The KM elephant

As I talked to people at KM World this year and as I’ve worked with students in the CSUN KM program I’ve come to a greater realization that what KM means to me…is not what KM means to others.

I’m sure everyone is familiar with the story of the blind man and the elephant. In the story, a group of blind men touch an elephant to learn what it is like. Each one touches a different part such as the side, the ear, the trunk or the tusk. They then compare notes on what they felt, and learn they are in complete disagreement.

the KM elephant

In many ways this is an apt metaphor for KM.  I suspect that all of  us  have been exposed to or “touched” some version of KM.

As I have talked to people I’ve realized that to many…KM is that “part of the elephant” they have touched.  For some who were initially exposed to KM in the form of lessons learned and best practices – in other words documenting what you know so others can access it….KM is “lessons learned and best practices.”  For others who were initially exposed to KM through a lens of content management and search…they see KM as a variant of document and information management or perhaps semantic search, taxonomy and metadata.  Some see KM as communities of practice.  Some see KM as a very sophisticated search algorithm that allows you to find anything any time you need it.  And recently some see KM as what is termed Enterprise 2.0…or using social media tools such as wikis, blogs and Facebook type applications to tap into what the organization knows.

I was originally exposed to KM through the mentorship of Kent Greenes who left me with the view that KM is about… tapping into what others know so I can build on what they have done in order to do my job better.  This may involve talking to Subject Matter Experts, it may involve conducting a peer assist, an action review or a retrospect,  it may involve exploring lessons learned and documents, it may involve being engaged in a community of practice.  In other words…KM is no one thing…or one process…it is a system or perhaps more aptly termed an approach to understanding what we know so that we can build on in order to improve our overall performance.

What I want to do in this blog is to explore these various aspects of KM and see how they are adding value to organizations.  I also want to ask….is there potential for more value from KM if it is viewed as a system or an overall approach aimed at providing an organization the ability to leverage what it collectively knows in order to improve overall performance and to compete in this hyper-competitive knowledge based world.

What is your view – what is KM to you and to your organization?  And what are the tools and processes that you have found to be most effective to help you and your organization leverage what is known in order to improve overall performance?

10 Responses to The KM elephant

  1. Alan – very perceptive – I wrote a blog post last week with the same view – that people are seeing one aspect of KM, and assuming it’s the totality of the topic.

    If you are mentored by Kent, you will know that KM is a holistic viewpoint rather than a “one-size fits all”, and I feel a lot of the ideological battles being fought over KM are from people who have “felt opposite ends of the elephant”, or are looking at KM through a specific viewpoint.

  2. It seems KM evangelists have long held an enormously ambitious definition of the field ["espoused theory" not "theory in use"]. It is not surprising to find the Blind Men / Elephant syndrome still with us. A good corrective to top-down theorizing is to look at long term (say, over five years) success in a Darwinistic competitive struggle-for-survival, and start from there. What’s that you say? Not too many KM systems actually can pass that threshold? True, but some can. Time for some gentle skepticism.

  3. Alan, Good work on the video interviews, posted to YouTube. A follow-up question for other KM conferences (with a nod to David Snowden) is whether KM is alive and well, and living under that name, in private industry … or just government and academia? Time for KM to turn its supposed analytic K skills on itself, and do an exploratory Map of the Territory.

  4. Allan Crawford

    Dan….good question…and one that I want to address. Are companies practicing what I would term “stealth KM?” In other words are companies effectively applying KM tools and processes…but not calling them KM?

    Cisco may be an example of this. I just finished watching an outstanding video where Cisco’s CEO, John Chambers, talks about and demonstrates how they are using collaborative technologies to significantly improve business performance…and he indirectly talks about a lot of what we would think of as KM processes as having a role in this business improvement. Based on what I’ve seen…my hypothesis is that Cisco is one of the leading companies at using KM practices and processes to dramatically improve their business performance. What I’m seeing is that they are rapid replicating and leveraging good practices developed in one part of the organization to improve performance in other parts of the business. This is allowing them to rapidly accelerate things like successful acquisitions and implementation of new technologies…because they are learning, sharing and improving each time they do something (sounds like KM to me).

