of the American Society for Information Science and Technology     Vol. 28, No. 3      February / March 2002


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Hot Topics

Knowledge Management A Practice Still Defining Itself

by Claire McInerney

Claire McInerney is affiliated with SCILS at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, 4 Huntington St., New Brunswick, NJ 08901-1834; 732/932-7590; clairemc@scils.rutgers.edu.

Editor's Note: Among the many special features at the 2001 ASIST Annual Meeting was a panel session featuring Hot Topics in the world of information science and technology. In the last issue of the Bulletin of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, two of the presentations were featured. In this issue, we present the final two papers from that session.

Knowledge management (KM) has become a standard practice in industry, but for government agencies, information centers, libraries and non-governmental organizations it is still a fairly new concept. KM can be defined as an effort to make accessible and share not only explicit factual information but also the tacit knowledge that exists in an organization in order to advance the organization's mission. This information is usually based on the experience and learning of individual employees. The eventual goal is to share knowledge among workers in the spirit of learning, renewal and innovation. We might ask if KM is just a new name for what librarians have been doing throughout history (DiMattia & Oder, 1997). However, the dynamic nature of knowledge transfer can be seen as an involved, spiral-like process that ranges between tacit and explicit knowledge on one continuum and from the individual to the organization on another (Nonaka & Takeuchi, 1995).


Some trace KM to the European documentalists of the late 19th and early 20th century, who had social and cultural goals in gathering and organizing representations of knowledge (Buckland, 1991, 1997; Day, 2001). In recent years, though, KM has been embraced by organizations because of the shortage of knowledge workers. Companies have found that there is a greater demand for these workers than there are people available to fill jobs. This shortage of labor in businesses that rely on knowledge creates another problem. With workers in demand, employees can easily leave one organization and seek a better salary and perquisites in a new position. Organizations have seen many of their brightest and most knowledgeable individuals walk away, taking the knowledge they have developed with them. Although knowledge is a highly personal attribute embedded within the individual, firms have come to think of knowledge as an organizational asset with sustainable competitive advantage (Davenport & Prusak, 1998).

Personal Knowledge and Organizational Knowledge

Clearly, knowledge resides within the person, but when learning takes place in a work context, it is reasonable to think that others could benefit through shared knowledge. However, the judgments, experience and accumulated learning that form the foundation of knowledge are all intangibles. In order for the knowledge to be shared, it must be in a form to which colleagues can have access. Knowledge sharing can take place through conversations or interviews, written reports of "lessons learned," best practices documents, taped presentations and transcribed discussions. When the exchange of knowledge or elicited knowledge is fixed in a document, loosely defined as physical or written evidence of an idea or concept (Briet, 1951; Buckland, 1997), then one can think of this entity as a knowledge object or knowledge artifact. In a KM program objects or artifacts usually reside in an electronic repository of some kind so that all members of an organization can have access to the knowledge they represent.

The Human Element

It would be a mistake to think that effective KM is just a database or other technological platform. Certainly, the person-to-person nature of KM is the key to mutual learning, but in vendor literature and trade journals, KM is often portrayed as a new network-based system. Organizations like Hewlett-Packard (Davenport, 1998), Chevron (Allee, 1997), Ernst and Young (Davenport, 1997), Bain, and Andersen Consulting (Hansen, et al., 1999) use technology to transfer knowledge, but other methods are also effective. For example, developing an organizational "yellow pages" that describes areas of expertise and makes contacting the expert easy is a simple but functional method to help in knowledge exchange. Other processes commonly used in knowledge management are

    n identifying communities of practice;

    n creating profiles of research or project interest so that new reports or information can be "pushed" to those interested;

    n offering employees collaboration tools, such as Group Decision Support Systems and giving training in how to use them;

    n organizing informal exchange opportunities where co-workers can present projects in process or lessons learned; and

    n incorporating "lessons learned" reports into routine business practices.

Figure 1 identifies a number of KM processes centered in the goal of continuous organizational learning.

KM is still defining itself because the body of theoretical literature and research in this area is small, but growing. Will organizations develop and maintain KM programs as the world changes and the global economy fluctuates? The interest and commitment of organizational leaders will influence this decision, and if KM does endure, all practitioners hope that scholars, writers and information professionals will continue to strengthen the theoretical basis of the field through study and dialogue.

For Further Reading

KM  general

Davenport, Thomas H. & Prusak, Laurence. (1998). Working knowledge: How organizations manage what they know. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

DiMattia, Susan & Oder, Norman. (1997, September 15). Knowledge management: Hope, hype, or harbinger? Library Journal, 122 (15), 33-36.

Hansen, Morten T., Nohria, Nitin, & Tierney, Thomas. (1999, March-April). What's your strategy for managing knowledge? Harvard Business Review, 77 (2), 106-116.

McInerney, Claire & LeFevre, Darcy. (2000). Knowledge managers. In Craig Pritchard, Richard Hull, Mike Chumer, & Hugh Willmott (Eds.). Managing knowledge: Critical investigations of work and learning . London: Macmillan Business.

Nonaka, Ikujiro & Takeuchi, Hirotaka. (1995). The knowledge creating company. NY: Oxford University Press.

On the Nature of Documents and Information

Briet, Suzanne. (1951). Qu'est-ce que la documentation. Paris: EDIT. Translated by, Ronald E. Day, Wayne State University and Laurent Martinet, Paris. http://www.lisp.wayne.edu/~ai2398/briet.htm Accessed October 26, 2001.

Buckland, Michael. (1997, September). What is a document? The Journal of the American Society of Information Science, 48 (9), 804-809.

Buckland, Michael. (1991, June). Information as thing. Journal of the American Society of Information Science, 42 (5), 351-360.

Day, Ronald E. (2001) . The modern invention of information: Discourse, history, and power. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.

Case Studies in KM

Allee, Verna. (1997, April). Chevron maps key processes and transfers best practices. Knowledge, Inc. http://www.webcom.com/quantera/Chevron.html. Accessed October 3, 2001.

Davenport, Thomas H. (1997). Knowledge Management at Ernst & Young, 1997. http://www.bus.utexas.edu/kman/E&Y.htm. Accessed October 10, 2001.

Davenport, Thomas H. (1998). Knowledge Management at Hewlett-Packard, Early 1996. http://www.bus.utexas.edu/kman/hpcase.htm. Accessed October 10, 2001.

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