Snake Oil


Mike Poole in Hong Kong has taken a pot shot at KM as a “snake oil” solution and as a scam in the wake of the recent HKKMS/HKPolyU KM conference (I wonder who said what to raise such an ire?).

I’d be the first to welcome a good solid challenge to KM’s status – I believe it needs constant, sustained and sharp critique if it is to develop, and some of that critique may pose fundamental challenges to its legitimacy – which KM must overcome if it is to survive in any meaningful and productive form. Probably the best such critique on record is TD Wilson’s 2002 paper upon which Poole relies heavily ’The Nonsense of ‘Knowledge Management‘.

But Mike Poole’s shot looks to me like a cheap one, and seems to have no substantive reasoning behind it, relying on ambiguity about what KM means and a very crude distinction between tacit knowledge and explicit information to make his case. It’s also a pretty common cheap shot – check Google to see. So what’s the real argument here?

Poole starts by citing Ray Sim’s recent work on the multitude of KM definitions (which are not as varied as the sheer number of definitions suggests) as a supporting fact.

But the lack of clarity or consistency about how KM is defined does not necessarily indicate a lack of legitimacy – snake-oil can be sold off the back of well-defined problems like baldness or male member dissatisfaction, just as much as ill-defined ones.

Lack of definition and consistency of description can indicate a lack of maturity of understanding, lack of sufficient experience in a domain, or insufficiently stabilized patterns of understanding in a complex domain. They don’t by themselves mean that something is fake.

This is not to say that there aren’t snake oil salesmen out there in KM. God knows there are. But KM has no monopoly on snake oil. To be rather cynical, pretty much most of sales or marketing messages are substance-agnostic – they don’t really care whether what they are selling is snake oil or legitimate. They just want to sell whatever it is they have been commissioned to sell. (They might care if it’s dangerous or illegal, but that’s a different matter). Sales-speak optimism almost universally exceeds real buyer impact (this is not the same as customer satisfaction).

KM is no exception to this phenomenon, in fact as an immature discipline it’s a pretty soft target, given the general KM buyer’s lack of education and experience in the domain.

But in fact, the continued presence of snake oil purveyors is usually an indicator of a strong and enduring and unsatisfied desire – usually associated with solving an intractable problem. Flies are attracted to honey. Even when “real” scientific and robust solutions are created, as in the “miracle” pharmaceutical solutions to male potency problems, the snake-oil industry continues around the problem often alongside it – Viagra next to snake oil on the same vendor’s stall. (I should know, I live a few hundred metres away from a red light district – I cannot however vouch for the efficacy of said snake oil).

And what KM is fumbling for – with great clumsiness, with continued temptations into over-simplification, but for the most part honestly and legitimately – is a solution to an intractable and poorly understood problem – how human knowledge and capability scale within and across social bodies to support their effectiveness and minimise their dysfunctionality. And within that, trying to make sense of and intervene appropriately in the complex tangle of relations between the critical organisational activities of:
•information use
•maintenance of common ground and purpose
•capability building and capability protection
•creating and sustaining social resilience

Not just to make sense, but also to maintain some semblance of alignment and bridge the too-easy disconnects across the different levels of scale from individuals to teams, to work units, to organisations, to social networks and communities. If that whole paragraph was hard to read, I think you’re getting a small sense of what I’m trying to get at.

And we need, in fact, to maintain the ambiguity and lack of clarity in the term “knowledge management” and to be patient with the lack of transparency as well as the large territorial claims made under the umbrella label of KM. Because unless we hold that broader territory, unless we worry over those large, complex and inter-related issues and activities, and fight over them, and gather sufficient collective experience in that territory, we’ll never be able to sort out the bigger, more significant and productive patterns, understandings and techniques that we need to evolve.

This is why TD Wilson’s case against KM as a relabelled version of information management doesn’t hold up, however closely argued it is, and however many citation indexes or websites it refers to. The real meaning of KM doesn’t lie in journals or websites.

