Laurence Prusak: Profiles in Knowledge

Stan Garfield
28 min readOct 8, 2018

Originally published on June 15, 2018

This is the 22nd article in the Profiles in Knowledge series featuring thought leaders in knowledge management. Larry Prusak passed away on September 23, 2023. He had one of the great minds in the field, providing useful insights based on his extensive reading, keen observations, and deep thinking. Along with Tom Davenport, he wrote one of the most important KM books, Working Knowledge: How Organizations Manage What They Know.

I first heard Larry speak at DCI’s Knowledge Management Conference in Boston in 1998, at which he delivered a keynote, “Enablers and Enemies of Knowledge Management.” At that event, someone approached me and asked if I was Larry Prusak. As much as it was a great honor to be confused with him, it was likely due to that fact that we had the same hairstyle.

I was fortunate to have attended multiple Working Knowledge Research Center conferences at Babson College, where I became friends with Larry. I invited Larry and Tom Davenport to stage a debate at a global KM team meeting that I led at HP, and it was a highlight for all who attended. We were both lecturers in Columbia University’s IKNS program.




  • Asian Development Bank (ADB) — Advisor in Knowledge and Learning, 2022–2023
  • Knowledge Strategies — Director of Research and Consulting, 2017-2023
  • Columbia University IKNS Program — Senor Advisor and Faculty, 2018–2022
  • NASA — Senior Knowledge Advisor, 2006–2019
  • McKinsey — Senior Knowledge Advisor, 2007–2011
  • Ernst & Young Center for Business Innovation — Principal, 2000–2006
  • IBM — Executive Director; Institute for Knowledge Management, 1996–2005


Larry Prusak was a researcher and consultant and was the founder and Executive Director of the Institute for Knowledge Management (IKM). This was a global consortium of member organizations engaged in advancing the practice of knowledge management through action research. Larry had extensive experience, within the U.S. and internationally, in helping organizations work with their information and knowledge resources. He also consulted with many U.S. and overseas government agencies and international organizations (NGO’s). He co-directed the Working Knowledge Research Center program at Babson College, where he was a Distinguished Scholar in Residence.

Previously, Larry was a Principal and founder of Ernst & Young’s Center for Business Innovation, specializing in issues of corporate knowledge management. While there, he was responsible for helping to build a consulting practice centered on organizations managing their knowledge resources. Larry’s professional background also included work as a researcher and librarian at Baker Library at the Harvard Graduate School of Business Administration, and as a teacher of the History of Ideas at several universities.

He held a B.A. in history from Long Island University, an M.S. in information science from Simmons College, and an M.A. in economic and social history from New York University (where he completed all the examinations and course work toward a Ph.D.). He received an Honorary Ph.D. from Long Island University.

Larry lectured at Columbia University, the Harvard Business School, M.I.T., New York University, the University of California Berkeley, the University of Southern California, the Wharton School, Copenhagen Business School, Monash University (Melbourne), Queens University (Belfast), Tel Aviv University, and Victoria University (Wellington).


