BY KENNETH H. ROSE, PMP
Knowledge—difficult to duplicate and the basis for technical development—is becoming the foundation of organizational uniqueness and competitive advantage. Managing knowledge is the key to utilizing and exploiting this powerful asset. Real value lies not in the knowledge itself, but in its timely, appropriate application to issues at hand.
If knowledge could be transferred more effectively from project to project, start-up time and costs could be reduced. Doing so requires an understanding of what knowledge is, how it is applied across an organization and what techniques for managing knowledge are available.
What is It?
Knowledge is information in the context of experience, values and expert insight. It is action-oriented, addressing how things work. These brief definitions are certainly debatable—some people add wisdom to the formula. Regardless of specifics and preferences, an important first step in managing knowledge is to agree on some set of reasonable definitions and get beyond nit-picky arguments over details.
Just to clarify, here's an example. By themselves, “10:05 a.m.” and “2:20 p.m.” do not say much. When combined with other data, they start to mean something: “Flight 874 departs Atlanta at 10:05 a.m. on Tuesday and arrives in Denver at 2:20 p.m.” That's information, which might be all we need in a given situation. But if we want to act, we need knowledge—something we know from experience or something a friend knows and tells us.
Knowledge exists in two types, explicit and tacit. Explicit knowledge is documented and accessible. It is maintained in records and databases and indexed in some way to facilitate retrieval. Tacit knowledge is undocumented and not easily accessible—it exists in people's heads. Finding it when needed can be a hard problem; getting it out of the person's head can be even worse.
Both explicit and tacit knowledge can be difficult to access when desired. Explicit knowledge can be a challenge because of volume and relevance. Think about your last Internet search when your question produced four million possible links.
Tacit knowledge can be a problem because people generally are not aware of what others know, individuals are not always fully aware of what they know and how it might be useful to others, and people are not always able to transfer their knowledge in clear, concise, complete terms.
People, Places, Things
Managing knowledge links three basic elements: people (employees, customers, partners, experts and other individuals who are central to success); places (virtual workspaces in which people come together to brainstorm, learn and interact) and things (data, information and processes that are created, captured, classified and shared). Accordingly, knowledge management may be defined as a process employed by an organization to:
- Capture and share the experience expertise and insight of its staff
- Promote collaboration
- Provide broad access to the organization's information assets without regard to their source or structure.
A knowledge management system requires tight integration of content structuring (things), expertise location (people) and collaboration (places). These are not independent components, and all are essential.
Content structuring, which deals with explicit knowledge, is a process of analyzing and marking organization documents in a way that makes the contents available when and where needed. This usually involves some kind of discovery engine—a computer program that automatically reads and analyzes documents. The discovery engine has the capability to identify specific knowledge elements (words) and general concepts (phrases) within the content and to assign categories to each. Elements and concepts are assembled into a discovery map, which often uses categories as a means for indexing. Some discovery engines also are able to prepare abstracts of documents automatically.
Without a knowledge management system, content structuring is a laborintensive task. A 10-page technical report probably contains specific knowledge and some general concepts that would be useful in the future. To make it available to others, someone must read it, identify all the possible knowledge and concepts and link them into some kind of index system that people can search to find what they need. Typical human performance for a task like this is three or four documents per hour, while automated knowledge management systems can process 25,000 documents per hour.
Linking knowledge and concepts to a set of common categories provides an important asset to people who don't always know exactly what they are looking for. In such cases, people can browse through the categories and gain pointers on possible relevant sources. Discovery engines also include powerful search capabilities that go beyond traditional keyword searches. Pattern-matching and natural language technologies allow search engines to find fewer, more relevant documents and to operate in any language or alphabet/character set.
Finding the Experts
Expertise location, which deals with tacit knowledge, is a process of identifying who knows what and where they are. The discovery engine can accomplish part of this task. As it analyzes documents, it identifies authors as content experts—by analyzing individual search histories, it can prepare user profiles that list areas of potential expertise based on search activities. For example, after you have completed a search at askme.com, a discovery engine may identify you as an expert on your search subject. Similarly, it may analyze e-mail traffic and prepare user profiles that list potential areas of expertise based on the contents of e-mail messages.
Individual staff members also may declare areas of expertise, although this approach has been less than reliable. Often, highly knowledgeable individuals tend to underestimate their level of expertise while beginners tend to overestimate. In any case, individuals must have an opportunity to confirm areas of proficiency suggested by computer analysis before those areas are assigned.
Individuals are associated with knowledge categories and assembled into a knowledge map. This grouping is similar to a discovery map, but pertains to people instead of documents.
WHY IS IT IMPORTANT?
Knowledge Management Research Report 2000, a study by management consulting firm KPMG, revealed a number of problems related to knowledge in today's workplace. The 413 organizations that responded to the study survey and that could classify their knowledge management status indicated a number of similar problems:
- No time to share knowledge (72 percent)
- Information overload (69 percent)
- Not using technology to share knowledge effectively (65 percent)
- Difficulty capturing tacit knowledge (63 percent)
- Reinventing the wheel (63 percent).
The same study disclosed a number of benefits in 161 companies that had knowledge management systems in place, including:
- Better decision-making (71 percent)
- Faster response to key business issues (68 percent)
- Improved employee skill (63 percent)
- Improved productivity (60 percent)
- Increased profits (52 percent).
