4.3 Knowledge Management as a Discipline

4.3 Knowledge Management as a Discipline

          Is knowledge management (KM) a discipline or just a subset of the information systems domain or a subset of the organizational behavior community? In this section we will try to address such questions which are commonly discussed among the international academic community.

          We will start this discussion with some statements from Sutton (2007) paper: “KM, as an emerging field, is quite young ... Anecdotally, the formal birth of this emerging field was ascribed by Beckman (1999) to have taken place when Karl Wiig originated the term at a 1986 United Nations International Labour Organization conference in Geneva, Switzerland. On the other hand, Koenig and Srikantaiah (2000) have located an earlier use of the term in Marchand (1985). Some academics believe that KM has almost achieved the status of a discipline (Jennex, et al., 2005; Ponzi, 2004; Stankosky, 2005). Most academics as well as practitioners agree that the term was poorly defined and ambiguously described (Den Hertog & Huizenga, 2000; Dixon, 2000).”

          Similar kind of concerns are reviled by Grossman (2006): “KM is still not considered appropriate as an integral component of the undergraduate IS [Information System] curriculum; rather it is more prevalent in optional courses or those covering advanced topics, and integrated into the curriculum at the graduate level. The sluggish adoption of KM into mainstream academia is countered by an increasing demand for KM professionals in the marketplace. Examination of several web resources reveals the emergence of new professional categories and job titles related to KM and a growing certification industry.” This sluggish adoption of KM into mainstream academia may be due to the absence of a common consensus about the full scope of knowledge management.  De Long & Seemann (2000, p. 43) believe such issues are very normal because “Knowledge management is an inherently complex and confusing concept” which is causing difference of opinion among KM community.

          For example, Wellman (2009) limits the scope of KM to lessons learnt and the techniques employed for the management of what is already known. He argues that knowledge creation is often perceived as a separate discipline and generally falls under innovation management.  Bukowitz and Williams (1999) take a broader approach and link KM to organizational tactical and strategic requirements. They consider KM mainly focuses on the use and enhancement of intellectual assets to enable the organization to respond to contemporary challenges. Taking a process based approach, Davenport & Prusak (2000) argue "KM is managing the corporation's knowledge through a systematically and organizationally specified process for acquiring, organizing, sustaining, applying, sharing and renewing both the tacit and explicit knowledge of employees to enhance organizational performance and create value."  This definition ignores the importance of embedded knowledge which is equally important for achieving organizational goals.

          Looking at such differences, in their paper Despres & Chauvel (1999) write a clairvoyant phrase about KM: “Knowledge Management is clearly on the slippery slope of being intuitively important but intellectually elusive…”.  Wilson (2002) gone one step ahead and shown his doubts about the future of KM: “…Some [KM] techniques fail, or at least are dropped from the repertoire, because they are Utopian in character … Knowledge management (whatever it is) also shows signs of being offered as a Utopian ideal and the results are likely to be similar.”

          However, such comments could not shake the confidence of the international community, as some empirical results demonstrate the hidden potential of KM.  For example, a survey conducted between 1999 and 2003 by Swiss accounting firm KPMG (2003) of the business leaders of the top 500 organizations in the UK, France, Germany, and the Netherlands produces rather sobering results. In this survey KPMG concludes that the practice of KM in the public and private sectors was approaching a high maturity level. However, business leaders reported that although they considered knowledge a strategic asset (80%), almost the same percentage of respondents felt they were missing out on business opportunities because they had failed to exploit their organizations' available knowledge. The respondents identify a pressing need to acquire methodologies and tools to exploit these key knowledge domains across processes and business functions critical to their enterprise. This requirement was underscored by the lack of employee skills and competencies in the capability to successfully conceptualize, exploit, manage, and implement KM projects, i.e., the lack of an experienced and educated workforce that understood and could direct the management of knowledge in their enterprises (KPMG, 2003). This shows that KM is being considered seriously among the international business community.

          Similarly, the scope of KM has also been considered seriously among the academic community. Talking about KM position as an independent discipline,  Spiegler (2000) argues that “KM is a discipline in its own right. It is based on new technologies, methodologies, and theories proposed and used by the KM community”. Sutton (2002) argues that “KM appears to fit quite appropriately into the undergraduate and graduate curriculum of a business, management, and library and information science curricula. KM demonstrates a pervasive quality and impacts all fields and disciplines. All three schools, although founded on totally different paradigms, theories, and conceptual frameworks, need to establish priorities to bridge the gaps in KM teaching and research instead of maintaining traditional silos of knowledge. Too many university departments waste time haggling over which school will get credit for a student in an interdisciplinary program. There is a significant business value proposition for building a joint interdisciplinary curriculum.” However, Al-Hawamdeh (2005) and Stankosky (2005) argue that if we assume that KM is interdisciplinary, then it should draw upon a suite of other topics, fields, and disciplines in order to activate its value to the organization.