Moreover, KM’s evolution is partly an outcome of information management’s own failure to deal with the problem of how human knowledge scales, and a sophistication in how human beings naturally operate around knowledge that far exceeds a crude “on paper” or “between the ears” distinction. Knowledge is socially produced and exhibited at scales beyond the individual, it gets embedded and implied in many kinds of human artefact (this is not the same as being encoded or made tacit), and it can be constructed spontaneously in response to specific contexts in apparently random ways. Knowledge is also highly reactive and fluid, meaning that it can change, grow, transform and combine in unpredictable ways as a result of the interaction of humans with each other, with information objects, and with their environment. None of these reduce to a simple bi-polar tacit-explicit schema.

And IM failed because it defined its turf and its territory too tightly (along with its cousins records management and library science) – so tightly in fact, that all three have become essentially technical housekeeping and logistics functions, very rarely to be found with any kind of tight coupling or responsiveness to strategic or contextual needs – which is where the scalability of knowledge problem bites hardest. All three are fighting rear-guard actions against being assimilated into the CIO’s function (where “I” means “Technology” ) – and they are still in retreat. KM doesn’t reduce to information management or document management or records management or librarianship, because KM is still thank God focused on the bigger unresolved problem. And it has not yet been assimilated into the IT Borg, despite several onslaughts and temptations.

Now you won’t find any sense of that problem in the closely argued, beautifully wrought ivory tower arguments of Wilson’s paper or in Poole’s lesser polemic. It’s as if they were oblivious to why we worry about all this stuff. To get that sense you’d have to get into the work of information and knowledge management professionals working inside organisations.

Wilson’s argument is not without insight, but he takes the easy knock-down route when he sees appropriations from information science. KM often looks like it reduces to one or more of its elder predecessors, because those disciplines have ready-made, mature, well-evolved and useful professional practices and techniques already associated with them. KM to that extent is a bit of a cuckoo in the nest of its elder cousins, hungrily appropriating as well as inventing language and approaches from a variety of directions. For KM to ignore the role of information management practices would be ludicrous. This may be uncomfortable and appear imperialistic but it doesn’t change the basic driver for its existence. And the too-early definition of boundaries that tidy minds (and many in IM and RM to boot) might like, just doesn’t pay off in solving intractable problems that take generations to solve. Pin the chrysalis down too early, and you’ll never see the butterfly fly.

Alchemy, philosophy and theology (and snake oil salesmen) circled for centuries around problems of how the natural world works, before they exploded into the natural sciences in 18th century Europe, one of the small offshoots of which gave us magic virility pills. I hope KM doesn’t take as long to mature into productive output, and it may be that its successors will look as different from KM as pharmacology is from alchemy, but that’s the kind of context I think we’re in here.

KM is not going away (whether or not the specific label goes away) because the underlying problem that produced this indisciplined discipline is not going away. Nor is it going to stop talking about information and knowledge in the same breath, and in messy and indistinct ways. Not any time soon. The legitimacy of KM work in its present state of development is not defined by the clarity of its definition, nor of the transparency of the label, but by the degree to which some aspects of that bigger social and organisational knowledge problem are being honestly addressed, and the degree to which there is some learning payoff for the KM practitioner community.

In fact, the snake oil salesmen in KM (in my view), are slowly diminishing in impact, because as the practitioner community matures (for example in professional forums like actKM), it’s getting easier to call them out, to discriminate substance from fiction. So if you are new to KM, join a professional community and mix around with more experienced practitioners, they will afford some protection!

The test is usually in the promise. The real KM promise is usually slow, painful, partial results, but with patience and hard work, movement in an improved direction. The snake oil promise is quick, easy, and magnificent in its impact – most importantly it’s completely unambiguous. But remember what I said about sales messages – good products and services can also be sold like snake oil.

And finally, for Mr Poole in particular, a word against cheap shots. Unless you’re specifically in the software business and then only sometimes, nobody working in KM is going to make a quick or an easy buck. Nobody working in this field as a practitioner inside organisations (which is where the majority of the active KM community are) is in the job for their health or well being either.

It’s one of the more thankless and difficult organisational roles I know, partly because of the lack of definition and ambiguity associated with the role, and largely because it is struggling with how whole organisations get better at being coherent responsive bodies (when circumstances and human nature conspire to subvert that goal at every step). The burn-out rate is high.

