Most executives today recognize that their organizations must be able to manage knowledge effectively — it’s a strategic imperative. Just how they should go about developing that ability is the challenge. As in most other areas of management advice, there is no shortage of useful frameworks, models and checklists to choose from. Unfortunately, these solutions are generally undifferentiated; they are presented as applicable in any and all situations, and managers are left to make their own mistakes as they use one tool or another to ill effect. To take only one example, communities of practice, while immensely valuable in some contexts, have limited utility in others.
We believe that executives can begin to take a more nuanced approach to this issue if they realize that knowledge has a life cycle. Life-cycle models have already been usefully developed as a tool for thinking about products and technology, and the idea that knowledge changes form as it diffuses through a population is well established.1 The practical implications of the knowledge life cycle, however, have not been discussed in detail.
Over the course of a five-year study, we have devised a model to help explain the life of an idea in commercial settings. The model shows that new knowledge is born as something fairly nebulous (often in the head of one individual) and that it takes shape as it is tested, matures through application in a few settings, is diffused to a growing audience, and eventually becomes widely understood and recognized as common practice. ( For an overview of our study, see“About the Research.”) In this article, we develop the concept of the knowledge life cycle in detail and then describe appropriate strategies for managing ideas at each stage of the cycle. We also outline the model’s implications for companies’ knowledge strategies as a whole.
Knowledge-management tools are not universally applicable; different tools are required at different stages of an idea’s life. Executives who understand the dynamics of the life cycle in their industry will be better able to determine what kind of knowledge their organization needs and how they can effectively select and develop the tools and techniques to manage it.