Knowledge Management is Older than you Think

I have puzzled for some time over the seemingly intractable nature of knowledge management, the confusions it is perpetually susceptible to, and its apparent inability to progress. I have also wondered at its ability to survive with such a disappointing performance.

This month I have a lead article in the Journal of Knowledge Management entitled “The Unacknowledged Parentage of Knowledge Management”, exploring the pre-history of KM, going back to the 1960s (you didn’t know it was that old, did you?). I have tried to show that a lot of the theoretical foundations (not to mention half a century of practical experience) of KM already exist, but are not exploited within the discipline – KM does not practice what it preaches, it does not sustain collective memory of its own discipline, and it does not share insights with adjacent and related disciplines.

If you don’t have access to the JKM, but would like to see a copy of the article, drop me a note in the comments to this post, or drop me an email. Your comments and feedback would be appreciated!

23 Comments so far

Atle Iversen

I agree 100% with you - in a discipline where *knowledge* is a key word, most people seem to be surprisingly ignorant of the past; and disappointingly unwilling to try to improve the future…

Regarding knowledge workers, I think Peter Drucker nailed it a long time ago, and not much has improved since then.

I’m especially irritated when I hear that “you can’t manage knowledge” and “you can’t write down the knowledge inside your brain” etc.

The amount of human knowledge collected in Wikipedia is incredible, and we’ve all spent *many* years in school trying to learn what people before us had learned and written down for our benefit ! You can’t write down *everything*, but you sure can write down a lot of stuff that other people can use.

I’ve tried to “practice what I preach” by writing my thoughts on the next step in Knowledge Management in a blog series:


At least I’m *trying* to move KM a little bit forward (whether I succeed or not) grin

I would very much like to see a copy of the article, please (you got my e-mail).

Thanks for the reminder - we’re standing on the shoulders of giants !

Posted on March 29, 2011 at 06:40 PM | Comment permalink


As a ‘newbie’ to the KM world but an old hand in terms of business improvement, I seem to recognise a lot of the ‘old stuff’ in much of what is written.

I’d very much like to have a look at the article but unfortunately don’t have an Emerald subscription anymore...any chance of a copy

Many thanks

Posted on March 30, 2011 at 06:04 PM | Comment permalink

Hi Patrick,

I’d love to see a copy of the article—it would be interesting for me see how much of the prehistory I already knew about!

I can’t help but feel that establishing a global professional society will be an important step in ensuring that KM as a discipline gains a sense of corporate history.

Another issue is:  In pre-Internet days if you wanted to find all the resources available on a topic, you went to a decent-sized library and looked up some related keywords.  Within one or two hours you could be pretty certain you had found a fair subset of the important works out there.

Now, I’m not so sure that can be easily accomplished.  How do we re-establish the discipline and appreciation of curation in an age of infinite content?

Posted on March 30, 2011 at 07:16 PM | Comment permalink

Hi Patrick

I would appreciate a copy of your article titled. The unacknowledged parentage of knowledge management.



Posted on March 30, 2011 at 10:51 PM | Comment permalink

David Griffiths

Hi Patrick,

This is very interesting and builds upon work we have been carrying out over the last few years.

In my blog ( we came to a similar conclusion, that KM has been around for well over a century - though we took a slightly different approach to the literature.

The full article (Oct 2010) - detailing a lit search on historical KM perspectives, “Are we stuck with KM?  A case for knowledge resource development” is available from IKKSS:

Please get in touch if anyone would like a copy of this article.

Thank you for brining further profile to this interesting topic.

David Griffiths

Posted on April 02, 2011 at 07:08 PM | Comment permalink

I have been a Knowledge Strategist for over 10 years, working in the discipline for government and industry as well as a student at GWU during that same time.  After securing a Masters in Engineering Management, I am in my final year of my doctorial work and I am designing my research around the concept that KM is not random.  I would like to see your article to add to my literature review.
Thank you in advance,
Patrice Jackson

Posted on April 02, 2011 at 09:30 PM | Comment permalink

Seth Grimes

Patrick, I see Knowledge Management as going back (at least) to the late ‘50s.  Check out the article “A Business Intelligence System” by H.P. Luhn from the October 1958 issue of the IBM Journal,

Read the abstract and then head to the diagram on page 4 of the file and note the 3 circles in the Comparison Area box: What is Known; Who Knows What; Who Needs to Know.  These 3 questions form KM’s conceptual core even today.

