Has the web changed knowledge… or is knowledge dead?

Thomas Davenport, one of the world’s leading experts in the field of knowledge management, wrote that the field is not dead, but that it may be on life support.  He stated that with the growing use of Google, the field of knowledge management may become obsolete because people are no longer interested in seeking out internal knowledge.  David Weinberger (2011) seemingly agreed with Davenport by stating that the internet does not have the necessary components to create a body of knowledge.  Yet, Google and other social media networks have become in many ways the outlet for which ideas and knowledge are collected.

I tend to disagree with Davenport’s view that the field of knowledge management is fading away and instead believe that his scope was and is too narrow.   Weinberger (2011) seems to imply that a body of knowledge can only exist when pure or with some level of gate keeping that requires only the absolute and correct be included.  While I acknowledge that those parameters would certainly make the information that can be found on the web more reliable and easier to wade through, I do not think it makes the good and useful information that can be found there any less valid.  We can find diverse perspectives and leverage collective knowledge, yet it requires additional effort and scrutiny.  Weinberger even seems to contradict his earlier statements when describing the wisdom of John Davis.  While Davis was a knowledge expert in the traditional sense, he only helped solve the problems of the Exxon Valdez because the network utilized, the internet itself, to seek out an expert was wide and diverse in scope.

What Davenport seems to be focused on in his interpretation of knowledge management can be described by Dixon’s first category of the field, which is that of leveraging explicit knowledge.  Jarche referenced the work of Jay Cross, who compared the past importance of identifying subject matter experts to spread knowledge within an organization to what happens more today, where it is more important to contribute to and learn from the subject matter than to learn from someone else.  The idea that organizations require the explicit knowledge of those in the room considered the experts or leaders no longer seems applicable.

As I read about Dixon’s second and third categories of knowledge management, I could not help but think of its applicability to my current leadership role.  I have always despised large group meetings where the managers in the room are the only individuals who speak, providing updates on the happenings of the organization and listing successes for a collective pat on the back.  However, I do believe there is value in bringing together a group of like-minded and talented individuals who may not otherwise regularly interact.  Leading an IT organization, I have been searching for ways to encourage participation, innovation, and collaboration that is not centered directly around a task.  I plan to put Dixon’s description of leveraging experiential knowledge into action at my divisional staff meeting next week.

I have asked employees to submit topics of interest that might be worthy of discussion and engagement for our entire group.  One employee asked if we could speak about the need to document processes so that work can be performed consistently and knowledge can be transferred among the group.  I plan to present Dixon’s first and second categories of knowledge management and ask the group to discuss their merits.  I expect some will believe that leveraging explicit knowledge is crucial to ensure quality.  I expect others though will argue that recording processes in the ways that might have been done in the past no longer makes sense.  They may argue like Dixon does about leveraging experiential knowledge, that knowledge is dynamic and may change before anyone seeks it out or that the knowledge is not applicable but to specific situations.  A good example of this is the work performed by Wolbers and Boersma, whose study of information management identified both individual interpretations of information by professionals, but a collective sensemaking of that information through discussion and negotiation.

Even more exciting to me about this upcoming staff meeting and the topics submitted by staff members to discuss is that I can remove myself from the position of authority.  I am an outsider to IT.  The staff, however, are not.  They are talented network engineers, programmer analysts, desktop support specialists… and the list goes on.  They have the kind of diverse perspectives that Dixon spoke about that can come together and leverage collective knowledge to address the organization’s most challenging problems.  A study by Fursin et al. (2014) demonstrated the benefits of leveraging all of explicit, experiential, and collective knowledge together.  It is my hope that by bringing together those talented individuals in a forum that allows them to use their experiences and collective knowledge to attack problems that are important to them, that we may identify innovative and creative solutions.


Weinberger, D. (2011). Too big to know: Rethinking knowledge now that the facts aren’t the facts,

experts are everywhere, and the smartest person in the room is the room. New York, NY.

Basic Books.

15 thoughts on “Has the web changed knowledge… or is knowledge dead?

  1. Nice post. Don’t beat yourself up as the outsider…you have the advantage of not having preconceived notions. With the fast changing environment of IT, asking the “dumb” question may spark new insights!


    • Thanks, Dr. Watwood. I have immersed myself in the field and jumped right in to learn the nuts and bolts, but what I have realized more and more each day is that I work with a lot of smart people. I need to ask the right questions and put people in a position to solve our puzzles and problems, but they have the expertise to get it done. It is fascinating to watch.