          Before we proceed further it is important to address the question “what is an academic discipline?”  According to Webster a discipline is a “field of study”.  A ‘field of study’ or an ‘academic discipline’ is what universities create on the basis of their importance to society. Therefore, only a university can legitimize an academic discipline. If KM is considered as a discipline, it has to go mainstream, which meant, in university terms, that it has to be a degree-granting program. Without that, no one would be seriously considering it as an independent discipline. If we consider this analogy true then there are many universities around the globe offering degree programs in knowledge management.   These programs not only emphasize on management/operational aspect, leveraging relevant knowledge assets to improve organization performance with emphasis on improving efficiency, effectiveness, and innovation, but also adopt a balanced approach to create an effective body of knowledge which creates a working relationship between these basic pillars of KM and knowledge processes including knowledge creation, knowledge use, knowledge transfer, knowledge codification, knowledge generation, knowledge assurance, etc.  So, KM - as many other believe like Jennex, et al., (2005), Ponzi (2004), Stankosky (2005), Jennex & Croasdell (2007), etc -  can be declared as an academic discipline.

          Let’s test this assertion through Kuhn’s (1996) criteria that are being used to define a discipline. These criteria are:

  • Formation of specialized journals,
  • Foundation of professional societies (or specialized interest groups [SIGs] within societies),
  • Claim to a special place in academia (and academia’s curriculum),
  • An accepted body of knowledge for group members to build upon, eliminating having to build their field anew with each paper, and
  • Promulgation of scholarly articles intended for and addressed only to professional colleagues, those whose knowledge of a shared paradigm can be assumed and who prove to be the only ones able to read the papers addressed to them (i.e., a specialized ontology).

          We can see knowledge management completely fulfills these criteria. Knowledge management has its own specialized journals, professional societies, and academic curricula, accepted body of knowledge as well as promulgation of scholarly articles.   

          There is another important aspect of knowledge management. In recent years, researchers from KM domain are increasingly conscious about the quality of their work and trying seriously to make KM a serious subject rather a management fashion wave (Subramani, Nerur  & Mahapatra, 2002; Swan, 2004; Zhu, 2006; Serenko & Bontis, 2009; Serenko, Bontis & Grant, 2009). However, Despres (2011) suggested that “Knowledge age” has raised many challenges for academician and professional to operationalize the essential and surrounding factors of knowledge management in an intellectually coherent way.       

          Despite above skepticism, KM has continued its journey and emerged as a promising field in academic as well as business community. Researchers & professionals around the globe remain committed to explore its hidden potential.  Reviewing global KM community efforts, Subramani, Nerur & Mahapatra (2003) identify 8 schools of thought emerged between 1990 to 2002:

  • Innovation and Change,
  • Knowledge as Firm Capability,
  • Organizational Information Processing,
  • Learning Organization,
  • KM Practices,
  • Philosophy of Knowledge,
  • Situated Learning, Communities of Practice,
  • Knowledge Communication, Transfer and Replication

Figure 3 shows this multidimensional scaling map of intellectual positions in Knowledge Management from 1990 to 2002-2002.

Image is available in printed copy of the book

          This difference of thoughts would not be consider as an issue because knowledge management can be viewed from different perspectives; techno-centric view focuses on technologies, ideally those that enhance knowledge sharing & growth, frequently any technology that does fancy stuff with information. Theoretical view concentrates on the underlying concepts of knowledge and truth. People view engages on bringing people together and helping them exchange knowledge. Process view endeavors on the processes of knowledge creation, transmission, transformation, and others. The core of these differences is that there are too many bases, too many starting points. Social scientist, technologist, librarian, management gurus all bring different perspectives, context and understanding about the scope of KM. This is causing conflicting opinions and incompatible idea and different levels of expectations.  

          Despite the underlying conflicting opinion, incompatible expectations and conceptual confusions, at the turn of the Century KM not only emerges in the academic arenas as a serious disciple but also embraces in the business community as a competitive strategy. It’s increasing scope and rapidity that grip life in the 21st Century is an encouraging sign. However, we must not forget that the transition periods are always messy, confusing and transforming.

          Despres (2011) makes it further clear: “…due to its lack of theoretical foundations and disciplinary mechanisms, the “field” of Knowledge Management (KM) now qualifies as a multidisciplinary  intersection of rather disparate interests, intellects and applications. This is disappointing to the academics and practitioners who expected more when the idea first surfaced some 25 years ago ... more in terms of post-modern organizations and enlightened human interaction, more in terms of knowledge economics, more in terms of knowledge-centric societies. More, in short, of a new field that would institutionalize convergence so as to set new research agendas, define new problematics and identify new practices for the new millennium”.