Luhn did seminal work, in the ‘50s, in Information Retrieval and helped invent key indexing and search technologies.


Posted on April 03, 2011 at 10:38 AM | Comment permalink

Patrick lambe

David, this is a wonderful piece of research, thanks for alerting me to it.

Seth, thanks for connecting Luhn’s work to this discussion. This is the classic article where Luhn coins the term “selective dissemination of information” - which though most people would see this as more on the information/library science side of the border, is an important precursor of technology-assisted KM processes in the 1990s.

Posted on April 03, 2011 at 04:05 PM | Comment permalink

I would be very interested in seeing the article. Knowledge management, in the sense of deliberate preservation and transmission of selected knowledge gained by experience, has been around as long as human culture, though obviously not referred to as KM.

Posted on April 06, 2011 at 12:44 AM | Comment permalink

I’ve now read the article. There are many very broad and interesting avenues for further exploration, but I’m particularly struck by one of them: Kenneth Arrow’s insight that knowledge use within a society is substantively different from knowledge use within an organization. The obvious implication is to question the simple transplantation of methods that are useful in society, into an organization.

Given that Arrow’s book was published in 1974, I’m wondering whether there is anything more recent on this issue...?

Is anyone familiar with any recent thought, building on Arrow’s work?

Posted on April 08, 2011 at 01:20 AM | Comment permalink

Patrick lambe

I haven’t seen any, the closest I’ve seen is Elinor Ostrom’s work on knowledge as a public good.

Posted on April 08, 2011 at 07:37 AM | Comment permalink

Patrick, thans for the reply (and sorry for the double question ... an artifact of the small scrolling text box).

Posted on April 12, 2011 at 05:52 AM | Comment permalink

Md Santo

Hi Patrick,

Certainly “KM is older than you think” considering that, from my point of view, “WE ARE KM-REGULATED BY NATURE vice-versa BY NATURE WE ARE KM MODEL” -

Md Santo - Founder

Posted on April 13, 2011 at 06:50 AM | Comment permalink

Catherine Voutier

Hi Patrick, could you send me the article? Thanks heaps.

Posted on April 18, 2011 at 06:49 AM | Comment permalink

Bill Proudfit

Hi Patrick,

Please send me a copy of the article.


Posted on April 24, 2011 at 09:39 AM | Comment permalink

Hi Patrick,

How’re you? Long time no see.

Can I also have a copy of your article please?

Thank you.

Best regards,
Su Nee

Posted on April 27, 2011 at 01:19 PM | Comment permalink

Hi Patrick

I would also love to read your article.
Tahnks in advance
Take care


Posted on April 28, 2011 at 11:22 AM | Comment permalink

Hi Patrick
I would love to see your article
It hits the spot with me

Looking forward

Posted on April 28, 2011 at 12:47 PM | Comment permalink


Dear Patrik,
Please send me a copy of the article.

Recently while reading some Sherlok Holmes stories, it seemed to me that Holmes did brilliant Knowledge Management. Managing of data, information, knowledge and wisdom is beautifully illustrated in several of those stories.Holmes did keep an indexed reference record of events and people, constantly gathered data and information from news as well as his network of ‘spies’ and at the end of his it was the wisdom that cleared up the mess always.
May be some credit should also go to the genius of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Posted on May 02, 2011 at 01:07 PM | Comment permalink

John Tropea

Hi Patrick,

Always a delight to read your essays...I loved the austism of KM article.

Are you able to send me through a copy?

Atle Iversen,

I agree to an extent. For me personal experiences, tips, the contexts and nuances of how we do things round here is very handy to share with others. We use to do this in a video shop by using a notebook in the top drawer. This notebook was the “explicit lore”.