  2. Ayes, thank you for your insights. I agree with your assessment that Davenport’s (2015) definition was and is too narrow. Proclaiming Knowledge Management dead in the enterprise is to me akin to saying there is no longer a place for schools in society. If the argument is that the rise of the Internet means we no longer have an internal business need to create, share, and facilitate knowledge, then it follows also that there is no need for universities, which are knowledge management structures in their own right. If simply having access to everything were enough, regardless of that being from within an organization or the world at large, Davenport’s (2015) declaration would include far more than the scope to which he limits it, and were it to include more, I believe he would be wrong in that case as well.

    Davenport, T.H. (2015, June 24). Whatever happened to Knowledge Management? The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from http://blogs.wsj.com/cio/2015/06/24/whatever-happened-to-knowledge-management/



    • Bravo, Julie! I could not agree more. Higher education has grown on the idea to strive for more knowledge and to change the way in which it is perceived. Science itself is built on the knowledge that we are simply disproving theories… but that those believed to be true may always in the future be disproven also.

      The field of knowledge management and all of our fields are changing. There are diverse perspectives, challenged beliefs, and new contributors. We as leaders must embrace that and not be threatened that what we once believed to be true may no longer be the case.

      Thanks for your insight!

      -The Ayes Have It

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Ayes,

    Great post! I, too, tend to disagree that knowledge management is fading. No matter what the official title, we need systems to help organizations create, share, and use knowledge effectively. In her blog about the third era, Dixon (2009) asserted that the current focus of Knowledge Management is accepting cognitive diversity, integrating knowledge, and ensuring transparency. All three factors are integral to Weinberger’s (2014) network of knowledge. It will be interesting to see how both Knowledge Management and Networked Knowledge evolve.

    You make an excellent point that useful information is available on the web, the validity of which can be reinforced by collective content. As educators, we can be part of the “collective” and provide resources to help students assess the legitimacy of web content. Many universities offer guidance (available on the web, of course). Harvard (http://isites.harvard.edu/icb/icb.do?keyword=k70847&pageid=icb.page346375), Georgetown (http://www.library.georgetown.edu/tutorials/research-guides/evaluating-internet-content), and Cornell (https://olinuris.library.cornell.edu/ref/research/webeval.html) were among several universities that popped up with a quick search.

    It is exciting to hear your plan to discuss Project Management and leverage experiential knowledge into action at your divisional staff meeting next week. It sounds like you are establishing what Tricia (in her blog http://newideashop.blogspot.com/) referred to as “a safe space where people with differing opinions can deepen their understanding.” If you get a chance, check out the Kolb, Baker, and Jensen (2005) paper on learning conversations that Tricia recommended. It is a fascinating read, and I think it relates to your goals. Good luck with your meeting!



    Baker, A., Jensen, P., & Kolb, D. (2005). Conversation as experiential learning. Management Learning, 36(4), 411–427. doi:10.1177/1350507605058130

    Dixon, N. (2009, July 30). Where knowledge management has been and where it is going- part three [blog post]. Conversation Matters. Retrieved from http://www.nancydixonblog.com/2009/07/where-knowledge-management-has-been-and-where-it-is-going-part-three.html

    Weinberger, D. (2014). Too big to know. New York, NY: Basic Books.


    • CatontheKB,

      Thank you for the recommendations and for pointing me in the direction of Tricia’s blog. It is wildly important, in my view, for leaders and managers to support the exchange of ideas and information among both like and diverse minds. The shift between the idea that the leaders are the holders of knowledge to that of knowledge being broadly held may be a slow one in some organizations. The more that leaders can do to encourage inquiry and information sharing, the more beneficial it will be to the pursuit of organizational mission and knowledge in general.

      All the best,
      The Ayes Have It


      • I learned this years ago at the Pentagon. My predecessor had never included the admin assistant in weekly staff meetings. I invited her in when I took over…and it turned out she was a wealth of information that connected many dots.


