Lack of a Universal Definition of Knowledge Management

Before discussing specific failure factors, I want to touch upon an issue that KM has faced since its conception: the lack of a commonly accepted definition. Although this is not usually listed specifically as a failure factor, it is widely recognized as a problem within the field and it is something that affects every study, discussion, or recommendation within KM.

According to Michael Sutton (2007: 1):

KM does not appear to possess the qualities of a discipline. If anything, KM qualifies as an emerging field of study. Those involved in the emerging field of KM are still vexed today by the lack of a single, comprehensive definition, an authoritative body of knowledge, proven theories, and a generalized conceptual framework.

There are a couple of reasons for this. First, there is little consensus regarding what knowledge actually is (Mika, 2004:1). Some regard knowledge as being virtually synonymous with information, while others incorporate concepts such as experience, know-how, know-what, understanding, values, etc. At the risk of generalisation, the former approach tends to be more common in IT dominated circles while the latter is more prevalent in business management literature.

Second, KM has a wide range of contributors from different fields, industries, and so on, which further perpetuates different understandings of what the term actually means. Onyancha and Ocholla (2009: 2) identify the following disciplines as being the greatest contributors to, or users of KM: computer science, business, management, library and information science, engineering; psychology, multidisciplinary science, energy and fuels, social sciences, operation research and management science, and planning and development.

To illustrate some of the differences in the definition of KM, compare the following three definitions with the one I selected for this paper in the previous section:

  1. GMI Market Research Terms (2013): Knowledge management "is a system that affords control, dissemination, and usage of information. This is often a Net-enabled corporate initiative.
  2. "Knowledge Based Solutions, Definition of Terms (2002): "Knowledge Management is a set of processes used to effectively use a knowledge system to locate the knowledge required by one or more people to perform their assigned tasks."
  3. Skyrme (2011b): "Knowledge Management is the explicit and systematic management of vital knowledge - and its associated processes of creation, organisation, diffusion, use and exploitation - in pursuit of business objectives."

I chose these three definitions because they represent largely incompatible views. In reality, I could have selected from literally dozens and dozens of KM definitions, all of which regard the discipline somewhat differently.

Looking at the definitions above, the most striking aspect should be that definition 1 does not even mention the word “knowledge”. According to that definition, KM is an information focused technological discipline. It should also be apparent that definition 2, although more nuanced than definition 1, is still far narrower in scope and far more technology-dependent than Skyrme's definition (no. 3), while at the same time also lacking the strategic element that Skyrme implies through the term "vital" knowledge.

The problem with a lack of a common definition is that each KM initiative could, in theory, have widely different goals, scope, and success criteria. The differences are so great that to even talk of KM failures or successes is potentially misleading. Moreover, if there is a lack of understanding as to what knowledge or KM represents within the firm itself, it is easy to see how problems, misunderstandings, and widely different expectations could arise.

Therefore, when dealing with KM, keep in mind that before when you are faced with results, advice, theories, etc. it is imperative to first understand what the author meant by knowledge management. Secondly, whenever you deal with KM in your organization, make sure everyone is on the same page as to what KM is and hopes to achieve.

For a deeper discussion, I will be adding an article on Failure Factors in Knowledge Management in the near future.


Alan Frost M.Sc., 2014

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