    I’ll be visiting Cisco in late February and will explore the idea of “stealth KM at Cisco” further. I’ll let you know what I discover. Let me know if you know of other companies we should be looking at – from the “stealth KM perspective.”

    Here is the link to the video. It’s a little long (60 min) … but well worth watching. I’d start at about the 39 min point where they do some demos…then go back and watch the first part of the video if you have the time.

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  8. Allan, there are many approaches, ranging from strategic to tactical, to introducing, implementing and embedding KM. The skill is in selecting the right approach or approaches for the group or organisation concerned – and one that is supportive of their business context, culture, aims and ambitions. The holistic viewpoint, mentioned in Nick’s posting, is key.

    KM by stealth (or what one might now call ‘the elephant in the room’ is often used where the language of KM is thought by the organisation concerned to be an initial barrier to entry. KM by stealth, for example using KM tools and techniques to support and enrich an existing business project or process, is but one way to ‘prove the concept’ for those concerned. Another is to implement via an exisiting change ambition, for example – a learning organisation. In essence, business improvement (impact and outcomes) via KM are more important than what they are called/labelled.

  9. Allan Crawford


    Thanks for the comment. I completely agree with you that there are many ways to introduce KM to an organization. You need to understand the business needs as well as what is culturally acceptable in the organization – then decide on the best approach. As Kent Greenes says “you need to meet the organization where they are at.” In other words figure what they want (and need) — then use that as a starting point for the KM effort.

    But – my point about the elephant wasn’t so much about the variety of potential starting points….as about how different people view KM. As I said some see it as document management…others see it as search and yet others as implementation of E 2.0 tools. The point I was trying to get across is that while each of these is potentially valuable (and a viable starting point for stealth km) many people only see KM as one of these elements…they miss the bigger picture…the whole elephant if you will.

    So what I’d like to explore…is there value in companies going beyond applying just one faciet of KM…regardless of where they begin? Is there value in getting KM practitioners and managers to see the whole KM elephant? And if there is…how as KM practitioners can we help make that happen?

  10. The problem of “KM Elephant” is rooted to how we look at Knowledge. The paradigm of Knowledge is dynamic in the human history. I agree with Art Schlussel’s statement ( ) : …What I mean by that last point is that the “KM” courses should not just be for and about KM. They may be embedded in other subject areas where KM methods, approaches, and techniques are discussed as an enabler to meet a broader goal such as business strategy development, organizational change, or innovation creation….

    Let’s take a look, in my view, some people right now beginning to realize and aware that Knowledge is no longer treated as Object but evolved as Subject having consciousness, free will (mind and value), active and dynamic. Knowledge evolved as emergent behavior in human as complex system.

    Considering the nature of knowledge just mentioned, I prefered using the word “evolved” rather than “created or captured” for Knowledge. Knowledge as Subject or as Self making KM is live and becoming central in (management) sciences. That is the main cause why until currently no KM definition accepted universally and why we’re mentioning KM as “Elephant”.

    Singularity phenomenon between human and technology when reaching its peak around 2012 making people turning from “Mind Brain” (Scientific Knowledge) towards “Consciousness DNA” (Knowledgeable Science). The essence of our problem in “Approach to KM Elephant” is in how we transforming “Scientific Knowledge” into “Knowledgeable Science”. The last one indeed showing the spirit of multi sectoral as well as multi disciplinary approach as Art Schlussel further mentioned … that the courses have a reach farther than just “KM”. Here, Social Constructivism (“Know Where”) learning leveraged with Social Media platform will be very prominent. On the other side, KM as human nurture, making reorientation towards the model of human body genome process as nature.


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