The Product Life Cycle of Knowledge Management

I recently taught “Legal Information Sources and Services” at the School of Library, Archival, and Information Studies at the University of British Columbia. One of the topics that gave rise to a particularly interesting conversation was knowledge management. I was informed (very politely and gently) that at the school knowledge management is mainly discussed in the context of the archival program, but that as a term of art it is now considered old fashioned in information studies, as it is difficult to define and measure among other problems. Instead other terms like information management are taking its place.

This is not surprising. It’s true that definitions of knowledge management are vague, and success is difficult to measure. There have been rumblings about the end of “knowledge management” for some time in the professional literature, but there are advantages to keeping a name for a set of activities that people understand and have agreed to fund.

I think the main argument against substituting terms for functions like this is that it may just insert new buzzwords without addressing underlying issues that affect the ability of people to achieve their mission regardless of what the activity is called. This is exemplified by the many terms developed to describe librarians and libraries — we have taken terms people understand and inserted a series of euphemisms in their place that obfuscate roles. It’s risky to take a funded, staffed department in an organization and change its name. The organization saw value in the activity encapsulated in the original description.

There is a delay in the developments in academia and their implementation in practice. I used to to work in a government research lab, and one of the things we discussed as part of strategic planning was the life cycle of research from primary science discoveries to general use of resulting innovations.

In the traditional paradigm, the path scientific work takes from discovery to industry is that primary discoveries are made in universities, then government labs take those discoveries and move them toward practical applications, until they are sufficiently close that it becomes viable for companies to start developing them. Usually the first companies are startups that are bought out by larger companies when the research was sufficiently developed to show viability. The start ups are often housed in tech incubators and get some support from the government or universities.

The timeline for this process is generally in excess of twenty years from discovery to commercialization.

In science this model has been threatened by ongoing cuts to the research infrastructure in universities, government research programs, and corporate R&D; but in law this flow of innovations has not as developed as it is in science.

I would like to preface the following with recognizing that the following comments are generalizations, that things are changing quickly, and that there are more people all the time working on this. That said, there is less public infrastructure in legal innovation. Law schools primarily focus on the study of law rather than practice. Ministries and Department of Justice primarily serve the function of law firms representing the government. Courts don’t have a mandate to innovate the process of law, outside their own operations. Though all these organizations regularly develop, agitate for, and decide on innovations in law as part of their primary functions; they are less often focusing on innovating processes.

With the development of a more robust legal start up scene, this is likely to start working better, but it’s worth comparing how much public investment goes into scientific innovation when we think about how much is spent on legal innovation. This not only means that we aren’t doing as well at implementing the changes and inefficiencies as we could be, but also that we have a less robust mental model of how long these things take. Maybe the fact that knowledge management originated as a way of conceptualizing this kind of activity in the 1980’s and 1990’s, and in practice we are only looking at new ways of talking about that work now is normal. The current scientific discoveries in universities make the emerging consumer products look obsolete too.

For the purposes of people doing the work of knowledge management, I think the best nomenclature to adopt is terms like “practice improvement”. This moves the discipline outside some of its current unnecessary limitations of working primarily with document management (as important as that is) and expands its purview to include all aspects of improving people’s work. It conveys the value to organizations, and brings the focus closer to the people doing the the work rather than their work product.

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