What knowledge should be managed?

A recent Harvard Business Review blog post discusses how strategic relevance should be the yardstick for determing what knowledge assets are  important to retain, protect and share. In most companies I have come across, management files and hard drives are brimming with  information that individuals have decided should be retained, apart from any formal records management process.

Knowledge management and records management can be related but are very different functions. The former focuses on information that must be known and understood within an organization, to help ensure its success.

The problem with most knowledge management systems, the HBR post points out, is that,

“… most current knowledge management efforts merely inventory the company’s knowledge, without parsing out the knowledge that is strategically relevant. Strategic management of knowledge focuses only on those knowledge assets that are critical to your firm’s competitive performance — from the tacit expertise of key individuals right through to explicit company-wide general principles.”

Knowledge can be defined across two dimensions: It can be tacit or explict, or uncodified or codified. The post’s authors explain the differences as follows:

“Highly tacit knowledge embodies deep, almost intuitive understanding that is hard to articulate and explain to others, and is rooted in concrete experience. Over time, much of this tacit knowledge can be made more codified, and therefore more easily shared and understood by others…. The second dimension maps the extent to which knowledge has diffused to others. Undiffused knowledge is possessed by only a few people, highly diffused knowledge is shared by many others and, by implication, is accessible to competitors. Diffusion is in two forms: bounded diffusion, where knowledge has not diffused beyond the people in your firm, and unbounded diffusion, where knowledge is available to other organizations.”

As discussed in many management classes, another aspect or dimension of knowledge is its level of abstraction – some knowledge is very concrete, while other knowledge is very abstract. (If you’d like to read a good academic discussion of this subject, see Max Boisot’s 1998 book,  Knowledge Assets, Securing competitive advantage in the information economy, Oxford University Press.)

The post’s authors contend that, “strategic knowledge mapping identifies the knowledge you should be investing in, holding on to, sharing with others — customers, suppliers, joint venture partners, etc. — or letting go, and how to go about it. Without a strategic knowledge map, costly investments in knowledge often remain ill-informed and misdirected.”

Food for thought: What is the critical knowledge within your organization or industry that needs to be codified, shared and understood internally, or held close, to help your company achieve its business goals?

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