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When I talk to friends from college and grad school they often seem surprised to learn that I have found my way to management consulting.

For some reason that’s not what they expected. You see, my academic career focused entirely on social science. I spent the better part of a decade reading, writing, and talking about how humans live, communicate, and understand the passage of time.

Business consulting generally, and knowledge management specifically, is focused entirely on how people interact with each other and share information. A ripe topic for any anthropologist! Hopefully, this will serve as a brief interlude to a broader conversation about the ways culturally-focused disciplines can inform and enhance business practice.

And, like all topics in social science, we have to start with a fundamental question: what is knowledge management?

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One authority on the discipline, Tom Davenport, describes it as, “the process of capturing, distributing, and effectively using knowledge.” This definition is the most accurate that you’re likely to find, but it misses a pivotal component to any successful knowledge management approach: adaptability and evolution over time.

Discussions about the history of knowledge management usually begin in the early 1990s and quickly proceed to how its theory was applied during the height of the information age. In 2017 knowledge management is nearly ubiquitous in the corporate sector and many companies have had some knowledge management capacity for decades.

However, as office culture, dress codes, and communication methods have evolved since the 1990s, many KM strategies have not. As any KM practitioner can tell you, employees at some of the largest and most profitable companies in the world still find themselves frustrated on a daily basis over information that is too difficult to find. Why have KM strategies not evolved alongside other business practices? In a 1992 article in Harvard Business Review, KM scholar Peter Drucker writes :

In a matter of decades, society altogether rearranges itself—its worldview, its basic values, its social and political structures, its arts, its key institutions. Fifty years later a new world exists. And the people born into that world cannot even imagine the world in which their grandparents lived and into which their parents were born.

This is demonstrably true, and we know that the world’s most successful businesses and economy reach prominence by anticipating and adapting to these changes. Drucker was also known to be a prognosticator of sorts, and while many of his predictions proved correct, one of his greatest is yet to be realized.

He thought that knowledge would become the primary driver of 21st-century world economies instead of land, labor, or capital. In that same Harvard Business Review article, he guesses that such a change should be complete around 2010 or 2020. In 2017 we are still a long way off from fulfilling this prophecy.

Since its inception, knowledge management has not taken on the role that its chief proponents anticipated. Sure, thousands of businesses have KM managers or maybe entire departments, but rarely does a knowledge management mindset successfully permeate all aspects of management. All too often KM initiatives consist of making modest updates to already anemic Sharepoint sites.

What’s unusual is that while businesses trail behind in fulfilling their potential for knowledge exchange, the social sector has surged ahead. None of the important theoretical KM scholars of which I am aware anticipated the rise of social media, where knowledge flows quite freely through myriad applications and devices. Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn have become much more than just places to connect with coworkers and friends from high school.

They serve as platforms for e-commerce, news, dating, and productivity. Perhaps we should begin looking at KM systems like we do these social ones, as integral linkages bringing together important components of our work lives.

Does it make sense now how a social scientist might feel at home as a knowledge management practitioner? KM is entirely concerned with the methods by which complex information is exchanged, the very trait that defines humanity.

At Ideal State, we see a huge opportunity to take the lessons of KM and apply them to the emerging field of digital workplace design. 

This emerging practice incorporates human-centered design, systems thinking, and cutting-edge technologies that break down silos and encourage knowledge-sharing.

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Thousands of students across the country graduate every year with bachelor’s degrees in anthropology and sociology despite low availability of jobs specific to those disciplines.

At the same time, whenever professionals are polled about what they hate most about their jobs, the top reasons always relate to interpersonal problems and difficulty accessing resources they need to do their jobs, including information. It seems obvious, then, that there should be tremendous employment potential for social scientists in designing digital workplace ecosystems, which are explicitly designed to tackle such problems.

They might discover, as I have, that digital workplace design has more in common with applied social science than it does with business management. And, if such a transformation does come to pass, we might realize that so many commonly cited workplace problems could be relieved if we consider human-centered knowledge work as critical as HR, IT, and operations management.

Interested in how we are applying knowledge management strategies to digital workplaces?

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