While knowledge management was all the rage a few years ago its lustre seemed to dim for a while, but now we may be undergoing a resurrection of interest on a sounder basis.
As a discipline properly applied, KM still thrives, says Wang southern region solutions manager Paul McTaggart.
Its apparent decline from popular consciousness is, in part, the old story of an undue focus on technology rather than the necessary underlying business process.
"Most people view KM as a technology problem, whereas it begins with people and content. By approaching KM from the technology end, the solutions that are put in often fail."
Knowledge management springs from a theory. First you firm up the theoretical base, he says, then you put in the business management framework of it, and finally you acquire the tools and technologies. It's like starting a business; you do the theory and the planning first, before acquiring people, buildings and technology, he says.
Many technology-focused organisations grasped document management as the most physically evident "handle" for KM, and here they made a serious mistake, McTaggart says.
"Either they really thought document management was the key or a vendor was promoting the KM line with the underlying aim of selling a document management product.”
That’s something Transpower scenario analyst Paddy Hanna says is one of the biggest problems. Hanna is involved in Transpower’s development of a knowledge management strategy.
"Everyone has a different definition of what knowledge management is, and it's usually tilted toward the particular products or services they have for sale."
McTaggart says a document is a snapshot. Without knowing something about the process of formation of the document and its later use, "you don't have knowledge".
He says one essential step beyond pure DM is to personalise access to the vast array of documents; to establish what is relevant to the particular user's field of expertise and interest and provide them with that sample of documents up-front.
Knowledge should be presented to the user in the form most suitable to its comprehension. Therefore, this function may include interpretation and/or reformatting of the presentation of the knowledge. Documents are a resource of explicit knowledge. There is almost always a wealth of this, and the challenge is to weed out what is relevant.
Knowledge is power?
Telecom New Zealand human resources development manager Crispin Garden-Webster says you need to be careful about starting from the assumption that people want to keep knowledge to themselves.
"The old saying that 'information is power' is less and less valid these days. More and more value is created through communication and sharing."
Telecom has changed its culture somewhat. Some information – for example the information in human resources – used to be available only to managers. Although the information did not contain confidential material about individuals - it was concerned with the practice of HR - it was traditionally regarded as management material, Garden-Webster says.
When it was opened up to the rest of the organisation, there was no adverse reaction.
Unlike Garden-Webster, Transpower’s Hanna still believes that in some organisations knowledge is a "prized possession of the individual"; something that gives them status and increases their "perceived power”.
However, others have a completely different culture, where respect for an individual is related to that person's willingness and ability to share knowledge. This tends to happen more among today's start-up companies without a heavy burden of tradition.
Hanna says to get the most from knowledge management you need to establish a culture which encourages sharing and proper management of knowledge.
A lot of knowledge management implementations have ignored the cultural aspects, Hanna says; they swiftly put in a document management system and an intranet, and think sharing of knowledge will happen automatically.
Changing the organisational culture toward acceptance of knowledge management is often a subtle matter of pushing forward those individuals who share their knowledge; ensuring, for example, that they and their ideas get publicity in the company newsletter or other media.
Hanna says other techniques include altering the principles on which performance measurement is based to include a knowledge sharing and knowledge management component.
"It takes time, commitment and money," he says.
US-based consultancy the Delphi Group says as organisations advance in knowledge management, they realise that managing tacit knowledge is even more strategically important than managing explicit knowledge, albeit more difficult. For tacit knowledge, the challenge is to formulate the knowledge into a communicable form in the first place.
Telecom is an organisation which seems to have a good initial handle on distributing knowledge, but how is it extracted from people's heads in the first place?
"Firstly we recruit it," says Garden-Webster. "We acquire 'human capital' [and knowledge is part of that]. We don't pressure people to share what they know. Rather in the course of their normal work they produce and share their knowledge.
He says while a knowledge-seeker might once have been directed to “ask Bertie; he knows about that”, they might now be directed to a newsgroup; “that's where they talk about that”. The knowledge is coming into the open.
"Secondly, we bring [knowledge] in from market research."
A lot of knowledge in specific areas resides with Telecom's customers. "Through our account managers, we can access what the customer knows about the market."
It is helpful to lift knowledge management out of the realm of the esoteric and place it on a firm footing of return on investment and cost benefit, where possible, he says. The benefits of having a piece of knowledge in the right place at the right time can often be clearly identified. Speed is of the essence, he says.
"We are keeping on developing our intranet; improving its content and navigability … There's nothing sentimental about it being good to share. It simply makes us faster and more responsive" and that comes through on the bottom line.