The “KM is a fad” claim is too tired to have validity any more. The “snake oil” claim is a distractor. The real fact behind KM is that real people are doing honourable work trying to solve difficult organisational issues. I think that deserves a little respect.

After all, if KM was just about snake oil, why am I not receiving emails like this everyday?


7 Comments so far

Wonderful post Patrick!

I haven’t much to add except that I agree entirely with what you say.  Here’s hoping that the “alchemy” of KM will metaphorically strike gold one day…

Posted on April 02, 2008 at 08:36 PM | Comment permalink

Mike Poole

Patrick, let me begin by saying that I very much appreciate you taking the time to respond in detail to my post on your own blog. But before I reply in kind I just want to clarify one small matter - there was no ire to be raised in my post. Not everyone needs an agenda to be critical.

In framing my initial comments on knowledge management under the snake-oil rubric I merely meant to challenge what I see as a poorly defined field, to highlight one important challenge to it, and to say something about photocopier salesmen posing as anything but just that. I notice that you barely touch upon this final point, although I am glad to see that you acknowledge the charlatans on the edges of your field. Given my comments to come, you’ll have to forgive me for continuing to think that they are in the public eye far more than you might imagine.

In any case, therein lies the reasoning that you failed to detect in my post: knowledge management is not a field that shouldn’t have questions asked of it by outsiders.

Interestingly enough, your response passes over the variety of knowledge management definitions Ray Sims mentioned without giving any proof that they are “not as varied as the sheer number” suggests. Why not? How many definitions would you support?

I acknowledge that your field could well be grappling with problems of classification - many are - but failing to recognise a lack of clarity as a significant problem seems to me short sighted.

You claim that ambiguity is significant because it allows you to identify the scope of the problems within organisations, to find the “bigger, more significant and productive patterns, understandings and techniques that we need to evolve.” This is a common defence of complex processes, and not one for which I am without sympathy. But let me ask you this - why do think that organisations, or ‘social bodies’ as you call them, are necessarily dysfunctional?

To put that another way, are complex systems always somehow broken?

There is an entire literature in economics which suggests that many social bodies or systems are self-organising. One such system is the market in which operate most organisations that employ knowledge managers. Something you fail to address is the extent to which these lesser ‘social bodies’ are capable of self-organisation. You make them sound chaotic.

Firms already have one level of functional management. Do they need another level that claims to be correcting ill-defined dysfunction?

The other main point I want to make here is that you seem to take the definition of knowledge and re-make it as you wish. Even though you expend a good deal of effort on explaining what ‘knowledge’ as you see it does, and in outlining its social context, you don’t define what it is.

In presenting a discourse instead of a definition, you also brush aside my comments - via T.D. Wilson (and initially Michael Polanyi) - on knowledge as a tacit, internal process of understanding and information as external communication, without defending your own concept of “social knowledge”, which in any case would be better described as socialised knowledge.

How can an entire field barricade itself behind a definition that no-one else uses? Well, it clearly happens from my point of view, but what is your justification?

As I mentioned initially, I am (and obviously so) an outsider to your field. I have no hidden agenda when approaching this issue - just an interest in clarity where possible, and explanation where not. I did not intend to cast aspersions on how hard you work - I work very hard and for long hours in the largely thankless field of editing, so I appreciate your concern. But reading back over my comments just now, it seems that there are still many questions to be answered.

Posted on April 03, 2008 at 02:07 AM | Comment permalink

Patrick Lambe

Hi Mike

I sensed from your original post that you were up for a robust counter-shot, so thanks for this.

I didn’t think you had an agenda, just wondered what had inspired the vehemence.

I have no objections to “outsiders” raising challenges to KM (it happens all the time). And the distinction between insiders and outsiders is not as sharp as you might think, many KMers are recent immigrants. However if you mount a challenge you have to expect to be challenged in detail and you can’t plead outsidership as a defence - but it is important we get beyond “baby questions” to more sophisticated debates if we’re going to make any substantial progress.

I passed over the definitions collection because that’s a whole other debate for a whole other time. But if you read the definitions you will see common patterns being repeated - the number of quotations does not represent the number of real differences. In the KM discussion forum KM, I’ve seen between 5-12 basic patterns being cited. And the problem of definition is not being taken lightly - it’s a sore and oft debated issue within the community, this has been well covered by Joe Firestone (which is cited in the Ray Sims post).

