization collectively in sharing knowledge on strategic issues. These organizations are working to implement collaborative knowledge processes in small or large groups, such as knowledge cafes, investigations following components that led to success, and search conferences. This is to bring together all levels of the organization for collaboration. Even management and team meetings or project meetings have become opportunities for dialogue on strategic issues that hinder organizational work processes. The new idea resonating beneath all this is that it is no longer possible to expect managers to have all the answers; instead, managers are primarily focused on holding meetings and conferences to find answers through group work. Some organizations prefer to use social applications such as Facebook and Twitter and Web 2.0 applications like blogs and wikis, which increase the transparency of internal organizational processes and bring a broader range of opinions and perspectives to the surface.

In Summary

Throughout the development of knowledge management, we can see how each era grew the concept's application within the organization based on previous understandings of existing barriers.

Each era brought a greater understanding of:

  • Where knowledge is located within the organization.

  • Why knowledge is so essential for the organization's success.

We can expect these perceptions to continue refining and evolving in the eras.


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