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Is KM a Science? The Verdict

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Is KM a Science? The Verdict

Feb 10, 2016   |  By
Lesley Crane, PhD

We recently featured a two-part article by Lesley Crane, considering the question of whether knowledge management is a science.  (Part I, Part II)  Alongside the article, we included an open survey asking readers what they think.  This caused quite a stir, and we had 186 responses in total. So, what did the community think on this question? 

Lesley’s Analysis

The headline news is that a clear majority – nearly 57% - consider KM to be a science, more than the naysayers (24%) and those not sure (19%) combined. Even more telling, of the 184 participants who shared their view on how such an accepted scientific status might impact on the practice of KM, a further clear majority (78%) thought that this would be positive. Impacts included increased support from top management (just over half), greater access to funding (more than a third), more credibility (57%), improved understanding and support from the workforce (just under half), and access to better facilities and resources (again, more than a third). That is pretty convincing, and paints a positive and beneficial perspective of scientific practices. But also, in contrast, suggests a professional discipline that is not getting the support it deserves or needs.

So, who were these participants? Almost half of them claimed to have the term ‘knowledge’ in their job title, with over 40% working at Director or Senior Manager level, and the rest at Manager or Team Leader level. Interestingly two-thirds of all 178 respondents to the question of how they got into KM came through formal study / qualification or had received work-based training. The picture that emerges is of a professional practice operating at senior or middle management level, most of who could be very nearly described as vocationally motivated. Moreover, there is the strong suggestion that KM could and would be so much more – if it had the right level of support from management and workforce, for instance. A scientific status might just help to accomplish this.

Survey participants were also given the opportunity to leave a comment, with almost half doing so – quite a large proportion. It is to these comments that I particularly turned my attention and analysis. First, I categorised them into ‘unambiguously positive’ (49%), ‘unambiguously negative’ (26%) or just plain ‘ambiguous’ (25%). Then I looked to see what primary themes were invoked in support of whichever cause the commentators pinned their colors to. The case of those who dispute the scientific status of KM is interesting.

First, those arguing against the scientific status of KM propose that, while KM might well draw on multiple science fields, this does not make it a science in its own right. Now, decades ago, many scientists might have agreed with that: multi-disciplinary was, to the purists, a dirty word, and not to be trusted. So, one observation that can be drawn is that those arguing for the non-scientific status of KM hold a rather traditional – even old-fashioned - view of science. This perspective plays out in the deeper analysis of the commentary: for instance, one commentator expresses the notion that KM may be built on the knowledge sciences with those principles applied in practice, but this does not qualify the practice of KM as scientific. I disagree: it qualifies KM as an applied science (see the original discussion - Part I, Part II). Another perspective suggests that because KM deals with human behaviour, this disqualifies it as a science. I know a whole lot of psychologists who would disagree with that one!

Cherry picking from some of the other negative comments, we find that KM is not a science because: it deals with qualitative not quantitative data.  (Ahem! Quite a substantial part of social sciences, for example, deal with qualitative stuff – my own work included); that behavioural sciences are not proper sciences (that sort of talk would cause a lot of behavioural scientists to pull on their fighting gloves); and KM has no body of knowledge or theory to call its own so it can’t be a science. On the latter point, I would point to the tens of thousands of academic publications in dozens of professional journals devoted to the discipline of KM, and its multitude of theory – so much that I have argued elsewhere that there is simply too much. Other commentators suggest that KM is no more than a theory (sic!), best practice, a methodology, or even just a culture. In contrast, I would suggest that not only is KM all of those things, but it is precisely these attributes amongst others which qualify KM as a science in its own right.

On the other side of the debate, those commentators who support KM as a science can be broadly grouped into three main themes:

  • first, that KM is an art and a science; 
  • second, that it is a complex social science or that it draws on various sciences; 
  • third, that it is KM’s practices and methods which make it a science (e.g., harnessing and synthesising knowledge from diverse sources, measuring performance to inform knowledge of process, the study of structures and behaviours)

In other words, exactly the opposite to the arguments made by the naysayers. What I find revelatory about this is the richness of description of a professional practice which largely puts humans front and center, and which is dedicated to designing, mediating, customising and nurturing environments with the sole purpose of ensuring the best engagement of people and the highest productivity. 

Good analysts should always attend to what is not there, as much as what is. At this point the lightning bolt hit! Bang! A very nearly complete absence of “technology” in any of the comments! To understand why this is so astounding, know that the debate over the role – and culpability in failure – of technology in the context of KM initiatives has been a furious one in the academic literatures for decades.  It has also long been mythologised that the key skill of the knowledge manager is a native fluency in Sharepoint! Not according to the participants in this survey. Or if it is, it is not worth talking about.

I could draw many competing points of conclusion here. But, I think the most important one is of an emerging renaissance in the field of KM as both a field and practice deeply rooted in scientific endeavour, and which is no longer hall-marked by an insistence for technology as its defining characteristic. That, I would argue, is in no small part due to the increase in training and education within the practice itself.


Lesley Crane PhD, MA, BSc Hons is a consultant and author specialising in organizational knowledge, learning and innovation. 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. To find out more about Lesley’s work, please visit: www.knowing-how.com.

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