I don’t think organisations are necessarily dysfunctional, but they often are. We are cognitively optimised to work at scales of under 150 people in social groups. Beyond that we have to rely on built infrastructure and information systems, which tend to be much more slow moving than our “natural” working capacity at individual or team level. This often produces disconnects and dysfunctions, some of them trivial, some of them significant for the business. See Dunbar’s book, Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of the Language for a good intro.

Complex systems aren’t broken, just cognitively demanding if you’re in a low-stability one.

We self-organise all the time. If we want to influence change intentionally, however, we need to do knowledge work. Self-organisation by itself doesn’t always recognise intentional agendas unless you can give it a helping hand.

Polanyi’s work on tacit knowledge is far more sophisticated than the crude tacit-explicit divide admits and is often oversimplified in the popular KM literature. It’s worth reading if you haven’t done so. The tacit-explicit distinction is a useful tactical distinction for many KM activities, but far too crude for big-issues like demarcating disciplines which is where the Wilson argument fails. You wouldn’t use secondary school science to determine a national R&D agenda for example.

I don’t understand the barricade comment. Do you see a vigourous response to labelling KM as snake oil as a barricade tactic? Where are the barricades?

There are zillions of questions to be answered. The point of my post was that you’re not going to get answers to many of them in one post or any time soon. We’re all learning as we go, it’s early days smile

Just because we don’t have them to hand, and just because as an outsider you see mainly people who look like scam artists, doesn’t mean we are all scam artists. That was the main point I wanted to make.

Posted on April 03, 2008 at 10:57 AM | Comment permalink

Stephen Bounds


On the “52 definitions” issue, I did some analysis on the definitions and simplified them by grouping synonyms.

The terms I’ve kept are fairly “wonk-ish”—I wouldn’t use these to explain KM to a non-professional, for example—but you should get the idea.  The definitions aren’t as divergent as Ray’s article would suggest.

(I did cheat a little and removed 4 IT&S-based definitions which I believe the vast majority of the KM community would find inappropriate.)

One of the points to make is that people often define KM by what it achieves, rather than by the activities it involves.

Since the goals of KM often vary by the organisation it’s deployed in, this has created many more KM definitions than are strictly necessary.

Posted on April 03, 2008 at 01:55 PM | Comment permalink

Mike Poole

Patrick and Stephen – you’ve both given me a great deal to think about, and I appreciate you taking the time to engage with me on what clearly is difficult conceptual ground. I’m learning every step of the way, and will need a good while to digest the ideas before me. Patrick, thanks for the pointer to Robin Dunbar’s book on the evolution of language. I’ll be reading it as soon as my copy arrives. I’ve also delved into Joe Firestone’s site to download some of his more pertinent papers. And of course, I’ll have to revisit Michael Polanyi’s work.

In some way or form I’ll write about the conclusions I reach, with a copy posted on Greetings Earthlings! When I do, and if you have the inclination, I would be happy to see your responses.

That brings me to why I mentioned being an outsider. Rather than using it as a defence, I was conscious that my argument might not seem worthy of further consideration from a professional point of view. I’m thankful it did.

Do I think all knowledge management professional are scam artists? No. I have concerns about justifications and presumptions, but not about the legitimacy of everyone in the field. My initial point included the term “illogical conviction” – which definitely applies to photocopier salesmen masquerading as knowledge managers, and as I’ve found in further reading, many others who frame their activities as knowledge management when it should be document management or even just soft-skills consultancy. That’s a scam.

I was actually impressed by your YouTube video Patrick, because it made a logical point about the limits of knowledge management, and did it in a good humoured way. That’s why I included it in the original post; it was obvious that you were aware of the intellectual weight of a least some criticisms levelled against your field. The problem I saw was an inability to take the next step and define knowledge, rather than information, as being transferable. Of course that’s not in itself unique – we all casually talk about bodies of knowledge. And it was a short video.