10 Highlights

  1. The World is Round (Harvard Business Review, April 2006) — It’s conventional wisdom that the Internet has made the world flatter. But we’re not necessarily smarter, and many people have been left behind.
  2. Learning From the Internet Giants (Sloan Management Review, Summer 2004) with Leigh M. Weiss and Maria M. Capozzi — Getting more value from knowledge — especially from a firm’s own hard-won knowledge — is one of the central challenges facing companies today. Many organizations have approached this problem in recent years by making big investments in IT systems, but the payoff has often been disappointing. Companies would do better to emulate the innovative giants of the Internet — Google, eBay, and Amazon — whose success has in part derived from their ability to make it easy for customers to find what they are looking for, to browse for products and services, and to evaluate potential purchases. These are exactly the things that are hard to do in most companies. That is, employees find that it is not intuitive to search for information in company repositories; they cannot easily browse within categories of knowledge; and they are not given the context they need to evaluate the quality of the knowledge they do find. The authors assert that if organizations apply the basic, proven approaches of the Internet success stories to capture the attention of their employees, they should be able to improve their ROI on sunk IT costs while increasing knowledge-worker productivity.
  3. The Performance Variability Dilemma (Sloan Management Review, Fall 2003) with Eric Matson — Performance variability frustrates managers everywhere. Having studied this issue in depth, the authors found that the appropriate intervention to reduce differences in performance depends on individual work practices — their frequency and predictability.
  4. Who’s Bringing You Hot Ideas (and How Are You Responding)? (Harvard Business Review, February, 2003) with Tom Davenport and H. James Wilson — There’s an unsung hero in your organization. It’s the person who’s bringing in new ideas from the outside about how to manage better.
  5. Knowing What We Know Supporting Knowledge Creation and Sharing in Social Networks (Organizational Dynamics, Fall 2001)
  6. The People Who Make Organizations Go — or Stop (Harvard Business Review, June 2002) with Rob Cross — Managers invariably use their personal contacts when they need to, say, meet an impossible deadline or learn the truth about a new boss. Increasingly, it’s through these informal networks — not just through traditional organizational hierarchies — that information is found and work gets done.
  7. Preserving Knowledge in an Uncertain World (Sloan Management Review, Fall 2001)
  8. Where Did Knowledge Management Come From? (IBM System Journal, 2001)
  9. How to Invest Social Capital (Harvard Business Review, June 2001)
  10. The Eleven Deadliest Sins Of Knowledge Management (California Management Review, Spring 1998) with Liam Fahey — This article draws attention to a number of errors that could potentially cripple the efforts of any organization attempting to generate and leverage knowledge. Many of these errors are associated with the concept of knowledge itself — how knowledge is understood in organizational settings. The article notes the sources of each error as well as some key implications for managing knowledge. It concludes with some brief suggestions on how to avoid, or at least ameliorate these errors.

Liam Fahey and Laurence Prusak list 11 errors made in the practice of KM:

  1. Not developing a working definition of knowledge
  2. Emphasizing knowledge stock to the detriment of knowledge flow
  3. Viewing knowledge as existing predominantly outside of the heads of individuals
  4. Not understanding that a fundamental intermediate purpose of managing knowledge is to create shared context
  5. Paying little heed to the role and importance of tacit knowledge
  6. Disentangling knowledge from its uses
  7. Downplaying thinking and reasoning
  8. Focusing on the past and the present and not the future
  9. Failing to recognize the importance of experimentation
  10. Substituting technological contact for human interface
  11. Seeking to develop direct measures of knowledge

This article was revisited by the following bloggers:

  1. The 11 Deadliest Sins of KM (revisited)
  2. The 11 Axioms of Knowledge Management

Q — (to Larry Prusak): What are your current thoughts about your article “The Eleven Deadliest Sins of KM?”

A — (from Larry Prusak): I re-read the article in question (first time in 5 years) and find it holds up well. I’d rather not comment on the commentators but here is my take on the article’s premises.

  1. Error 1: This is still one big error. Everywhere I speak people conflate information and knowledge — and this situation is greatly abetted by IT vendors and consultants for obviously commercial reasons. I would estimate that tens of billions of dollars have been wasted by organizations trying to work with knowledge by buying IT tools. Since none of this is taught in Business schools or perhaps ANY schools it isn’t too surprising that most people can’t define knowledge as distinct from information.
  2. Error 2: This is also still an issue, though we have made much progress in it. There can’t be too many organizations these days who still feel that large collections of documents is the best way to work with knowledge, at least not in the US or Europe.
  3. Error 3: I would write this one a bit differently today. While knowledge is still produced and absorbed by people the distinctions between where the knowledge actually resides isn’t always worth fighting over.
  4. Error 4: This is as true as ever, even more so with virtuality and all its discontents gaining adherents. Context is a good synonym for knowledge itself, and is best (perhaps only) created through live give and take, etc. It can’t be done well, if at all, through email and other e-exchanges.
  5. Error 5: I think too much has been made about the distinctions between tacit and explicit knowledge, all those models for moving one to another, etc. All knowledge is always both tacit AND explicit.
  6. Error 6: This one is also still true. KM in general follows pragmatism as a philosophy in not believing in distinctions between knowing and action. Isolating knowledge as a thing apart is mostly pointless in business, as contrasted with academics.
  7. Error 7: Well, anyone who thinks that anti-intellectualism isn’t a very strong force in American and UK culture is just out to lunch. If anything it’s gotten stronger with the continuous use of varied media like IM, Google, etc. to replace real reflection and serious reading. I travel all the time and in contrast to years ago, I almost never see people reading anything substantial while flying. I’m told by friends who teach MBAs at the “top” schools that they can’t get their students to read anything not online.
  8. Error 8: This is also part of a bigger discussion that many management theorists and practitioners are having about how to escape the iron cage of short-termism. Many of us think that every executive needs to be more mindful of all those Black Swans out there waiting to strike. I haven’t any idea how to change this but change it must!
  9. Error 9: Rewarding failure is never easy; it is never going to be too popular. But we must do it to have a culture of knowledge growth. How else can any organization learn if it is afraid to do and think things? So this sin is still valid.
  10. Error 10: This one has waned in commission. While technophiles still abound, they have less salience in KM discussions where they once dominated. No one thinks anymore that technology doesn’t have a real role in any KM work, but no one I know still thinks that KM is mainly a problem needing a technological fix to cure (well, maybe a few deluded souls at some technology companies).
  11. Error 11: Once again, I think this battle is won. There is some great research being done on what actually can be measured in regards to knowledge activities, and more will be done in the future. But no one anymore tries to measure knowledge, per se. This is one we managed to kill.