          He further comments, “KM has not distinguished itself from its tributary disciplines (20 or more), all of which approach “knowledge” and “management” in their own peculiar ways. There is no theory of economics, organization, systems or human interaction specific to KM. There are no technologies, applications, practices or prescriptions specific to KM. There are, however, abundant signs of disciplinarity: when convenient we find individuals, theories and practices from various perspectives disembarking to discuss organizational schemes and human interaction contingent on the wicked problem of knowledge in the postmodern age …”

          He further explains “… knowledge have always been at the center of work, management and organization in contemporary social science. That fundamental constructs began to change in the mid-20th Century is clear; how they have been refined and focused by KM is less clear. We are now some 40 years forward from Bell’s clarion call (The Coming of Post-Industrial Society, 1968), and 25 years out from Zuboff’s map of the intellectual landscape (In the Age of the Smart Machine, 1984). The deeper currents of Modernity and Postmodernity have underlain these and related works from the 1950’s onward. From this perspective the general observation is that KM surfaced in academic ar-nas circa 1990 as the offspring of endogenous developments in kindred areas (ICT, economics, sociology, organization theory, communication, management …), and its twenty years of interdisciplinary discussion is little more than a blip on the academic clock. Is it unreasonable to expect more from a young and applied field of study? Perhaps, but there are encouraging signs on the horizon.” (Despres, 2011).

          Apart from encouraging result there are some barriers which are restricting KM popularity. Through an international survey of 431 senior executives Earnest & Young (1996) tried to explore these barriers which are still applicable and valid. These barriers are:

Organizational culture  80%
Lack of ownership 64%
Information & Communication Technology 55%
Non-standardized processes 53%
Organization Structure 54%
Top management commitment 46%
Individual vice Team Emphasis 45%
Staff turnover 20%

                   Similarly some other studies (Hariharan & Cellular, 2005; Dixon, 2000) identify some addition pitfalls of KM which are also related much to management or culture issues, for example:

  • Treating KM as a "nice to have / OK not to have" initiative
  • Inability to focus on the vital areas of business goals
  • Building up a large repository without relevance to business goals
  • No measurement of KM plans
  • Lack of robust process for knowledge sharing – leaving it to chance
  • Staff unwilling to share or "copy"
  • Knowledge champions do not have time
  • Heavy reliance on technology
  • Treating KM as replacement for people
  • Unwillingness to invest in KM specialists / CKO
  • "Build it and they will come" strategy
  • Belief in "technology can replace face-to-face"
  • Emphasis on first creating a learning culture.

           Although the above listed factors are by no means exhaustive (Rollett, 2003), yet they helps us to identify the key concern areas which KM has to addressed as an academic discipline.        Broadly speaking these areas can be cluster under following titles: culture, knowledge, leadership, technology, and management. These areas are almost the same which Baldanza & Stankosky (2000) has declared as the pillars of knowledge management and defined as: 

  • Leadership / management: Leadership develops business and operational strategies to survive and position for success in today’s dynamic environment. Those strategies determine vision, and must align knowledge management with business tactics to drive the value of KM throughout the enterprise. Focus must be placed on building executive support and KM champions. A successful implementation of a knowledge management system requires a champion or leader at or near the top of an organization who can provide the strong and dedicated leadership needed for cultural change.
  • Organization: The value of knowledge creation and collaboration should be intertwined throughout an enterprise. Operational processes must align with the KM framework and strategy, including all performance metrics and objectives. While operational needs dictate organizational alignment, a KM system must be designed to facilitate KM throughout the organization.
  • Technology: Technology enables and provides the entire infrastructure and tools to support KM within an enterprise. As cultural and organizational changes are vital to achieving a KM strategy, a lack of the proper tools and technology infrastructure can lead to failure. Any technical solution must add value to the process and achieve measurable improvements. Properly assessing and defining IT capabilities is essential, as is identifying and deploying best-of breed KM software and IT tools to match and align with the organization’s requirements.
  • Learning: The best tools and processes alone will not achieve a KM strategy. Ultimately, people are responsible for using the tools and performing the operations. Creating organizational behavior that supports a KM strategy will continue long after the system is established. Organizational learning must be addressed with approaches such as increasing internal communications, promoting cross-functional teams and creating a learning community. Learning is an integral part of knowledge management. In this context, learning can be described as the acquisition of knowledge or a skill through study, experience or instruction. Enterprises must recognize that people operate and communicate through learning that includes the social processes of collaborating, sharing knowledge and building on each other’s ideas. Managers must recognize that knowledge resides in people, and knowledge creation occurs in the process of social interaction and learning.

          Hariharan & Cellular (2005) have revisited this model and added some other aspects that must be covered in any KM degree programs. These aspects include Leadership, people & culture; Relevance to business; Measurement of KM; KM processes & technology.

          In the light of above discussion we can conclude that KM is not only an independent discipline, but can also be integrated in other disciplines as a value added sub-discipline.  


Figure 3: A multidimensional scaling map of intellectual positions in Knowledge Management, 1990-2002 (adopted from Subramani, Nerur & Maha-patra, 2003)