I also included an even shorter video of David Gurteen, which puts forth a view of socialised knowledge that I find appealing, even though I can still offer the counterpoint that knowledge is implicit. But as I mentioned at the start, I’ll revisit Polanyi on that.

Stephen, your reassessment of the multiple definitions is also something that I appreciate, and I’ll mention it on my blog tonight. Weeding out the 4 extraneous definitions is certainly useful for people looking on, trying to make sense of the situation. Patrick, you mention 5-12 ‘basic patterns’ cited; I’ve tried to simplify it a little further, into bases and activities.

My understanding from the reassessment is that knowledge management can be based in specific processes or day to day management (bottom-up or top-down I guess, but not always in an either/or sense), with thought given by some practitioners to a basis of individual actions or skill sets. From there the activities can include collaboration, learning and codification (the tacit made explicit), with the aim of improving organisational efficiency.

This, of course, is not a definition – just an observation of Stephen’s summaries, and I might have missed activities that appear to me similar even though you would differentiate them. Given that large organisations might need to be more efficient, I’ll read Dunabr’s book with interest to understand how size can make group cognition inefficient.

Patrick, is 150 just an estimate of a group size threshold, or a specific figure? I know that W.L. Gore (of Gore-Tex fame) has broken itself into small units of what it calls ‘multidisciplinary teams’ with largely horizontal staff structures to counteract organisational inefficiency. Would either of you consider that a form of knowledge management, or as an alternative?  My thoughts are that it is primarily an issue of aligning the physical and organisational structure of a firm with the most effective avenues of communication. But communication seems to be a component rather than a focus of knowledge management. So I’m putting the Gore model forward as an alternative, and it seems to me a substantial way to solve the problem.

Without fully covering definitions again – I agree that we can’t really solve anything here in that direction – I just want to touch on them to explain my comment about barricades. I meant that ambiguity arising from the lack of clear definitions, or from the lack of clearly defined goals – perhaps even multiple goals within a single field, to include Stephen’s comment – can be a barrier to further thought. But that no longer seems the case with knowledge management, given your further comments, so I’ll retract it. I’ll make a point of mentioning the retraction in my blog post tonight.

Still, to bring up Stephen’s comment again, it strikes me that knowledge management – on the condition that knowledge really can be managed and is not implicit – might not necessarily be a field, but a grouping of processes. Couldn’t those processes be managed or established by people from outside your profession?

Again, I’d like to thank you both for your comments. Although we clearly don’t agree I’ve learned a great deal from discussing these issues with you, and hope to learn more.

Posted on April 04, 2008 at 04:18 PM | Comment permalink

Patrick Lambe

Thanks Mike, all great feedback. You asked two specific questions: the Gore-tex example is a good example of organising to meet cognitive constraints. The so-called “Dunbar” number is a range and is based on a perceived correlation in primates between neocortex size and social group size, along with some social data (see Dunbar’s book for more).

However the reason why I said infrastructure becomes important is that even those optimal size teas need to coordinate with each other if the organisation is to operate as a coherent whole. That introduces new issues.

On your question of whether processes could be managed by other folks, they could be and often are in practice. But they tend to manage them from a sub-discipline perspective and typically do not encompass all of the various structural, human, business, technology, content needs that need to be brought into play together - it goes back to my “umbrella” comments about why I think the label of KM (or something like it) is useful to enable practitioners to consider the needs of whole human knowledge “eco-systems” an start to get to grips with the really complex problem of scaled knowledge use. This is why, by the way, I think Ross Dawson’s suggestion of splitting into three or four strands is still premature.

On the limits of sub-disciplinary views into KM issues, there’s been quite an interesting discussion evolving on the actkm listserve the last few days. If you are still interested in KM after this binge, you might (or might not) find it interesting to join - via

Thanks to you and Stephen for a really good, open dust up, it’s been very stimulating.

Posted on April 04, 2008 at 04:47 PM | Comment permalink

Mike Poole

Thanks Patrick, I’ll definitely look through the site and take your further comments into consideration. I’m not at all put off - I’m interested in learning more, regardless of my reservations. I’ll post on this exchange tonight, but will save any further consideration until I’ve covered and read more about the issues you’ve raised.

Posted on April 04, 2008 at 04:56 PM | Comment permalink

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