Collaboration allows people to apply the right knowledge to the right problem at the right time. This cooperation occurs face-to-face, but it also can happen in virtual shared spaces—that is, on the computer—where individuals meet electronically with similar results. This type of teamwork occurs through many different techniques:
Communities of Practice. People with similar knowledge interests or needs meet in electronic shared space—a “room” on your computer—that provides the capability for discussion, sharing documents, sharing images, drawing, joint Web searching. Off-the-shelf tools allow group collaboration. With this software, you may not need to make that flight from Atlanta, Ga., USA, to Denver, Colo., USA, to work on a project, and you won't need to read an e-mail message and then open up a spreadsheet in a separate program. These capabilities are in one place along with files, white boards, and even audio and video transmission capabilities over the Internet. With the right hardware, you can send a message to colleagues in Denver, then talk to them and see them as you work through the spreadsheet and discuss options and solutions.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
A free program, provided by Autonomy, to download and try content structuring on your own database
Demonstrates expertise location, including experts, categories, browse and search, and question and answer
Free software that provides collaborative shared spaces
The “Lotus K-Station,” a developmental, comprehensive approach to knowledge management, is available
Knowledge Management Magazine
KM World magazine.
Virtual Talk Rooms. The electronic equivalent of a physical space, virtual talk rooms permit individuals to meet in an unstructured environment and explore whatever may be of interest. They are based on the “talk rooms” of Japanese quality culture, where employees are expected to visit regularly and engage in extemporaneous conversation with others. Such activities often disclose interests and insights that would be otherwise unknown. Some companies have used a room with chairs, a table, and a big jar of pretzels or jelly beans to great advantage in the physical-space approach.
Instant Messaging. The capability to send a message immediately rather than waiting for e-mail routing may be a helpful feature in any collaboration activity. Instant messages provide more immediate communication but are not usually recorded in the e-mail system.
Question-and-Answer Boards. These allow users to pose questions to be answered by one or more designated experts. Responses are reviewed by senior experts prior to final posting, and all questions and answers are archived by category for independent browsing and searching by any user.
Knowledge Portal. Far more than a simple Web page, the knowledge portal is the window to enterprisewide knowledge resources and capabilities. It is customizable so users can configure its appearance and function to suit their individual needs. It allows generation and definition of individual user profiles that facilitate transfer of knowledge to users based on expected interest or need, often in anticipation of an actual requirement. Most Internet services now take a “portal” approach. The opening page is no longer a combination of promotional pitches and pretty graphics—it's a collection of direct links to resources of value or interest.
The knowledge portal enables virtual agents to autonomously search organization databases or other Internet sources looking for items of interest to the individual. The portal provides the mechanism for browsing the categories and searching the discovery map and knowledge map so that search results include links to documents and people, both sources of knowledge within the organization. It also provides a universal document viewer that displays and prints documents in any format without loading a specific application program to do so.
Making It Work
Implementing a knowledge management system is not easy—it often requires a significant cultural change within the organization that will move people from knowledge hoarding (individual benefit and reward) to knowledge sharing (group benefit and reward).
Because of the associated complexities and costs, knowledge management systems are best suited to very large projects or enterprisewide activities. Downward scalability is an issue—how robust systems can be adapted to smaller organizations while retaining all the power of a large implementation. A 20-person project has similar knowledge requirements to a 500-person project; tools should be available to serve both.
An implementation plan should follow existing work practices, even though managing knowledge may eventually enable different and better practices. The changes required to manage knowledge are significant enough on their own without the added burden and organization disruption of an extensive process reengineering effort. During development and implementation, it is acceptable—perhaps even desirable—to lead with technology. Because the technology is so new, people may need to see it to believe it. An incremental approach that exploits similarities to existing processes, receptiveness to change, or urgent requirements may be a wise and effective strategy.
Top Down and Bottom Up
The greatest difficulty in implementation lies in moving a prototype to an organization-wide system. Things that can be very carefully planned and controlled in the prototype can become uncertain and chaotic when applied to the real world. An overall guiding principle is to obtain top-down buy-in and to demonstrate bottom-up value to users.
Top-down buy-in may be a challenge. In a commercial environment, the bottom line reigns supreme and senior managers expect to see a payoff in any proposal. The benefits of knowledge management are not always visible in direct revenue, as shown by the KPMG study. (See sidebar, “Why is it Important?”) Knowledge is at the base of organization performance. Benefits often begin there and disclose themselves only through a system view.
Bottom-up value may be another challenge. The need for culture change is very real. In today's business world, people are valued for what they know. The suggestion that people should share what they know—should share their “value” with others—must pass the “What's in it for me?” test. If your organization has experienced downsizing, you'll probably find some people who are more concerned about maintaining individual worth than enhancing collaboration. To overcome this, individual evaluations and organization award systems must encourage and reinforce knowledge sharing and collaboration. Once this is done, experience shows that the value of a knowledge management system to an organization increases very rapidly. Getting a foothold and a good, solid beginning is the hard part.
If you choose to initiate a knowledge management effort in your project, be sure to include all three essential activities: content structuring, expertise location and collaboration. While they may be introduced and developed incrementally, in the end, they all must be present and working together. PM