  4. Matt,

    Thank you for once again sharing your ideas and experience. I am going to follow your lead and open meetings by allowing others to bring topics to the table to discuss as a group. It is an excellent idea, and I am sure my team would appreciate a break from hearing me talk.
    The topic of Google has consumed me this week. As I mentioned in my blog this week, I use Google as much as the next person, and I fear the ease of finding the answers to our question and the speed to which we can receive the information is a double edged sword. On the one hand, why waste time when we can often find our answer at a blink of an eye, but on the other, I question if it is hurting our ability to think critically and also retain the information. As my children have witnessed, both my wife and I quickly grab our phones to Google whatever it is we are struggling with, and they are picking up on it. It is not uncommon for my almost 4-year old to ask me a question and if I do not have an answer, quickly comment, “just Google it, dad.” I tend to question what I find and refine my search for answers as I search for the truth, but I have witnessed some of my younger team members that have grown up with having search tools such as Google their whole lives use the answer of whatever pops up near the top. It frightens me greatly. I shared a video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hER0Qp6QJNU) this week that a colleague shared with our team discussing the challenge of leading millennials. How can we teach others to challenge the information instead of building their understanding of a topic on the first thing they pull in a search? I look forward to hearing your thoughts.



    • Jason,

      In your post you hit on something that I have noticed with many people in every generation, the inability to effectively use the search engines they depend on so much. Identifying the correct key terms or using basic search techniques (using quotes, searching by site, etc.) is a skill that is not developed for many people. I remember in middle school having an entire class devoted to learning how to search and how to evaluate websites. Due to the way search algorithms work, companies can and have used this knowledge gap to take advantage of people. I was happy to see CatOnKB’s links to universities providing resources, but it might be time to go back to basics and teach people how to google effectively.



  5. Oh boy what a great question, Jason. Perhaps that is the new role of the leader… not having the answers, but positioning ourselves as the check and balance. Instead of giving the answers, we might begin asking others to defend the answers they provide. We may challenge those with opposing views to summarize the information they have heard from the other party and then defend why they believe the information they have found is correct. This still allows the leader to take a step back and facilitate instead of being the sole source of finality and wisdom.

    While information is readily available, for it to become part of our inventory of knowledge we must be able to truly understand what is out there and how it does or does not apply to us. You mentioned that we can easily find answers and that is true. What then though? True knowledge management of the future will require leaders to turn that information into knowledge that colleagues share with one another and apply to future problems.

    -The Ayes Have It


  6. Ayes,
    Great thoughts! I appreciate your approach to staff meetings, specifically soliciting topics for discussion. While I have welcomed my team’s engagement, I can probably be more intentional in expanding our engagement in this form (to include–at least on some level–a focus on their priorities as well as mine). I think adopting your approach as a very simple change in leadership behavior will have profound impact on promoting my vision for a highly engaged and leveraged collaborative workforce. It offers another layer of the evolution away from the “one-great-man” model that permeates so much of the traditional hierarchical and authoritarian systems (noting that I work in a federal agency environment that is overly bureaucratic and chain-of-command driven). Thanks for such a great–practical–application!


  7. Ayes,
    As I continue to think through this week’s readings, I keep thinking through work environments where knowledge management has changed. Within the health centers that I work with, learning management systems are used on a daily basis. Just a couple years ago, the internal work environment looked much different, antiquated compared to now. I lead a safety committee and to ensure that staff were trained, tests/quizzes were passed out and collected. Now, an online platform is used.
    Another example that comes to mind is when I worked at a health center and if questions arose about a process, the answer was sought internally. Staff would search through documents or reach out to other employees to acquire information. One thing that I find interesting, is that I wonder how much the executive director played a role in overseeing knowledge management. I state this because the executive director frowned upon staff seeking outside information from others or relying upon other means to get answers that did not originate from her or others within the health center. I could continue to analyze my former boss because I am interested in understanding the situation more, but as an employee, I felt confined by what I could and could not do. One of my takeaways from the situation is to ensure that as a leader, I encourage others to grow and learn.
    I agree with your statement about the benefits of bringing life-minded individuals together. In my role, I have the opportunity to facilitate conference sessions where I get participants (who are experts in their work) to talk to one another. I hope that your idea of bringing talented individuals goes well. I find it fascinating to watch what ideas emerge from groups. I would be interested in hearing how this process goes and get your thoughts on it as well. Wish you all the best.


  8. The Ayes,

    Your comment about large meetings where one person talks resonated with me. Partly, because I hate teaching environments like that, instead I want students to talk to each other. I think teachers are responsible for the myth that one person doing all the talking facilitates large group learning. That comment also hit home with me because of the many times I have been a room where one person is talking, and opportunities for feedback is limited. Recently, I was asked for advice on how to make meetings about safety procedures with 50 people more effective. My response was let them talk to each other and draw on each other’s experiences and expertise. I told my friend to stop thinking the meeting was about him. Then I reminded him, he was tasked with teaching these folks because he already knew the information.



  9. Pingback: Eight Days a Week. – Cat on the Keyboard

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