To truly understand KM, you’ve got to go back a ways—a long, long ways. Knowledge has been valued for as long as humans have possessed it. Think of Egyptian hieroglyphs, even early cave art.
Now, as far as the management of knowledge, that’s where things get a bit fuzzy. While the phrase was initially created to describe an IT system, KM came to life in 1981 with the debut of a hypermedia-based computer system: The Knowledge Management System.
There were many knowledge management theories and disciplines in the 80s that gave rise to KM. Some of them combined to forge a path for KM. It’s the fruit between several schools of thought from Chris Argyris, Leonard, Senge, and others. These KM pioneers were interested in the processes of how learning happened—at the individual level, within various companies.
Take, for example, Senge’s famous Five Disciplines as a potential predecessor to modern-day KM. Add the works of Karl Erik Sveiby and Thomas Stewart who both recognized the significance of knowledge in a globally-connected world, and whose Intellectual Capital movement offered business knowledge as a competitive advantage.
The 80s took KM one step further. While we can all agree that the 80s were totally rad, this decade was also a time of key KM developments. For example, we saw the increased development of systems that required artificial intelligence technologies. As a result, a handful of notable concepts were created:
The dynamics of innovation and evolving technologies, from the Internet to email to search and groupware, sparked the formation of knowledge portals. These technologies, and now AI, have enabled organizational learning to go far beyond the traditional face-to-face paradigm.
Think of these types of technologies as tools that empower companies to organize and codify knowledge. Moreover, you could link knowledge bases to align with their relevant departments. And once the Internet obtained global dominance, companies realized the benefits of using an Intranet for sharing in-house documents, best practices, and personal knowledge.
How did the practice of knowledge management start to evolve? In the 90s, the practice of knowledge management evolved into a process for managing online libraries or databases. This was also the decade when KM practitioners started to focus on the personal side of knowledge, that is, finding and capturing the knowledge stored in our minds. In 1997, Karl M. Wiig wrote about the evolution of KM in his paper Knowledge Management: Where Did it Come From and Where Will It Go?
Wiig’s theories have aged well:
Early on, the [Knowledge Management] focus was on concerns with how to make the most with limited resources. Later, the focus shifted to making clever products. Presently, advanced organizations focus on creating ingenious solutions and developing broad relationships to make customers succeed in their business.
The Internet provided KM a worldwide platform. In the mid-1990s, Europe’s The International Knowledge Management Network (IKMN) and the U.S.-based Knowledge Management Forum both went online. Knowledge management was no longer a discipline reserved for academics and the professional class—with the widespread adoption of the Internet, it was now available to the masses.
We can’t talk about the history of KM without mentioning Thomas H. Davenport. He’s written over 20 books, but his best seller, Working Knowledge: How Organizations Manage What They Know (with Larry Prusak), still stands as one of the most influential books written on knowledge management.
Who was the first person to coin the phrase “knowledge management”? In 1999, Jay Liebowitz published The Knowledge Management Handbook. In this publication, Liebowitz credits Karl Wiig as introducing the concept of KM during a 1986 keynote address to the UN.
Without technological support, and artificial intelligence, KM would’ve surely sunsetted long ago. KM’s existence and future place in the workplace and society depends on pioneering progressive learning theories along with the manifold advancements of the digital age.
With a solid foundation of the history of knowledge management, let’s move onto KM fields of study and career paths.