All in all, I think the article was pretty good for its time and I know it helped some organizations change their wrong-headed approaches to working with knowledge. How many research articles ever accomplish even that much?

Other Harvard Business Review Articles

  1. The Cost of Knowledge with Al Jacobson — Future investments in knowledge management should focus less on enhancing systems that track down information and more on helping employees use what they’ve found.
  2. The Madness of Individuals — Collective decisions are often better than individual ones.
  3. How to Invest in Social Capital with Donald J. Cohen — Business runs better when people within a company have close ties and trust one another. But the relationships that make organizations work effectively are under assault for several reasons. Building such “social capital” is difficult in volatile times. Disruptive technologies spawn new markets daily, and organizations respond with constantly changing structures. The problem is worsened by employees’ working off-site or on their own. The authors describe how managers can help their organizations thrive by making effective investments in social capital.
  4. A Matter of Trust — Trust as a theme or idea has a lineage as old as Hammurabi. So why has it taken researchers in fields such as economics and organizational science so long to look at such an important subject? Trust is finally getting serious scrutiny from researchers, who are uncovering a wealth of interesting data about is value to companies.

Blog Posts

1. The Rising Tide of Knowledge Populism

2. Books Worth A Look

3. A Tale of Two Books on Knowledge — Two rather important and quite different books have been published that should be of considerable interest to anyone who cares about the task of better understanding how knowledge works in this world.

  • The first, ‘The New Argonauts: Regional Advantage in a Global Economy’ by AnnaLee Saxenian is published by Harvard University Press. This is the first real empirical study on how knowledge-flows really work.
  • Another stunning, though quite different knowledge book, is David Warsh’s ‘Knowledge and the Wealth Of Nations: A Story of Economic Discovery’ published by Norton. This book is nothing less than an intellectual history of how the very idea of knowledge has re-entered economics (it was an important theme to Adam Smith but got lost in the later 20th century).

4. Lesser-Known, Must-Read KM Books for 2006

5. The Yule Punch-inspired KM Discussion

6. The Four Names for Knowledge

7. The Truth about Telecommuting

8. Farewell Peter Drucker

9. The best books for creating and sustaining knowledge at work with Ed Hoffman and Matt Kohut

10. LinkedIn Posts


1. In Good Company: How Social Capital Makes Organizations Work — Making Social Capital Work with Don Cohen

2. Storytelling: Organizational Perspective

3. Knowing What We Know: Supporting Knowledge Creation and Sharing in Social Networks with Rob Cross, Andrew Parker, and Stephen Borgatti

4. Designing Effective Knowledge Networks with Katrina Pugh

5. Information Politics with Tom Davenport and Robert Eccles

6. If Only BP Knew Now What it Knew Then with Tom Davenport

7. Who Are the Gurus’ Gurus? with Tom Davenport — Two hundred of today’s leading management thinkers were asked to identify their gurus. The result is an illuminating list, notable for some of the less obvious names it contains.

