Knowledge Management: Theory and Practice

“Pure” and “Applied” Mathematics. “Theoretical” and “Experimental” Physics.

I’m sure there are others examples of the distinction between what can most easily be described as the academic and real-world aspects of a discipline. Yet, as far as I know, the discipline currently known as “Knowledge Management” is still a catch-all that includes essentially all aspects of knowledge in organizations – from personal knowledge management to the social nature of knowledge within groups.

I first realized this several years ago, when I was still somewhat new to the world of KM. I was trying to learn more and checking out the various KM organizations and certification programs.

Some organizations, such as KMPro and AOK, focus on the practical aspects of KM, actually applying a process, technique, or tool to positively influence a business outcome. Certification programs from these types of organizations likewise focus on how to “do” KM in a given setting.

Other organizations, such as KMCI, focus on the theoretical aspects of KM, trying to establish an understanding of how things work and why they work that way. Using KMCI as an example, there is no real “certification” in KM, just an abundance of learning opportunities with which to broaden your personal knowledge and experience.

Though some may disagree with me, I don’t think either aspect is necessarily better than the other. (My personal preference is for the theory side, but that is true for most any subject – that’s just my personality type.) In fact, like the two examples I give above, I think that each is dependent on the other for continued growth and success. Without a theory on which to judge the outcomes of experiments, the experiments have no lasting value. Without experiments, it is difficult to prove (or disprove) a theory.

Because there is only one “branch” of KM, there seems to me to be a lot of “that’s not KM” – “yes it is” going on today (such as this page at KMCI). Perhaps it is time to “formalize” the distinction between the two aspects of KM. A key problem, of course, is finding the right words to get across the meaning but not have potentially pejorative connotations.

Some thoughts on possible descriptors for the two branches:

  • Theoretical – Practical
  • General – Applied
  • Fundamental – Functional