The search for legitimacy for Knowledge Management

The legitimacy of the many practices collected under the Knowledge Management umbrella, such as Lessons Learned and After Action Reviews is accepted and frequently references in many contexts. Many of these practices are included in methodologies, such as project management frameworks. The ability to learn from failures and successes is regarded as being part of progressive leadership in an organisation (see recent articles in the Harvard Business Review). We also read frequently in business literature about the virtues of effective thinking skills, the need for the orchestration of collaboration, improvement of decision-making and facilitation and development of innovation readiness (incl creative thinking skills). One could ask then why is it that the Knowledge Management professional feel they still need to fight for strategic relevance and support in organisations? Why the ongoing search or legitimacy?

What is the then the legitimacy concern pertaining to Knowledge Management? When asking this question, one response could well be that “KM is dead”. Another response could be that KM is now embedded in our way of working, and not regarded as a distinct and separate function in our organisation anymore. There may still be KM professionals in dedicated roles, and often then found in a ‘Centre of Excellence’. But the organisation does not practice Knowledge Management as such.

legitimacyIf we look at the definitions of legitimacy in the picture on the left, the practices encapsulated in KM is regarded as valid. We are acting and competing in a Knowledge Economy and thus knowledge practices should be expected to be valued.  And in some contexts (such as Project Management) certain knowledge practices are rule driven and there is a sense of conformity, as it is embedded in the requirements of methodologies.

Which brings me back to the question. What is the then the legitimacy concern pertaining to Knowledge Management? APQC defines KM as a systemic effort.  And that is the legitimacy the KM community is looking for – the recognition, validation and requirement of a systemic approach – such as systemic management of HR, Finances and facilities (and other core resources and functions).  This is supported by questions such as what has happened to the Chief Knowledge Officer or Director of Knowledge Management? Others voice their concerns and frustrations that KM is often seen and practices on an operational and maybe tactical level that fails on a strategic level.

The development of ISO standards for Knowledge Management will provide an argument, framework and instrument to legitimise Knowledge Management as a systemic approach by means of compliance to principles and requirements. It is expected that these standards should underpin conformity and validity for Knowledge Management as a systemic effort. Will this be enough? My understanding is also that these standards will be more descriptive, and not prescriptive. It will, however, provide a reputable reference as being an ISO standard. It could provide the substance for (more comprehensive) inclusion in strategic plans, likewise as Quality Management.

I am also pondering what this would mean if KM is reduced to a compliance-driven effort? Will we see the same kind of discussion that you see in Quality Management? What can we learn from Quality Management? Is this referral to Quality Management even valid? I realise I am framing, and would appreciate your input in providing relevant frames for the discussion.

I am looking forward to the discussion about the meaning, contribution and potential value of ISO standards in KM in our Knowledge Hangout tomorrow with Paul Corney, Kholane Chauke & Refiloe Mabaso.

In a next post I will reflect on another dimension of legitimacy that is found in a professional society and/or community of practice. Other questions that are also raised include asking if there can be a standard for a field that is still evolving?


A related discourse is about Certification in KM.  Stan Garfield asks:  Are you certifiable in knowledge management?  This piece includes many aspects to also consider when discussion standards for KM.