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Is KM a Science? (Part 2 of 2)

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Is KM a Science? (Part 2 of 2)

Jan 20, 2016   |  By
Lesley Crane, PhD

Lesley Crane continues her discussion as to whether or not KM should be considered a science. . . Our survey results will be published next week.

Consequently, one can envisage that a scientific field is characterised by dominant theory, a body of appropriate research and knowledge, and a lively research agenda. From an academic perspective, the field of Knowledge Management possesses all of these characteristics.

True, some academics are critical of the lack of solid empirical research (but it does exist) in favour of what is termed ‘normative research’[1], or  research which proceeds from a hypothetical and idealistic future position, asking what needs to happen or change in order to reach it. What further muddies the waters are two interdependencies: first, KM undeniably draws on multiple diverse fields for its theories and approaches (e.g., information economics, organizational culture and behaviour, artificial intelligence[2]), and second, leading from this, it is a field that is broadly polarised between those who treat knowledge as an object (and consequently are concerned with process and technology), and those who treat it as embedded in social interaction between people (thus, it is resident in behaviour). By any measure, KM is something of a mongrel! None-the-less, KM – at least as far as the academic field is concerned – is practised as a science. More accurately, KM is an applied science: that is, a science which applies existing scientific knowledge to develop practical applications.

But, what does the scientific status of KM mean for KM practice, ignoring for the moment whether or not KM is actually practiced within organizations as such? First, and most obviously, it means that KM is a multidisciplinary practice calling on diverse talents in organizational management, human resource management and human / behavioural psychology, the cognitive sciences, project management, communications and, of course, IT/ICT, to name just a few. This conjures the KM practitioner as a multi-talented individual with exceptional adaptive skills.

Secondly, it places the enterprise of KM into the realm of dealing with the facts. Why is that important? Well, we frequently resort to ‘scientific talk’ in our everyday conversations in order to make our arguments more persuasive. “Empirical accounting”, as it is known in the terminology of discourse analysis, is known to have the effect of rendering accounts more credible and truthful[3].  From this high level perspective, simply acknowledging KM as a scientific practice imports levels of credibility and rigour that might otherwise be absent. But that would be, in reality, a rather superficial approach.

To truly leverage the benefits and values of KM as a field of science would obviously be to approach its practice in a scientific way. It would mean changing the way that strategies are developed and implemented from a reliance on ‘it worked for so-and-so’, to an adherence to formal and informal testing and trialling, adopting methods not only designed to deliver rigorous results, but results which are measurable in a meaningful way. And it means acknowledging that sometimes we can be wrong. But even results which don’t support our goals can be valuable[4]. That may sound counter-intuitive in terms of the ordinary workings of the organisation which typically frowns on error. In science, all results are meaningful and valuable, if derived from robust and valid research.

Treating KM as a science in practice also means acknowledging and acting on the understanding that sharing knowledge with other KM practitioners is vital to the development of the field of practice. That is, contributing to building the knowledge in the field. Without such co-operative and collaborative sharing one is simply working in a vacuum and people in vacuums have a habit of making it up as they go along, or of relying on repeating what has ‘worked in the past’.

One final implication of practising KM as a science speaks to the values and importance of formal qualifications and accreditations. It is true that the history and lore of KM is strewn with stories of individuals grasping the mettle and pulling off heroic feats of organizational knowledge accomplishment, all without any formal training or education in the topic. Fortunately, much of that valuable experience has been captured in books and articles. But I think of those individuals as the ‘early adopters’ of KM, and KM cannot and will not survive with an endless succession of would-be early adopters. What is needed now are knowledgeable and educated radical thinkers who can and are willing to shift the field from a vague but well-intentioned pseudo-management practice into a rigorous field and practice of scientifically-based management. As such, there is then the potential to build on successes, and to build a worthy and credible field of management and practice.

If the top agenda for C-Suite professionals is innovation and creativity, then perhaps it’s time to get innovative and creative with KM itself – in a scientific way, of course.

It's not too late to give your opinion!  Take our short, anonymous survey here:   Is KM a Science?


About the author: 

Lesley Crane PhD, MA, BSc Hons is a consultant and author specialising in organizational knowledge and learning. Her publications include reports of original empirical research in international peer-reviewed journals, and her book “Knowledge and Discourse Matters” is published this year by J Wiley & Sons. Lesley is also a reviewer for the Journal of Knowledge Management, and conference speaker.  Her track record as a consultant stretches back more than 20 years with the primary emphasis on blended learning, and organizational knowledge sharing behaviours. To find out more about Lesley’s work, please visit: www.knowing-how.com

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