The hard and soft side of knowledge management. An HR or IT-approach?
published by , on 15/07/2011

By Pierre Dagneau (Unisys Belgium)

There is no doubt that sharing knowledge is essential.
What is sometimes called into question is whether the best way to approach it is either from a Human Resources perspective or from an IT perspective. In fact, there are two main schools of thought, each with their specific view on how knowledge management could succeed. What is the best approach to address knowledge management ?

A soft or hard school?

The “HR-school” is a soft school consisting of people with the conviction that knowledge sharing issues should primarily be addressed with HR-related solutions. It is determined by training, culture, KM adoption by employees, …

The hard school are those who defend the idea that knowledge sharing is mainly a question of IT solutions, among other things, knowledge bases, taxonomies, search engines, social tools and collaboration platforms. Experience shows that both schools are right and wrong.

The truth

Both schools are right for two reasons. On one hand, we should put in place the required organisational and human conditions in order for knowledge sharing to occur (climate of trust, recognition of the people contribution for sharing or reuse, adequate KM performance evaluation  system …). Therefore, a real cultural change and KM adoption program must be put in place.

On the other hand, a KM solution will have to rely on adequate knowledge sharing infrastructure and robust KM processes. This infrastructure can be seen as a catalyst which facilitates the sharing of knowledge by allowing users to have easy access to relevant information through powerful search engines, to better collaborate via social media (and colloboration platforms) and to better manage the knowledge via knowledge base systems.

But, up to a certain extend, both schools are wrong too. In order to suceed, a knowledge management project must combined both schools. Isolated, each approach only gives a partial answer to knowledge management requirements. It is one of the common causes of KM failure.

The “Google-isation” of Knowledge Management

To illustrate this issue let’s take what I call the “Google-isation” of knowledge management. Many leaders, sometimes influenced by knowledge management solutions suppliers, claim that the implementation of just a modern search engine (Google,  Microsoft Fast …) solves all knowledge sharing problems in their company. Nothing is less true!

Do you want a knowledge management project to be successful? therefore you need both, IT and HR. This is a necessary condition to succeed, but this is not enough.

The knowledge management project should also include:
•    A clear knowledge management strategy defined at the top level and supporting the business strategy;
•    A strong KM governance model;
•    KM monitoring metrics (Adoption rate, ROI …).

Knowledge management cannot be bought or imposed. It must be accepted throughout the Organization and requires both “soft” and “hard” approaches.

The author is Sr Director Knowledge Management Solutions at Unisys Belgium.

(The original text appeared, in Dutch, on

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