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Abell, Angela and Oxbrow, Nigel. Competing with knowledge: the information professional in the knowledge management age. London: Library Association Publishing, 2001. 275 p. ISBN 1-85604-340-1. 37.50.

When looking for a course book for students studying Information Management at Borås that would coherently reflect recent developments in this area I browsed through a vast number of books. This book by Abell and Oxbrow looked quite promising:

  • it has an easy style,
  • convenient layout of the text,
  • plenty of graphic material helping to visualise a complex information environment,
  • a very concise and sharp Chapter 8,
  • an extensive glossary, and
  • having read that "knowledge is what people know; information is how they communicate it" (p. 73) I was thrilled: at last here is an intelligent text produced by the people who know what they are doing.

I can only thank my female instinct that for the first year I placed it in the list of recommended (not obligatory) texts, because on further exploration I discovered that these positive features of the book are entirely annihilated by the rest of it. (This decision most probably makes me a perfect knowledge manager!)

On page 33 the authors state that:

Knowledge management (KM) is like beauty - in the eye of the beholder. There is no universally accepted definition of the term, perhaps reflecting its essential character, its unique interpretation by the organisation that adopts the philosophy.

However, the authors are not quite sure what constitutes the beauty of KM in their eyes, as throughout the book 'knowledge management' is referred to not only as a philosophy, but as a practice, a crucial element of the global business process, as being not a standard approach, activity, etc. And this 'beauty' is accompanied by an incomprehensible mass of objects that should be managed: intellectual capital, intellectual property, intangible assets, competencies and skills, people, organisational learning, memory, everything... Is that all? In the glossary that I praised to students (mea culpa) there is one more definition:

KM is "the creation and subsequent management of an environment which encourages knowledge to be created, shared, learnt, enhanced, organised for the benefit of the organisations and its customers."

So far, so good. There is a chapter on knowledge environment, so, let's take a look what a knowledge environment is:

A knowledge environment is Utopia. A place where we all want to work, and concepts we have probably heard before. (p. 39)

Heaven help me when inquisitive young people eager to acquire competence to manage something that does not exist come and ask me how it is done!.

I tried to find some sense in the concept of KM in the authors' section on the 'Goals and objectives' of KM. But, in fact, the lists and definitions relate to management in general, rather than to KM - unless we are to assume that KM is being proposed as a synonym for 'management'. I was rather surprised, also, to find that one aim of KM is "the developing of a corporate instinct" as a means of making informed decisions (p. 37). Typically, however, we are not advised as to how one develops such an instinct through the numerous strategies that are labelled 'knowledge management'.

The greatest surprise was lurking on the page 74:

Considering that all organisations rely for their success on effective information flows, it is surprising that there is no one cohesive information management discipline.

Certainly, it is surprising to learn this news for someone like me, who graduated from a cohesive IM programme back in the 1970s, who assisted the development of studies in IM in several West and East European universities, taught different modules of IM for undergraduate, and graduate students, and professional development courses for information managers. It is even more surprising that this statement comes from UK with the highest number of IM university degree programmes (even now when some of them are converted into KM programmes), with the highest number of researchers in the field apart from the USA (one can look only at "International Journal of Information Management" for evidence of this - and what is this journal about, by the way, if it has not been playing a role in the development of a 'cohesive information management discipline'?).

Paradoxically, the glossary conveniently supplies the definition of IM as

an umbrella term for the various activities that contribute to the effective production, co-ordination, storage , retrieval and dissemination of information... leading to the more effective functioning of the organisation.

I sighed with relief, since this definition seems remarkably close to the authors' definition of 'knowledge management'. Of course, I could point out that it would have been easier to take the definition from The International Encyclopaedia of Library and Information Science (London: Routledge, 1997), but even this definition makes more sense than managing Utopias and creating corporate instincts.

There is also the baffling accusation that the professional language of the information profession is the main reason for the development of a substitute or parallel language in KM:

Taxonomies, for example, have become an accepted feature of a KM environment, together with codified information. In such environments the terms thesaurus, classification and cataloguing are not much used, although in practice they are much in evidence. (p. 72)

So, the invention of the new words to name something that has existed for centuries and has terms accepted not only in information studies but also in the natural sciences, linguistics, and the social and other sciences is a sign of high professionalism! Certainly, this has nothing to do with the array of fads reviewed in the chapter 2 as the greatest achievements of thought.

One can always blame a reviewer for malicious extraction of phrases from the context of the book. I wish it was the case here, but I have to admit that I hate to criticise others and, therefore, agree to write reviews only of the books that I essentially like. And I set to do this in the case of "Competing with knowledge", having been beguiled by its style and format. One thing I will not deny to the book: it was great fun to read, especially when I shared it with my colleagues. The copy on my table is full of remarks and notes made by me and others on practically every page, but a full analysis of the text would require another book.

So, I will conclude with "lessons to be learned" (p. 63):

  • to somebody writing a book on knowledge management: why not use the good old method of checking catalogues and bibliographies for the related references, or in KM language - why not start with collecting the knowledge and lessons learned since at least the middle of XXth century to see if there is something that has already been discovered long ago, which would save you from inventing a square wheel?
  • to somebody looking for an intelligent book for a course on knowledge management: do not select the book reviewed here if you care about the intellectual development and sanity of your students.
Dr. Elena Macevičiūtė
Swedish School of Information and Library Science
Högskolan i Borås
June 2002

How to cite this review

Maceviciute, E. (2002) Review of: Abell, Angela and Oxbrow, Nigel.  Competing with knowledge: the information professional in the knowledge management age.   London: Library Association Publishing, 2001.   Information Research, 8(1), review no. R070    [Available at: http://informationr.net/ir/reviews/revs070.html]