8. The Knowledge Notebook: The Burden of Knowledge

9. Storytelling in Organizations and Knowledge Management

10. Putting Ideas to Work with Tom Davenport and Bruce Strong — WSJ

Knowledge management can make a difference — but it needs to be more pragmatic

Over the past 15 years or so, many large organizations have embraced the idea that they could become more productive and competitive by better managing knowledge — the ideas, insights and expertise that originate in the human mind.

In practice, however, some of them are still struggling to make it work. Their knowledge-management efforts, while useful in some ways, haven’t necessarily led to better products and services, more effective employees or superior work processes.

What went wrong? Some firms stumbled by focusing their knowledge-management efforts solely on technology at the expense of everything else, while others failed to tie knowledge programs to overall business goals or the organization’s other activities. A new approach is needed if knowledge management is to transition into a more pragmatic discipline, one that can be used to improve specific job functions and work processes.

Back to School

  • The Issue: Knowledge management, in practice, has fallen short of its goal of transforming the way companies work.
  • The Problem: Many firms have focused solely on disseminating knowledge via technology, ignoring the other aspects of knowledge management.
  • The Bottom Line: Organizations need a broader management strategy, one that addresses how they are creating, sharing and using knowledge.

The article provides a closer look at each of the three knowledge-related activities and suggestions for managing them effectively.

  • Knowledge Creation
  • Knowledge Dissemination
  • Knowledge Application

11. Why is the KM Experience Different in Europe?

I recently spent ten days talking to practitioners and some academics about knowledge and learning in four different European locations — two in Italy, two in Denmark. Now I won’t bore you with who said what, but some things stand out for me as very distinct from when I do the same sort of thing in the U.S. Here they are — fire at will!

  • European managers have a far greater interest in the theory and philosophy of knowledge and learning. Here’s why: Very few of them major in business or engineering at university, and few study computer science or even hard sciences. For better or worse, this leads them to believe that discussing concepts that may seem obscure or philosophical can be valuable. It must be since they did it at school! They also are comfortable with ambiguity — something one would have to be if studying anything in the humanities or social sciences (economics possibly excluded). In my experience, saying to an audience of business majors, “We just don’t know enough about that” or “There is no certainty that this will happen” is a guaranteed turnoff. As is the all-time killer: “It can’t be measured.”
  • Far fewer business books are published and read in Continental Europe. All that junk about how leaders make the world go round, or how to win, or how to move cheese … is far less consumed. The U.K. is more like the U.S. in this regard, sad to say.
  • Knowledge-type stuff is taught in many European business schools. This gives the subject, in general, cognitive authority and provides a type of cover to those managers willing to experiment with the subject. By contrast, it is barely taught in the U.S., whose schools seem to think that technology and finance are all that is important (along with the ever-present leadership mantras and a dose of HR pabulum). Barely a word on capabilities, capacities, knowledge-based theories of the firm, and so on.

There are some other reasons I could give — for example, people there are far more interested in conversations and reflection. If I had a dollar for every time I heard in the U.S., “that’s just theory” or “just do it” or “you can’t boil the ocean” or or or or or…

Now I love the U.S., and there are wonderful things that happen here that do NOT happen so much in Europe, to be sure. But the U.S. is certainly a hard place to get a hearing for what seems to me (and many others) to be the most important thing an organization has: its knowledge.

