From Knowledge Management to Knowledge Flow Management

Data, information and knowledge are not the same thing! They are related, but to use those terms synonymously will endanger how well you deal with each of them.

After working with initiatives around knowledge sharing and knowledge management since 1997, I decided to change my terminology at some point between 2006 and 2009 from talking about “knowledge management (KM)” to rather talk about “knowledge flow management (KFM).” KM increasingly showed some issues, as it does imply that you actually can manage what is in people’s heads – which I am convinced you cannot, at least at the moment you can’t. But you can influence those flows of knowledge between people.

The notion of flow seems a lot more appropriate, it does take into account the complex and “uncontrollable” elements of knowledge, making it from one individual to another.

What is usually shared between two individuals is information, and the receiving end only creates new knowledge from that information being passed. The resulting knowledge is always going to be different from the knowledge the sender had. They will both have very different frames of reference and contexts. As a result, there is never really a one-to-one knowledge transfer.

When I wrote Mastering Organizational Knowledge Flows in 2009 (published in April 2010), I was fully convinced it would be the term to use in the future, but until recently the majority still stick to the term “knowledge management.”  It is very slowly changing though. A number of key knowledge management thought leaders (i.e., Carlo O’Dell from the APQC) are now also using the flow paradigm, and at KMWorld in Washington last fall you could hear more and more speakers talk about flowing knowledge.

Whether the book or frequent discussions with other KM experts since 2009 have had an influence to get this change going does not matter. What matters is the growing awareness that there is a difference between “knowledge management“ (as a discipline often looking at knowledge as an entity external to the human brain) and managing the flow of knowledge from person to person.

One knowledge officer at a large international organization has even moved his KM strategy to a knowledge flow strategy.

Purely document-centric knowledge management, while still having an impact on information exchange, is being increasingly enhanced by methods and tools that are targeted at managing the flow of knowledge between humans. This is the direction where things are moving.

One view aligned to the flow paradigm is that knowledge would usually flow naturally if there wouldn’t be certain barriers that keep people from sharing. Just a few examples of those barriers can be missing trust, organizational culture, missing awareness of one’s own knowledge, language, silos, as well as the absence of adequate and easy-to-use tools.

So instead of asking oneself what are the things we can “do to people” so they share more, it is taking the reverse view of looking at the barriers that keep people from sharing and reduce those one by one. I found in workshops, especially with those that are not necessarily in a control position, that the “barrier view” offers them an angle where they personally can make a difference by working actively to reduce certain barriers. A prerequisite is that they are aware of the barriers themselves as well as tools and methods to reduce them.

Awareness plays a key role in the way that knowledge flow initiatives become successful. Missing awareness of the need to share knowledge actually can be a key barrier as a 1997 study by the German Fraunhofer Institute already showed (Bullinger, 1997). When people are not aware that such processes (and supporting systems) exist or if they are not aware that this is actually part of their job, it is hard to expect them to participate. On the other hand, if it is clearly communicated what the value for the organization as a whole is and that they are expected to participate, it can make a difference.

But this awareness only builds over time. It is not enough to start with a big launch and then forget about the marketing aspect. I like to call it putting a “pulse” into the knowledge sharing initiative. And as you want an extended life span for it (to justify any ramp-up investments – i.e., into technology and training), you need to stick with it and create an ongoing stream of awareness-building activities. The best way is to really create recurring events (i.e., on a weekly basis showing new happenings or pointing out new content). Then add regular highlights of successes, progress measures and feature key contributors to build an image and brand of the initiative that people not only see as valuable, but that they also want to be part of.

To ensure such a “pulse” exists over time, a person or small team needs to take ownership. Without that leadership role in a consistent and lasting manner, the initiative will be endangered. It is not enough to put somebody on the “project” and think after the launch everything will be running by itself and you can assign that person to the next project. To look at knowledge flow management as a project is shortsighted. That is why I talk about an ongoing initiative instead of a project that has a defined beginning and end. And it needs a passionate owner to stick with it longer term to ensure success. The owner is the key role that is needed. It does need additional roles to be filled as well (like the sponsor, middle management and, of course, the participants), but in my experience it usually is due to the key driver moving out that an initiative goes stale and dies.

How do you know how you are doing with a knowledge flow initiative? The obvious answer is to measure. But measuring turns out to be tricky in knowledge work. A lot of the key measures are often targeted at quantity (i.e., activity, number of assets, interactions etc.). Those are indicators of a certain kind and they can give you some view on where things are heading, but you need to be very careful with interpreting those numbers. They can be deceiving, and you always need to balance those with some qualitative assessments. You might have heard the statement: “You only get what you measure.” I usually add this to the sentence: “but you might not get want you want.” An example would be to give people targets on shared assets in a knowledge sharing initiative and then measure the actual numbers. This is a typical situation where you will increase the quantity but are very likely to reduce the quality, as people try to work towards the targets and sacrifice the original intent to share some high-value, reusable information to be used for knowledge to be created elsewhere. Most KM experts these days confirm that rewards like giving somebody a certain amount for a certain activity in knowledge work is counterproductive over time. Participants see their contributions as something extra, something “additional” to their day job, and that is not what you want.

The best way to go about measuring is to create a portfolio of hard and soft measures and always be very careful with the interpretation of what you are really driving with a certain measure.

Another theme at KMWorld last fall was social media usage within organizations, more recently running under the term social collaboration. It is no coincidence that the flow paradigm and social tools are trending at the same time, as social media platforms offer a way to connect humans and their knowledge as opposed to trying to “make people document their knowledge so others can benefit from it.” The latter approach is just not a sufficient solution for what is needed today, where knowledge turnover is getting faster and faster and organizations have to deal with growing complexity. Project team members do not always have the time to document all the necessary information anymore. We have to be realistic about that.

Social media within organizations (i.e., as an enterprise social network – a.k.a. ESN) is one of the platforms that helps in this scenario. An increasing number of companies are rolling out those platforms (examples are Yammer,, Chatter, Jive or Socialcast by VMWare) within their organizations. But quite often, they fall into a similar trap that gave knowledge management a bad name. The introduction is seen as a technology project instead of a change management initiative with technology support. Without proper guidance and a team that will take community management, marketing, business usage support and more seriously, it will likely underperform in comparison to the expectations.

The good news is that knowledge flows can be enhanced using ESNs, barriers that hinder the flow can be reduced and, especially in larger organizations, silos can be bridged. But you have to go about it in a more holistic fashion than just installing an ESN and thinking you are done. “Build it and they’ll come” will lead to a waste of money on the technology and technical training investments. Without a proper ongoing initiative, support it is likely to fail over time similar to what happened to many of the earlier knowledge management initiatives.

In Connecting Organizational Silos: Taking Knowledge Flow Management to the Next Level with Social Media (out in October 2012), two successful cases are discussed and lessons learned from those and other experiences are shared. You might find it useful if you are at the point where your organization is looking into going for the ESN adventure, but also if you already have an ESN that is showing issues or needs additional tuning. 

Feel free to contact me at or see


Bullinger, H.J., Woerner, K., Prieto; (1997), “Wissensmanagement Heute,” Fraunhofer Institut fuer Arbeitswirtschaft und Organisation (IAO), Stuttgart, [ Fraunhofer Institute for Industrial Engineering ], Stuttgart, 1997

Leistner, F. (2010). Mastering Organizational Knowledge Flow: How to Make Knowledge Sharing Work. John Wiley & Sons.

Leistner, F. (2012). Connecting Organizational Silos: Taking Knowledge Flow Management to the Next Level with Social Media. John Wiley & Sons.

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