Further Reading » Definitions of KM and KT

Definitions of KM and KT - There are Many…

For something that may seem so simple, there are, in fact, many definitions of KM and KT and numerous research studies devoted to defining these disciplines. The literature reveals a range of between 18 to 62 definitions (KM Definitions – Sims Learning Connections). The concept of KM has been applied to a very broad spectrum of activities designed to manage, exchange, create or enhance intellectual assets within an organization. There is no consensus on what KM actually is and what it includes, for instance IT applications that are termed KM applications range from the development of codified decision support systems for a call centre or help desk, to the provision of video conferencing to facilitate the exchange of ideas between people.

What is referred to as KM actually consists of a range of practices that address organizational issues and needs. The approaches and strategies used tend to depend on the author’s discipline and background. Management theorists are focused on process, innovation, creation and developmental needs; while technologists focus more on transactional, analytical and asset management elements. Management theorists tend to think of technology as an enabling factor while technologists see it as the central focus. These two views have been categorized as “cognitive” and “community” (Haggie & Kingston). The community view emphasizes knowledge as socially constructed, and is facilitated by encouraging groups and individuals to communicate and share ideas; the cognitive view regards knowledge in objective terms which can be expressed and codified, often codified in computer systems (Hansen et al, 1999).

Snowden and others define KM as
the identification, optimization and active management of intellectual assets, either in the form of explicit knowledge held in artifacts or as tacit knowledge possessed by individuals or communities’ (1999: p. 63);

Swan et al (1999; p.264) explain KM is about harnessing the
intellectual and social capital of individuals in order to improve organizational learning capabilities, recognizing that knowledge and not simply information is the primary source of an organization’s innovative potential”.

Snowden claims it is not important to define knowledge, but it is important to distinguish it from information. Davenport, De Long and Beers (1999) claim that ‘knowledge is information combined with experience, context, interpretation and reflection” (p.89) Sveiby goes further and describes knowledge as an activity, “a process of knowing”. (1999; p.20)

The definition used by Torben, Aronson and Liang (2005) is useful for understanding how KM is employed in an organization. They define KM in terms of its value to an organization’s operations and competitive positioning, viewing KM as:

  • a process to help an organization to identify, select, organize, disseminate and transfer information;
  • a structuring of information and data that enables problem solving, dynamic learning strategic planning and decision making, and
  • leveraging the value of intellectual capital through reuse.


KM is a systematic and active management of ideas, information and knowledge residing within an organization, its employees, but may also reside in customers, suppliers or regulatory authorities. This is not to be confused with KM systems, which use technologies to manage knowledge. The use of KM systems can help organizational learning since it enables learning from past experiences, from acknowledged best practices and transfers knowledge within the organization. Organizational learning helps to develop new knowledge and keep corporate memory alive within the company. The GSI Group (Russel) perceives KM as “about using what we know to perform a task, solve a problem, make a decision, create something new or plan a course of action”. The use of a KM initiative is to apply knowledge to work activities, decisions and opportunities.

While there are fewer competing definitions of KT, the scope of what falls under KT can vary. Basically, the subject of knowledge transfer has been taken up under the title of KM since the 1990s but has continued to evolve overtime. Argote & Ingram (2000) define knowledge transfer as "the process through which one unit (e.g., group, department, or division) is affected by the experience of another" (p 151). They further point out the transfer of organizational knowledge (i.e., routine/job-related, profession-based or best practices) can be observed through changes in the knowledge or performance of recipient units. However, the transfer of organizational knowledge, such as best practices, can be quite difficult to achieve and just as difficult to measure.

Often KT is focused on ensuring current employees are adequately prepared to assume new positions within the organization and/or existing employees know where to get the required information/direction, in order to perform their job. Increasingly, KT has risen in importance given changing demographics and employers increasing concern and need to tap into employee knowledge and expertise before they leave the organization, particularly for employees in key positions where no one else has the knowledge or experience. KT also has a critical role in innovation, the creation and transfer of knowledge throughout the organization.