Book Reviews

  1. Made to Stick — This book delineates just how to package and present ideas so that they stick — they stay in your head and you actually act on them. The Heaths maintain presenters should focus on the six things that make ideas stick — aptly summed up in the mnemonic SUCCES: simplicity, unexpectedness, concreteness, credibility, emotion, and story. Don’t forget that last one among your bullet points. The Heaths show how to embed your ideas in a narrative that is compelling and engaging, rather than depend solely on analytical persuasion. In a sprightly and very engaging tone (the dry stuff is in the footnotes) the Heaths have produced a first-rate book for managers, who all should realize just how useful it is to have some help in getting their ideas heard in an increasingly noisy marketplace of ideas.
  2. Everything is MiscellaneousDavid Weinberger is the most erudite and reflective of the hearty band of webtopians: those who believe that the web brings us varied and untold joys, with little pain. While I’m not at all a member of this tribe, I do believe the webtopians are all worth reading and engaging with. This book is a good case in point. The main argument of Everything Is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder is that the various categories by which we organize our understanding of life have been more or less limited by the physical world. With the vast power of modern computing and the various ways the web can be used, we no longer have to use such categories and we can better exercise our imaginations and understanding through the structured miscellaneousness that cyber tools make possible… It’s not perfect. I wish that he had elaborated on some of the points about knowledge. A further discussion of power and politics in the world of categories would have been useful, too — especially as one has a strong sense that these subjects are all bubbling in the author’s mind.
  3. The Black Swan — We were asked to state what has most surprised each of us over our working lives. My answer, after some reflection, was Nobody Knows Anything. For knowledge managers, this sentiment may appear ironic, but it is similar to my observation about pundits. Many people think they know more than they do. Dr. Taleb has a Ph.D. in math, and has had much success as a trader, mainly in currencies. He is a true original. I have never read a book quite like this one, and neither have you. Not even his first volume, Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets, has quite the panache and bite of this volume. It is full of odd and interesting things, all informed by Taleb’s passionate dislike of most business executives, almost all economists, and many other prognosticators.
  4. Mobilizing Minds — Mobilizing Minds will more than mobilize the mind of any reader. It will inspire, energize, and give them a basis for taking imaginative and creative action.

Articles by Others

1. Big Thinkers, Big Ideas: Larry Prusak by Carla O’Dell

How Wise are Your Leaders? by Carla O’Dell

2. Dead KM Walking by Patrick Lambe — A fascinating, robust and sometimes sharp discussion with Larry Prusak and Dave Snowden on the topic “Is Knowledge Management Dead?” They think that KM as a field has been irredeemably corrupted by the many false plays and hijacks it has been subjected to, while I still have hope. Watch the podcast for the full story, and a million thanks to Larry and Dave for a great conversation.

3. Davenport and Prusak on KM and big data/analytics interview by David J. Pauleen

4. Prusak on Knowledge, Community, and Dunbar’s Number by Jim McGee — These are my notes from a talk that Larry Prusak gave at my invitation at the Kellogg School back when I was on the faculty there in 2002. Topics:

  • Unit of Analysis
  • Social Capital
  • Defining Knowledge
  • Promoting Community
  • Knowledge and Learning

Larry closed with a really great question to use when poking around in an organization trying to get a sense of its attitudes toward knowledge and learning — “can you make a mistake around here?”

5. The Future of Knowledge — Commentary on Larry’s APQC keynote by Jim Lee

Larry Prusak finished up his keynote this morning, which I’d like to sum up in one word — challenge — and four themes:

  1. The monopoly of useful knowledge is over!
  2. New models of knowledge exchange have emerged that will change the way organizations look in the future.
  3. Virtual collaboration cannot provide the richness of in-person interaction.
  4. Storytelling is better than MS-PowerPoint.

Larry’s talk challenged some long standing frameworks, “truths,” and even some emerging trends. So in short, he piqued the interest of everyone, regardless of their original viewpoint.

Citing that historically a “monopoly” of knowledge by Western civilizations allowed those to flourish, today’s access to information has democratized it, reduced its transaction costs, and increased the value of true knowledge. So emerging economies, like those in the Pacific Rim, may well be the frontrunners in the future.

Changes in how knowledge is socialized today directly challenges many organizational structures — the hierarchical ones that is. Networks have proven to be valuable in removing rigidity. Good to know that Larry sees the world the way APQC does!

Virtual collaboration, while having value, cannot supplant the face-to-face context of knowledge exchange. Prusak felt strongly that those not well connected in a physical office environment (read: virtual workers), not only miss key opportunities for knowledge sharing, but also have pretty sealed their fates in advancement opportunities. As APQC’s first virtual employee (after I was given CPR) I quickly asked Carla about clearing out a cubicle in the office for me!

Okay, so Larry didn’t really say that storytelling is better than PowerPoint, but he did say that he got rid of his bullet points over a decade ago.

Great stuff…but I’m challenging Larry’s challenge (at least the virtual worker one).

