Knowledge Management and Collaboration: Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Do you have to be Superman?

Knowledge Management and Collaboration. It sounds good, but taking a cue from the cartoon, did something just go whooshing over your head? It is a bird? Is it a plane? Do you have to be Superman? Why are those phrases joined together? What does it mean?

Unfortunately the words “Knowledge Management and Collaboration” sometimes have the effect of puzzling people. It’s partly because, even though we all have some of it, “knowledge” is a tough concept to explain. And partly because there are so many different aspects to consider.

I was on a call a couple of days ago when someone asked the question “How do we explain what it is”. A few people had a go:

  • It’s not a programme
  • It’s not a system
  • It’s really important for companies that rely on their knowhow

But, I thought, what is it?

I thought about some of the definitions I’ve seen over the years. They are all part of the story: stuff, people, communities and finally the answer I gave: behaviours.

Stuff and systems

In the 1990s, Knowledge Management was defined as “the process of capturing, distributing, and effectively using knowledge”. Shared stuff. So we have Lessons Learned databases and ITIL Problem Management databases. People share documents in Knowledge Asset Libraries. It’s not just documents, in BT we can Record My Screen, and have electronic conversations. The more stuff there is, the more we need effective Search. Search is most effective when we have good classification, so metadata and taxonomies are important.

Stuff is important, the electronic systems that hold stuff are important, but they are not the whole story.


You can’t always get knowledge and expertise out of people’s heads. If knowledge resides in people then finding individuals with that expertise is really important. It’s good to talk. They can perhaps help you. So in BT we have People Finder and Lync, and we continue to work on improving the quality of the data it depends on.

It’s still not the whole story, because it is still talking about individuals.

Communities of practice

In the olden days people with similar expertise used to work together. But now we are scattered. And this loses something vital in how we learn, share, keep up to date, know who knows, and innovate. So we need something that connects practitioners even at a distance. In BT we call communities of practice Subject Groups (we have 400) and those who take a lead are called Subject Specialists. We have much to do to build their maturity and effectiveness.


There’s still something missing, because even with the most wonderful tools and structures in place to enable this to happen, it doesn’t. We have a pile of wood, but no fire.

So now we come to what I said on that conference call. What is Knowledge Management and Collaboration? I said:

It’s a particular set of habits (behaviours that lots of people do frequently)
enabled by technologies
that lead to benefits for the individuals and the company.

Those habits are verbs relating to stuff, relating to people, and relating to subject groups. In the middle of this diagram:

And the purpose of my little team is to put the enablers in place, catalyse the growth of those behaviours until they become habits in our culture, and deliver benefits to the business.

It’s always hard to come up with something succinct without being simplistic or going “whoosh” over people’s heads. Does this work for you? What important things does it leave out? What definitions do other organisations use?


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