KM critical in ever-changing times

Moving into the twenty-first century, many are propounding the concept of knowledge management. Is this an attempt by a few writers to give managers and workers advice about how to do their jobs? Is all of this merely hype? Or is it a new idea that may be frustrating or even impossible to implement in a way that gives companies true organizational value?

As a practitioner of knowledge management (KM) for the past three years, I can say that it is real and that it is bringing documented, measurable value to enterprises. Although the terminology associated with knowledge management often comes across as hype or jargon, it is concrete, practical and profoundly important to the success of commercial enterprises and state and federal government organizations.

Many commercial products touted as knowledge management attempt to define it in a way that promotes their set of products or services. Knowledge management is different from one organization to another; it must be tailored and designed specifically to meet the needs of an enterprise's knowledge workers.

There is an argument that KM has always existed. For years, business owners have passed their commercial knowledge on to their children, craftsmen have painstakingly taught their trades to apprentices, and workers have exchanged ideas and know-how on the job. New information and communication technologies are now enabling us to move knowledge management to a significantly higher level. This introduces new capabilities for sustaining intellectual capital, sharing knowledge and promoting intellectual collaboration. KM is evolving to the point where it is imperative and essential for enterprises to sustain a competitive advantage in specific measurable terms. According to John Keane, founder of Boston-based IT consulting firm Keane Inc., "To renew and sustain a competitive edge in today's business environment, an enterprise must capture and use all of the knowledge and skills of its employees."

Knowledge and information are now the most important resources for a company. Today's leaders depend on a wide array of knowledge to take action and enhance performance in a technical enterprise. The new information-based service economy places a premium on knowledge because of the accelerating pace of new information. This knowledge explosion requires explicit attention to developing the knowledge stocks (knowledge and intellectual capital) of managers, professionals and workers so they can compete successfully.

The primary drivers for the need of knowledge management in today's enterprises follow.

  • Sustaining intellectual capital within an enterprise is evolving as the most significant need for enterprise knowledge management systems (KMSs).
  • IT progress has recently revolutionized the way information is processed and stored. It has had dramatic influence on the development and growth of technical capabilities, new products and processes. It is within this development context that the requirement for effective knowledge management is critical.
  • Communication technology has increased cognizance of knowledge management as a core competence. This, coupled with advances in information technology such as Local Area Networks (LANs) and the Internet, has dramatically enhanced organizational interest in the topic of knowledge management.
  • The new global economy is requiring enterprises to identify new methods of managing information and knowledge effectively and simultaneously at multiple worldwide sites.
  • The level of sophistication of clients and their expectations has increased greatly. There is much lower tolerance for inferior products and services in the current competitive environment with the increased availability of professional goods and services.
People are less tolerant of intellectual arrogance and the restriction of valuable information and knowledge within the enterprise. Knowledge is power, and it is inherent in human nature for people to be protective and secretive regarding their knowledge and critical information. This attitude and negative action works against creating a work environment for knowledge growth that leads to solving enterprise problems and stimulating innovation.

What is KM?
The following definition of knowledge management is designed to be inclusive and capture the critical elements of this emerging discipline: KM is managing the leadership, organization, technology and learning aspects of internal and external intellectual assets through retention and collaborative sharing of knowledge to improve performance and inspire innovation throughout an enterprise.

Since knowledge management is rapidly being introduced to technical and non-technical enterprises and is becoming a key element for successful enterprise performance and growth, it is essential to have a holistic understanding of all of its critical elements. Knowledge management can become key in solving an enterprise's problems and enhancing innovation. However, it requires a basis for integrating technology, organization, leadership and learning. An enterprise's intellectual assets are based on both internal and external knowledge resources from both reuse of stored knowledge (retention) as well as the collaborative sharing of knowledge between individuals and groups. The result of this ability to manage knowledge is improved performance and new innovation, which leads to enterprise success.

Four pillars
The new business environment demands foresight, conversion, innovation and adaptation, in contrast to the traditional emphasis on optimization. Four foundational elements should be considered in deploying knowledge management. They are leadership, organization, technology and learning (see Fig. 1). Knowledge management can be viewed as the basis for integrating these foundational elements, also referred to as the four pillars of enterprise engineering, developed by Michael Stankosky, co-founder and co-director of the Institute for Knowledge Management at George Washington University. The pillars are the foundation for a complete knowledge management system and the basis to improve enterprise performance and innovation.

Figure 1: KM pillars
Figure 1
According to the Institute of Knowledge Management, a first-rate KM system integrates leadership, organization, technology and learning.

A summary of the four pillars follows:

  • Leadership: Successful implementation of a knowledge management system requires that a "champion" or leader be at, or near, the top of an organization.
  • Organization: Introducing knowledge management requires organizational change, and knowledge management will inevitably act as a catalyst for transforming the existing organization's culture. Identifying what kind of information or knowledge to capture and share directly depends on core processes. In order to begin developing a business process reengineering effort to integrate knowledge management within an organization, the existing business culture must be understood.
  • Technology: Technology is the "enabler" for new approaches to knowledge management. Gartner Inc. defines ten technologies that collectively make up full-function KM. The functional requirements that enterprises can select and use to build a KM solution to capture these processes include: capture and store, search and retrieve, send critical information to individuals or groups, structure and navigate, share and collaborate, synthesize, profile and personalize, solve or recommend, integrate with business applications and maintenance.

    No technology product meets every requirement and, before selecting a solution, enterprises need to clearly define their KM strategy, scope and requirements, and perform product evaluations to identify products that meet their needs.