6. KM Gets Real by Carol Hildebrand — Larry Prusak, the executive director of IBM’s Institute for Knowledge Management in Cambridge, Mass., has written and spoken about the subject of knowledge management for years. He has cowritten several books on the subject, and was one of the founding fathers of Ernst and Young’s knowledge management practice. He recently spoke with CIO about what’s new in knowledge management.

CIO: What do you see as the next trends in KM?

Prusak: Well, there seems to be a growing consensus among companies doing knowledge management that the correct focus should be neither on the individual or the enterprise, but instead on some grouping of people who share common context, stories and passion, around a subject. For example, Ford has a lively community that grew up around the subject of new brake technology. World Bank has 126 different groups that discuss topics as diverse as aquatic agriculture. I think such groups represent the right type of unit to share knowledge. It’s not about one individual, or the entire enterprise. These people want to help each other out; you don’t have to incense them. Instead, you see more and more alignment.

CIO: Hmmm. So how do you go about creating such communities?

Prusak: You really can’t forcibly create a community. You can encourage them or prod them, but you can’t create them. Instead, concentrate on providing conditions in which they are likely to flourish.

CIO: Such as?

Prusak: Give them space, time, encouragement and good technology. For example, space can mean either physical space or cyberspace. The point is to give people a place to seek each other out and talk. It doesn’t always have to be face-to-face talking, although ultimately you will need direct contact — you can’t convey passion without it. After all, about 80 percent to 90 percent of communication is nonverbal. As an aside, I think that as visual technology improves, the need for face-to-face interaction will be eased somewhat.

Although you can’t force communities through incentives, since membership in a community is a form or altruism, you can do some things to help them grow. Maybe you can create lounges, or fund a conference where people can meet and share knowledge. Provide some common space in your office — if you have an office that’s all cubes and no shared space, you won’t get much of anything except a lot of individual bees buzzing away by themselves.

CIO: What else is new in KM?

Prusak: There are some generic strategies that we’re seeing companies assume with regard to knowledge management that I find interesting.

The first is when companies choose to use knowledge to support innovation. The main strategic thrust of an organization like this is “What don’t we know that we should know or need to know?” For example, a drug or technology company that needs to know how to do something. After they analyze these knowledge needs, they can then take action, whether it be through internal development, or acquisition (Think IBM buying Lotus to learn more about groupware.)

The second strategy is something I think of as using knowledge for replication. So, for example, corporate headquarters will come up with the design for the best bank or chip factory or fast-food restaurant, create a blueprint, and replicate this design point by point worldwide. Intel and McDonald’s do that.

The third strategy we’ve come across is the knowledge diffusion and absorption model. This happens when company executives start thinking, “Part of our company knows how to do X very well, and we wish the rest of the company knew how to do it as well.” But how do you get the message out? This kind of knowledge strategy has a lot to do with making people the focus, and not documentation. It’s generally not about writing reports or doing any sort of business process reengineering. It’s about coaching people in depth. It also usually involves transferring a group of employees so that they can show by example the changes that need to be made.

Lastly, there’s the idea of commercializing knowledge; in other words, a company trips over something it knows, and finds a way to make a dollar on it. In a way, all companies do this, and it’s a very viable strategy. It involves looking at what you have in-house, promising ideas that won’t sell for whatever reason, and seeing if changing technology, customer needs, etc., have now made this idea marketable.

CIO: What errors do you see in KM implementations?

Prusak: Focusing on the individual is an error, and the idea of sharing knowledge through financial incentives is fatuous, I think. I also think that there’s a struggle going on between those companies that have an overly technical focus on KM, and those that think it’s all just talking and cultural issues. It’s a real battle.

7. Which Way Forward for KM? interview by KnowledgeBoard’s Louise Druce

One of the major achievements of KM in recent years has been getting knowledge into the discourse and discussions of organisations, according to seasoned expert Larry Prusak. But it’s only half the battle — simply holding on to it is not enough if firms want to survive in the future.

Prusak is probably most well-known as the founder of the Institute for Knowledge Management, a global consortium of member organisations self-tasked with advancing KM through action research. He currently co-directs a knowledge research program at Babson College, where he is a Distinguished Scholar in Residence, but extensive work as a researcher and consultant has also meant he has seen a fair few changes to KM in his time.

