Revisiting the links between communication and knowledge management


At the fifth informal get-together of the Ethiopia/Addis Ababa KM4Dev network, one of the focused conversations we held was about the relations between communication and knowledge management. I wrote this year about how KM can power communication. I also blogged about the different families of engagement in which comms and KM can be found.

KM and comms overlap a lot - with the exception of learning?

KM and comms overlap a lot – with the exception of learning?

The KM4Dev Ethiopia discussion we had focused on the following two questions:

  1. Where do KM and comms sit in your organisation / project and are they formally or informally connected? How?
  2. Where do you see comms and KM work together and possibly integrate?

The conversation highlighted a few points which I think are worth looking into here.

KM and comms are defined very differently in different organisations or projects; they encompass each other (KM is part of comms, comms is part of KM) or they are totally separate depending on the concepts that form the foundations of that organisation and the politics of different departments… What is sure: There has to be a real purpose in bringing comms and KM together to encourage formal and/or informal cooperation among these approaches.

As many other things, definitions don’t matter so much (we’ve been working on comms and KM all along without labeling these ways) so long as your organisation/project feels comfortable knowing what it does with it. That intention matters, particularly if as I have advocated KM (and comms) includes a strong emphasis on learning. Purpose is essential to accelerating learning.

One of the main differences between KM and comms has been the idea of messaging (highlighted in the definitions in one of the resources mentioned below) which has characterised much comms work in the past: In organisations and projects, comms – understood here as a department rather than a function or skill set – has been traditionally focusing on unilaterally sending messages to target groups. There has been very little said about multi-lateral relations in comms work and also very little about (face-to-face and online) engagement from the start. This is changing, however, with more and more communication strategies and activities paying attention to nurturing the network (or ecosystem) as part of which the organisation or project is part. This change of approach is perhaps the main reason why there is such a blur between communication and knowledge management: comms is evolving; and so is KM, moving away from being understood as just information management (more about the difference between the two on the KM4Dev wiki). Adding to the blur, is that knowledge sharing is essential in KM and might be understood – wrongly – as communication.

Comms and KM retain nonetheless deeply distinctive features. As mentioned in the engagement families analogy, the marketing and PR branches of the communication family are very different from what KM does or intend to do. The learning aspect is also usually not a very prominent aspect of comms, while it is adamant to good, agile KM. And information management is only thought of as distantly supporting comms, while it is part and parcel of KM.

Perhaps another key difference is that comms is recognised and mainstreamed a lot more in business and has been traditionally used as a strong corporate arm, i.e. a controlled field which organisations pay attention to regarding what they are communicating and how they are engaging with clients, partners, beneficiaries etc. With the advent of social media, the corporate comms side has continued to extend its influence, while the KM arm is perhaps moving increasingly towards personal knowledge management and the role of social networks to influence the conversations, documentation efforts and learning issues of people – and their organisations if they are employees. 

Ultimately both comms and KM wish to change the behaviour of a number of internal and/or external audiences… But communication tends to still have that ‘corporate’ feel to it, while KM and its inherent recognition of learning – and of the power of social learning – recognises much more explicitly the importance of external signals and of co-creating knowledge to get to smarter conversations that solve current problems and pre-empt future issues. This is introduced in this recent explanation by TheKnowledgeCore. The method to achieve change is not the same – much more controlled in comms and  arguably much more open to social learning for social change in agile KM.

Coming back to the initial point here, if there is a real will to make communication and KM work together, it really happens. KM then informs ‘smarter’ communication while KM also benefits from the expertise of comms to approach different internal and external groups more effectively, offline and online. And such a comms-fuelled smarter KM connects strong information management (having information well organised, available, accessible and indeed accessed) with strong communication, to ensure that communication and knowledge sharing are based on existing and pertinent information.

So, this definition and distinction game is a fuzzy affair, but there is certainly much to gain in stimulating interactions between proponents of workers of the comms field and those of the KM field. That’s what agile KM is also about. I am a knowledge sharing and communication specialist, so it makes perfect sense to me that both fields are related, perhaps this post gives you some ideas to consider it too?

And while at that, here are some possibly interesting resources around similar discussions in the past:

Related blog posts:

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2 thoughts on “Revisiting the links between communication and knowledge management

  1. Hello Jaap,

    For sure traditional comms fits in that block. But the point is, comms is somewhat (at least in some organisations) moving beyond that message-based dissemination-focused function towards more real-time, multi-party engagement, and that’s where – in your framework – it starts pervading conversation, documentation and information spaces very much…

    An underlying part of this all is ‘network curation’ or gardening our relations. That is part of comms and KM and pretty much every other operation but definitely comms should play a key role in this, and marketing is no longer a trump to cultivating relationships there. Interesting to see what the future has in store for traditional comms ;) The social media marketing bubble is already about to explose…

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