  • Learning: Learning is an integral part of knowledge management. In the context of knowledge management, learning can be described as the acquisition of knowledge or a skill through study, experience, or instruction. Knowledge management facilitates continuous and ongoing processes of learning (as well as unlearning) in the organization. Enterprises must recognize that people operate and communicate through learning. This includes social processes of collaborating, sharing knowledge and building on each other's ideas. Managers must recognize that knowledge resides in people, and knowledge creation occurs in the process of social interaction and learning.

Developing strategy
Keane Inc. has developed a clear and succinct approach to deploying a knowledge management program or system within an enterprise. The company's Plan-Build-Manage strategy (see Fig. 2) provides an outstanding approach to fielding a successful knowledge management system throughout the life cycle.

Figure 2: Plan-Build-Manage strategy
Figure 2
The plan-build-manage strategy was created by Keane Inc. as an approach for guiding a KM system through the business life cycle.

Codification vs. personalization
It is also important to consider whether the enterprise's emphasis is on accessing and reusing existing knowledge, which is a codification strategy, or whether it is focused on capturing the tacit knowledge throughout the organization, which is a personalization strategy. In most cases, the strategy is a combination of the two. It is important to clearly define the strategy the enterprise needs to successfully develop a valuable knowledge management system. Without such a definition, the knowledge workers in the organization will not fully understand the emphasis of the KMS and its value. Table 1 illustrates the existing technologies that constitute either a codification or a personalization strategy.

Existing KM technology enablers
Codification strategy Personalization strategy
Knowledge assets
Intellectual capital management
Knowledge empowerment and
Collaboration management
  • Document management systems
  • Data mining systems
  • Knowledge inventory systems (search engines, knowledge mapping and information retrieval systems)
  • Data/information repositories (best practices, storytelling and lessons learned)
  • Online training systems
  • Electronic performance support systems
  • Database management system
  • Help desk applications
  • Online workflow/document tracking
  • E-mail and messaging systems
  • Groupware
  • Group decision support systems
  • Yellow pages-directory of knowledge Sources and thought leaders
  • Communities of practice
  • Real-time data conferencing
  • Customer relationship management
  • Financial management systems
  • Executive information systems
  • Marketing information systems
Source: Charlie Bixler

For example, a database management system is an enabler for a codification strategy. If the organization's strategy is to develop a more robust way to capture tacit knowledge (knowledge within an organization's workforce that has not been codified), such a system may not be the best approach or the best investment. Articulating a codification strategy and implementing a system that underscores that strategy helps align the enterprise to its strategic ends and is an effective starting point for the performance management system. Understanding the enterprise strategy makes the development of performance measures easier and the implementation of the measures becomes a way to reinforce and clearly communicate the strategy.

There are also some other significant considerations for developing a strategic approach to fielding a KMS:

  • Provide immediate knowledge for solving problems, streamlining workload and enhancing enterprise performance.
  • Institute knowledge management tools as an organic learning system for continuous product and process improvement.
  • Promote cross-functional expertise to solving enterprise operating problems.
  • Provide an environment for shared and creative problem solving.
  • Provide a database of best practices for the industry and core competencies.
  • Develop an enterprise environment for both formal and informal experimentation to lead to innovation and development of new products, processes and services.
  • Preserve legacy knowledge (intellectual capital) for future enterprise workers.
  • Provide a foundation for implementing and integrating new tools and technologies to enhance internal operations.
  • Provide the environment for developing organic knowledge sources for enterprise-wide dissemination and use.
  • Identify "thought leaders" both internally and externally who create knowledge and solve enterprise-wide problems.
  • Provide the methods and means for importing knowledge (inorganic) from outside the company and encourage benchmarking with other firms.
A KM roadmap
As Yogi Berra once said, "If you don't know where you're going, you could wind up somewhere else." Knowledge management is essential for enterprises to determine where they are going and for organizational survival in the long run, given that knowledge creation is the core competence of any organization. This knowledge may relate to new products or services, to new product and service definitions, to new organization and industry definitions, or to new channels of distribution. Regardless of what the knowledge relates to, the bottom line is that it enables problem-solving for critical enterprise issues.

The need for knowledge management exists throughout the entire enterprise. It is not a separate function characterized by a separate KM department or process; rather it must be embedded into all of an enterprise's business processes. Not only is KM crucial to achieving a permanent competitive advantage, but an efficient knowledge-intensive core process must be established to meet the demands of improved enterprise performance.

To this end, a roadmap is needed to define a path for successful KMS deployment. A framework called the Knowledge Management Enterprise Framework (KM–EF) has been designed to assess the growth of an enterprise in knowledge management through the specific review of KM Key Process Areas (see Fig. 3).

Figure 3: On the KM road
Figure 3

The focus of KM–EF is to provide a clear understanding of an enterprise's KM status—where it is and where it needs to go. The purpose is to stay on course and create value. The framework provides a deliberate, organized and measured system that can be translated into robust action, resulting in enhanced enterprise performance.

In summary, the need for knowledge management and a knowledge growth system is critical for transforming information and knowledge into a valuable enterprise asset. It clearly is not hype—it is quite possibly the most important key to continued success in the current dynamic and competitive environment.

Knowledge management is increasingly important because of the shift from a predictable enterprise paradigm to one governed by discontinuous and often unpredictable change. A well-constructed KMS will help solve and alleviate the problems associated with this discontinuous and unpredictable change. KM is not merely collecting information from various domain experts and creating databases supported by organizational intranets. It must be dynamic and problem-solving in nature. KM is not a separate function characterized by a separate knowledge management department or a specific and isolated knowledge management process; it must be embedded into all the enterprise's business processes.

The latest advances in information and communication technology can facilitate processes such as channeling, gathering or disseminating information; however, the final burden is on the managers and knowledge workers to translate this information into actionable knowledge that enhances performance. This requires a foundational enterprise-wide knowledge management system to be created.