He credits the fact that at least most people in many organisations today recognise KM is so multi-faceted, they need to take different approaches to it. It’s far removed from the scenario pre-1990s when knowledge was treated in the same way as information or data, with huge amounts of money wasted on systems that failed to manage all three components disparately.

But grey areas still exist when it comes to really getting under KM’s skin. One that concerns Prusak is the unit of analysis issue. In other words, what do we focus on when working with knowledge? Should it be the individual, the group, the enterprise? And what specifically can we do with knowledge within one of these units in terms of measurement and specificity? “Since knowledge is intangible, the whole question becomes murky,” he says. “Many people revert to managing information and technology because it’s tangible and easier to work with.”

Prusak doesn’t envisage any role for training in working with knowledge as he believes most of it is an “industrial-age activity” that will eventually disappear. Where he does see potential is in teaching people how to work with knowledge, to develop meta-knowledge and for mentoring for learning purposes.

Different directions

He also sees some clear trends emerging that could greatly impact the future of knowledge. The first concerns what Prusak sees as a loss on the monopoly of ‘practical’ or ‘useful’ knowledge that was held by the US, Western Europe and Japan since at least the 1880s. “The global absorption of knowledge and knowledge production means, in brief, there are so many new players in the global knowledge arena that one has to take account of them to understand a subject,” he explains. “Global searches for knowledge and knowledgeable people will intensify.”

He also believes there is a growing democratisation of knowledge movement. “Both within firms and societies, there is an erosion of traditional cognitive authority, accompanied by a growth of knowledge populism,” he continues, adding that it is enabled by an incredible growth in personal technologies.

The result, says Prusak, is many double-edged swords. “More people having more opinions and the means to broadcast them can be very beneficial in many ways but can also just add immense amounts of junk to everyone’s lives. This is a big issue that organisations will have to face,” he continues. “Some are making real gains by instituting what I call representative knowledge democratisation.” For example, this could be wikis intermediated by people with some knowledge of a subject.

A third major development, and potential problem, Prusak cites is that modern firms are poorly structured to deal with knowledge as a productive economic factor. “The modern organisation evolved in the 19th century to deal with land, labour and capital, not with knowledge, which was assumed to reside only in the heads of the owners and managers,” he says. “This led us to the modern organisation built on command and control mechanisms, run as hierarchical bureaucracies. This won’t do when knowledge is the major source of value, as it is for most large organisations today.”

He sees many firms looking for new models better equipped to manage knowledge, rather other sources of wealth. “This will be an increasingly important issue in the coming decades, especially as organisations enter the marketplace without the 19th century baggage that we carry,” he adds.

For those that manage to evolve, Prusak believes they will be more efficient, effective and innovative in working with knowledge; dominating their markets. For those organisations determined to stick to their guns, however, Prusak delivers a bleaker prediction for the future: “Many firms will just try and work harder and harder in the same ways,” he says. “They will go under and never know why they died.”


  1. Knowledge flows along existing pathways in organizations. If we want to understand how to improve the flow of knowledge, we need to understand those pathways.

2. “If you have one dollar to invest in knowledge management, put one cent into information management and 99 cents into human interaction.”

3. “Knowledge is in groups — not individuals.”

4. “Knowledge management” is dead by Tim Powell — No less an authority than Larry Prusak, who co-wrote one of the most prominent books on KM (Working Knowledge), agrees that the term “Knowledge Management” no longer serves us well. He recently said, “You can’t manage knowledge…it is clearly working with knowledge, but the words got there, and there it is.”

5. Personal Toolkit by Steve Barth

  • Larry Prusak’s dictum, “Knowledge is what a knower knows.”
  • “Taken literally, the need for a knower raises profound questions as to whether and how knowledge can exist outside the heads of individuals,” Prusak and Liam Fahey wrote in a 1998 article. “Although knowledge can be represented in and often embedded in organizational processes, routines and networks, and sometimes in document repositories, it cannot truly originate outside the heads of individuals. Nor is it ever complete outside of an individual.”