How good is it when someone coming into a new role reads the blog post experiences of the former person...they get to digest all the nuances of the job...all the ad-hoc stuff, the improvisations...this is all handy to know (efficient and effective). The quicker the new person can get up to speed on doing the role the better for their relationships with other units and the org as a whole. (This pain point could be addressed by a KM team to get a small win so as to get some credibility and increase buyin from the c-suite)

In the end this is just information, but perhaps we can call it informal information, in order to differentiate it from de-contexualised formal information (procedures, best practices, policies)

From my post

“We share ‘information’, whereas ‘knowledge’ may be something I create with you through interaction, and we both may come away with slightly different versions, meaning, and impact of that exchange. ie we use our current knowledge or understanding to make sense of new information, and if it really makes sense to us or to our context; or we use it in action, then it will imprint as a pattern or fragment in our person. Next time we have a decision to make, that raw fragment along with others will assemble to take on our issue.
My thinking is that just the sharing aspect of informal stuff is “know-what”, this is what KM has been about, but we need to go further to the “know-how” ie. to learn and to be able to have the skills to come up with your own “know-what”. We can do this via conversations. We can now converse with people who shared their informal information, and not only know “what” but also “how”…the ultimate example is apprenticeship and mentoring.”


I think blogs and wikis emulate conversations quite’s in the interaction where knowledge development occurs. A bonus is others can later come across and read the informal information; previously this wouldn’t happen as the conversation was only f2f. Reports were the only way to pass this on...but now we do KM for free as the conversation is documented.

Posted on May 06, 2011 at 12:49 PM | Comment permalink

Atle Iversen

Interesting article, interesting comments…

If we use this as a reference:

Data: symbols
Information: data that are processed to be useful; provides answers to “who”, “what”, “where”, and “when” questions
Knowledge: application of data and information; answers “how” questions
Understanding: appreciation of “why”
Wisdom: evaluated understanding.

(I personally don’t separate ‘understanding’ and ‘wisdom’ but combine them)

@John Tropea,
I think we’re mostly in agreement, except from the importance of the ‘interaction’ part...conversation is *one* form for learning, and reading (books/articles (like this)) is another.

For deeper understanding and wisdom, I would argue that it is no longer interaction/conversation that is most important, but rather reflection and introspection. Conversations/interactions are very useful for learning, sharing and clarification, but is often less useful when it comes to “digesting” complex information. People are different; some prefer to learn through conversations, some (like me) prefer to learn through reading and reflection
(maybe I just can’t process the information in a conversation quick enough grin ).

I totally agree that having the information/knowledge/conversation written down is important to make it easily available for others to see (and easier to share, easier to re-use, easier to expand etc). However, knowledge development does not occur *only* in the interaction, but *also* in the interaction
(but maybe I’m just ‘splitting hairs’ here grin ).

@Patrick Lambe,
I’ve read the article (briefly), and it seems very interesting. However, as English is not my native language, the language is quite “heavy” so I will need time to digest it - thank you for sending me the article !

Posted on May 06, 2011 at 02:34 PM | Comment permalink

John Tropea


If I don’t have the personal knowledge to make sense of the information, then I can’t inform myself. ie information doesn’t have intrinsic meaning, instead I use my personal knowledge to derive meaning.

Yes agree about learning via reading, but interaction allows you to ask questions, re-frame for your context,re-frame into your level of understanding eg. technical jargon and writing style, and all the other gifts that emerge from conversation...otherwise we would just have text books and no classes.

I see social tools as a mixture of both learning and understanding by reading and interaction.

I like the idea of reading a report and thinking why was this decision made in page 5, paragraph 2...did they consider alternatives, did they speak to the right people. And you would go to the appendix or something like that and read all the forum/blog posts ie. the conversations, the workings out, the journey that led to the writing of the report.

When Snowden’s book comes about, you will be able to go back to his blog to read extended meaning and peripheral stuff on the concepts in his book, as his blog is all the thinking and conversations behind the book.

I get your point about “only” and “also”

Patrick, thx for the article...sorry for going a bit off topic here but posts are always good excuses for a conversation (community spirit)

Posted on May 09, 2011 at 09:57 AM | Comment permalink

Diarmuid Pigott


I am a PhD student who has been chasing down these origins for my own research. I would really appreciate a copy of the article if at all possible.

Posted on May 27, 2011 at 06:32 AM | Comment permalink

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