Knowledge management as a doughnut: Shaping your knowledge strategy through communities of practice
by Etienne Wenger
Debate about the utility of knowledge management continues today. This author, a recognized authority on the discipline, suggests that as long as we adopt a good model for managing knowledge, in this case, a doughnut, its practice can give a company a decided advantage. By Etienne Wenger Etienne Wenger is a consultant and researcher, and the co-author of (with R. McDermott and W. Snyder) Cultivating communities of practice: a guide to managing knowledge. (Harvard Business School Press, 2002).

The term "knowledge management" has had its detractors. Some people have even claimed that it is an oxymoron: when it comes to knowledge, they say, the term management does not even apply. Others have criticized the IT focus that the term suggests. Yet the term also makes sense.
If knowledge is a strategic asset, then it has to be managed like any critical organizational asset. It is too important to be left to chance. In order to define itself, the field has spent a lot of time trying to define knowledge.
It has been important to insist that knowledge is different from more traditional organizational assets-and in particular, different from mere information-which organizations have learned to manage. This may have been a useful exercise, but intuitively, everybody knows what knowledge is. When you have it, you are likely to understand situations and do the right thing; when you don't, you are in trouble. More recently, the field has come to realize the importance of "communities of practice" as the social fabric of knowledge. Scientific knowledge, for instance, is really the property of communities, which decide what counts as relevant facts and acceptable explanations of these facts. Knowing is not merely an individual experience, but one of exchanging and contributing to the knowledge of a community.

Knowledge from this perspective is what our human communities have accumulated over time to understand the world and act effectively in it.
The management side of the term "knowledge management" has been less of a topic of discussion. Yet I believe that it is as productive a term to investigate. If by "manage" we mean to care for, grow, steward, make more useful, then the term knowledge management is rather apt. What form does such management take? And who should be doing it? In this article, I will argue that when it comes to knowledge, management is a doughnut.

This doughnut is illustrated in Figure 1. And noting that the center of the doughnut is empty, I will argue that knowledge management is primarily the business of those who actually make the dough -- the practitioners. Some principles of knowledge management Knowledge management requires the proper organizational context. You need to have processes in place to coordinate the management of knowledge and integrate it into business processes such as technology for information flows, interpersonal connections, and document repositories, as well as institutional and cultural norms of paying attention to knowledge.
However, while all of these are important enablers, they do not do knowledge management. Unless you are able to involve practitioners actively in the process, your ability to truly manage knowledge assets is going to remain seriously limited. It is their knowledge.
They know how it affects their ability to do their work. They know what needs to be documented and what should be left as a tacit understanding. They know what form the documentation of their knowledge should take to be.

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