Consultants and vendors are rushing to attach the ‘knowledge management’ label to products and services. The issue it seeks to address is how to make shared information useful. IT directors looking to KM technologies and techniques to achieve that goal will find there is no shortage of advice on the topic. A growing canon of […]
Consultants and vendors are rushing to attach the ‘knowledge management’ label to products and services. The issue it seeks to address is how to make shared information useful. IT directors looking to KM technologies and techniques to achieve that goal will find there is no shortage of advice on the topic. A growing canon of literature concerns itself with the management of knowledge and intellectual capital in today’s enterprises.
By Phil Wainewright
Many internationally respected business thinkers have written books and delivered presentations on the subject, including Ikujiro Nonaka, Professor of Knowledge at the University of California at Berkeley, Fortune magazine’s Tom Stewart and many others. The literature explains basic principles such as how raw data given a context becomes information, and how information applied to a purpose becomes knowledge. It subdivides knowledge into the tacit kind people have in their heads and the explicit kind created when they wish to communicate it to others.
Inside people’s heads
While such models help illuminate the big picture, they can create misunderstanding at the implementation level, according to Marianne Hedin of industry analyst IDC. In an IT context, knowledge made explicit is simply information, waiting for someone new to give it purpose again. The only true knowledge is tacit, inside people’s heads. Getting bogged down in theory quickly becomes a distraction, and some KM practitioners fear it may discredit the field. Knowledge management could fail if too many of the conferences deal with too many ethereal discussions instead of pragmatic solutions, warns Eric Goodwin, CEO of Fulcrum, the Ottawa, Canada-based search engine company. The importance of KM is that it is an umbrella term for solutions to the information issues businesses face. People needed to put a name on it. Knowledge management really is the ability to take control of intellectual property within your corporation then get additional value from it, says Pat Condo, CEO of Excalibur, the White Plains, New York-based maker of search technology. This is typically where the consultants come in. The priority is to identify where organisations can make most use of knowledge. The task is understanding what is the critical information, whose performance it can leverage and what is necessary to achieve that, says David Lubin of Renaissance Worldwide, a KM consultancy based in Newton, Massachusetts. If you think knowledge management is about some guys setting up Notes databases to go yaketty-yak, you’re following the wrong star. Knowledge is valuable when it is applied to business processes, for instance, to help staff provide better service to customers, or to facilitate decision making. Within five to ten years, says Lubin, all applications will become invisibly more and more involved in this management of content rather than just transactions. Knowledge management as a separate discipline will disappear.
People, processes and information
Because KM connects people, processes and information, successful implementation is likely to change the way the business is organised and will greatly affect the way people do their jobs. KM depends on a culture that encourages and rewards the sharing of knowledge. Consultants who implement Inference’s KM-enabled customer service solutions say 15-20% of their job is psychological, reassuring people that they still have value, claims Inference CEO Chuck Jepson. Inference, based in Novato, California, offers KM-based solutions for customer service applications. Most organisations have a long way to go to reach the ultimate aim of KM, which Hedin and her colleagues at IDC define as managing the value of information across the enterprise on a real-time basis. There are products, such as Inference’s, which can begin to introduce KM in localised point solutions. Elsewhere, the focus will be on deploying technologies which, while not KM in themselves, begin to provide the basic and necessary technical infrastructure for a knowledge management program. There is thus some justification for vendors attaching the KM label to products that merely help enterprises manage useful information, because they help lay the foundations of a KM strategy. A company that has invested in the infrastructure with which to share and access information will have a better return in the long term, argues Condo.
The capture and dissemination of existing knowledge is a form of KM relatively well supported by today’s technologies. This is the process of making knowledge explicit so that others can then internalise it making sure they know what they need to know, when they need to know it. The most obvious application is training. It is also increasingly used in helpdesk and sales automation products, leading to faster or higher-quality problem handling or sales completion. Document management is the most venerable discipline related to knowledge capture. It’s not knowledge management, but it’s an indispensable element, says John Newton, VP of knowledge management at Documentum, the Pleasanton, California-based document management software vendor. The technology catalogues and stores highly structured information, but needs extra tools to support the active use of constantly updated knowledge. Document management vendors say they bridge the gap between the structured data in databases and the unstructured collaboration based around Web servers. We think the space we’re in is right now starting to explode, says Lee Roberts, CEO of Filenet. Filenet, based in Costa Mesa, California specialises in workflow, imaging and document management. It will be as pervasive as relational databases today. For many users, the most pressing problem is imposing a meaningful framework on unstructured Web information. Former text retrieval vendors are developing technologies to help locate information. Dirk Bischoff, Verity’s director of distributed products, describes Verity’s new product as a knowledge warehouse. Verity, based in Sunnyvale, California, specialises in search and retrieval products. It’s a piece of the jigsaw, he says, that will link into other systems within a business process. It’s going to need to interoperate with things like the billing system for the user to be charged. It’s going to integrate with Notes so it can be part of workflow.
Technologies as diverse as groupware and data mining even videoconferencing have roles to play in the exchange and creation of new information, supporting applications such as product development and competitive intelligence. The volume of information containing the valuable nuggets remains the major obstacle. The problem is managing information access, says Cyril Brookes, CEO of GrapeVINE of Troy, Michigan, whose products classify information according to both context and content. The problem with such products is the manual effort needed to maintain the classifications. Automating the graft involved in KM is a challenge that vendors are only now starting to address. For example, software from Autonomy creates agents that understand the main idea in a text then use pattern-matching algorithms to identify similar documents. There is a wide gulf between the theory and practice of KM, says Autonomy CEO Dr Mike Lynch: The emperor is rather scantily clad in many ways when it comes to knowledge management.
A longer version of this article appeared in the June 1998 edition of Computer Business Review, along with a chart of the leading Knowledge Management vendors.