Knowledge Management: The darker side of KM

Frank Land, Sevasti-Melissa Nolas and Urooj Amjad


Knowledge Management is widely regarded as the way an enterprise can leverage the know how of its employees, trading partners, and outside experts for the benefit of the enterprise (Chun Wei Choo, 1998, Bellaver & Lusa, 2001, Ackerman et al, 2003). Indeed some its advocates regard knowledge management as the essential tool for success in the highly competitive world of the global economy. Further, it is argued, the management, and with it the sharing of knowledge, not only enhances the enterprises ability to compete by increasing the competence of its employees also enriches the welfare of all those who are able to engage in the process. Hence, for those involved it is a win win game.

The advocates fall into two groups – those who focus on technology as the mechanism for managing and sharing knowledge, and those who place a greater an emphasis on human relations, on conversation and on the elicitation of tacit knowledge. But both groups appear to share the assumption that knowledge management is beneficial, and that in some senses the knowledge which is managed and shared is equivalent to the ‘truth’.

There is an asymmetry in most of the discussion of the field. Knowledge management is primarily discussed from the point of view of the user of knowledge. The motivation of the user of knowledge is seen to be to enhance capabilities, to be able to utilize knowledge to increase effectiveness.

There is much less discussion about the source of knowledge or of the dissemination of knowledge or of the motives of the knowledge provider. That information provides power is widely admitted. At the same time the political dimension of knowledge management and knowledge sharing is often covered in the KM literature as no more than an aside. Yet if we follow Sussman and her colleagues (Sussman et al, 2002) who perceive an organization to be a “political system, a network of interdependent members using power, influence, and political manoeuvring to achieve their goals”
Politics can be been defined as an intentional social influence process in which behaviour is strategically designed to maximize short term or long term self interests.

In the real world politics is often the dominant influence and knowledge manipulation, the dark side of knowledge management, is its prime weapon. In the world of politics we are accustomed to the notions of spin, deception and propaganda. The business world is no different. If we want to pick out those companies which have been the most successful managers of knowledge, ENRON appears high on the list. For many years they achieved competitive success through the systematic management of information and knowledge. One of their prime tools of knowledge management was the shredder.

My conclusion – knowledge management has a very strong ethical dimension and unless we recognise that fact we are going to develop technology based systems which enhance the power of the knowledge manipulator.

The paper traces the evolution of the concepts behind knowledge management, contrasts this with the actual practice and highlights the ethical problems that the development of ever more efficient tools for the dissemination of ‘knowledge’ poses for the systems designer.


Ackerman, M., Pipek, V., Wulf, V., (2003), Sharing Expertise: Beyond Knowledge Management, MIT Press, Cambridge Mass.

Bellaver, R.F., & Lusa, J.M., (2001), Knowledge Management Strategy and Technology. Artech House.

Choo, Chun Wei, (1998), The Knowing Organization: How Organizations Use Information to Construct Meaning, Create Knowledge and Make Decisions, Oxford University Press, Oxford

Sussman, L., Adams, A. J., & Raho, L. E. (2002). Organizational Politics: Tactics, Channel, and Hierarchical Roles. Journal of Business Ethics, 40, 313-329.