6. What is KM? Knowledge Management Explained by Michael E. D. Koenig — The concept is by no means limited to the military. Larry Prusak maintains that in the corporate world the most common cause of KM implementation failure is that so often the project team is disbanded and the team members almost immediately reassigned elsewhere before there is any debriefing or after-action report assembled. Any organization where work is often centered on projects or teams needs to pay very close attention to this issue and set up an after-action mechanism with clearly delineated responsibility for its implementation.

7. KM Conference Report by Michael E. D. Koenig — The importance of trust was also mentioned by a number of speakers. KM doesn’t work without trust. Larry Prusak’s proselytizing has been absorbed.

8. Vendors, consortiums scramble to define standards for KM by Dan Bolita — “In the emerging economy, a firm’s only sustainable advantage is its ability to leverage and utilize its knowledge,” said IKM co-director Laurence Prusak, a managing principal of IBM Consulting Group. “But there has been a distinct shortage of KM research and resources available.”

9. Talking knowledge management in Boston

  • Larry Prusak said, “Technology has the capability to make it happen, but it can’t do it alone.”
  • “The closer you can get to a face-to-face discussion, the closer it is to knowledge,” said Prusak. “If that word (knowledge) means more than the knower knows, they’re trying to sell you a system.”

10. On the Road: The Fall and Beyond by Nancy Garman — In a keynote speech at Buying & Selling eContent 2003, Larry Prusak, widely considered the father of knowledge management, suggested that KM has become so integrated into the fabric of how many companies do business that it risks fading into oblivion as a stand-alone discipline or specialty. His remarks, drawn from his recent book, What’s the Big Idea?, were in the context of how to know when and how to adopt a new idea aggressively and how to harness the power of new ideas.

11. A note to me: “I received the 2007 Annual Report from Fluor and was very pleased to see that their KM efforts were highlighted in the President’s letter — a very, very rare event for KM in my experience. I thought your blog readers might find it interesting.”

12. Knowledge Management and Epistemology



  1. Knowledge Management Contributions

2. Building a Collaborative Enterprise


  1. DCI’s KM Conference, 1998 — Keynote Presentation: Enablers and Enemies of Knowledge Management
  2. APQC KM Conference

SIKM Leaders Community

  1. April 2013 Judgment and Practical Wisdom
  2. November 2015 KM Trend Spotting: A Conversation with Kate Pugh
  3. June 19, 2018 Capabilities, not Strategies


1. Evolution of knowledge management

2. The Collaborative Enterprise

3. Some basic tools and methods for working with knowledge

4. The Three Generations of KM: from 1990 to present, and what we have learned so far

5. WorkTech11 New York

6. Role of Ideas and Knowledge in Productivity

7. Building Knowledge Capabilities in Organizations: How NASA did it

8. The power of knowledge in a global society

9. Business Process Improvement Interview

10. The Future of Knowledge

11. Knowledge Management in the Gates Project

12. Wisdom Course

13. Columbia University Master of Science in Information and Knowledge

14. Is KM Dead?

15. How to Make KM Succeed — lessons learned while studying knowledge in its varied forms and settings over the last 25 years — KA Connect 2017

16. Interview by Christopher Parsons of Knowledge Architecture — KA Connect 2017


1. Working Knowledge: How Organizations Manage What They Know with Tom Davenport

2. Storytelling in Organizations: Why Storytelling Is Transforming 21st Century Organizations and Management with John Seely Brown, Stephen Denning, and Katalina Groh

3. In Good Company: How Social Capital Makes Organizations Work with Don Cohen

4. Knowledge in Organizations

5. What’s the Big Idea? Creating and Capitalizing on the Best New Management Thinking with Tom Davenport and H. James Wilson

6. The Smart Mission: NASA’s Lessons for Managing Knowledge, People, and Projects with Edward Hoffman and Matthew Kohut

7. Knowledge Management and Organizational Learning: A Reader edited with Eric Matson

8. Creating Value with Knowledge: Insights from the IBM Institute for Business Value with Eric Lesser

9. Managing Information Strategically: Increase Your Company’s Competitiveness and Efficiency by Using Information as a Strategic Tool with James McGee

10. Information Ecology: Mastering the Information and Knowledge Environment and Capitalizing on the Best New Management Thinking with Tom Davenport



Stan Garfield

Knowledge Management Author and Speaker, Founder of SIKM Leaders Community, Community Evangelist, Knowledge Manager