Wednesday, 13 August 2008

Business cards: a way of looking at KM

Back in grad school I had the option of either doing a thesis or take up 2 elective courses. At first I decided to do a thesis, and one of my teachers suggested I look into knowledge management (KM). I read up on the subject, hoping to find an area to narrow down to as the thesis's topic. I even went to an architectural firm to see if my ideas were researchable.

But the thesis never materialised. Time was limited and decided to just take the safe route. I signed up for two elective courses, business law and organisational change. I did not do well in either courses, but I did learn a lot.

At about the same time the school decided to introduce KM as a compulsory course. We were the first batch of students to take it. When the final results came, it seems that KM is not a very easy course after all. I was one of the lucky few who did well, and I owe to God because He pointed towards KM long before the others had even had any idea about it. The failed-to-materialised thesis was a blessing in disguise. I had a head start compared to the rest of the class. (I did felt like I was cheating a bit.)

So what is KM anyway? The textbook we used lists down at least a dozen definitions given by various experts.

The explanation I often use nowadays is that KM is about three main things: acquiring knowledge, sharing knowledge and using the knowledge. KM is a fascinating field because it is widely talked about while its actual definition is still being debated.

Some definitions tend to be more of IT-centric, suggesting the use of intranets, e-learning and content management system as KM approaches. Another school sees KM as technologically-independent, meaning KM can be applied without the use of high technology. Some even argue that companies do KM, but they just don't call it KM or even realise that it is KM. The discussion goes on.

One of the reasons why is a sticky subject is the way knowledge itself is defined. Here I'm referring to knowledge in the business context, knowledge in the workplace. The textbook I used describes knowledge as, "understanding gained through experience or study."

Another reason why KM isn't appealing for some people is because it proposes the notion that knowledge has a life cycle. Just the like bread and other food in our kitchen, knowledge will become obsolete at some point. Of course, let's remind ourselves that we're talking knowledge in the workplace and not knowledge in the general sense.

I find myself struggling with this too. We Muslims see knowledge as something that is divine and tawheedic. It is something that guides Man in his journey to the realm of the Hereafter. Picturing knowledge with expiration dates stamped on them doesn't seem right to me somehow.

However, recently I manage to see this point when I went through my collection of business cards given to me by friends and associates over the years. KM talks about knowledge that can useful for business. Not everything we know is useful. Here's what I discovered:
  • a trading company that my former classmate once set up. Today it's no longer in business
  • a friend's old business card, an employee of a medical supplies company. Since 2006, he's working somewhere else
  • another old friend. Still with the same company, but already promoted to a higher position.
At least 3 of the business cards need to be discarded. They are no longer useful. (I can still keep them if I want to make my wallet look thick.)

This may not be the greatest example, but it helps show why KM matters. Businesses need to look into their so-called knowledge stock, and see what's useful and what's not. This is more related the knowledge use part of KM, but KM is far wider than knowledge use. KM itself is broad and emerging (i.e. still developing) field that is both interesting and confounding at the same time.

How many business cards you need to discard from your wallet or purse?


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