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Knowledge Networking - Succeeding with Collaborative Technologies

Dr David J. Skyrme

This is a synopsis of a presentation given at the ICEF Conference Online Collaboration, Berlin, June 1998.


This presentation reviews the contribution of information and communications technology to effective knowledge management in virtual team and virtual organization settings. It is based on a study of world-class best practice in knowledge management (Skyrme and Amidon, 1997). The study found that collaborative technologies, in particular Lotus Notes and Intranets, offered the most benefits in exploiting organizational knowledge. However, many organizations have yet to put in place the necessary information management and organization change processes to exploit the technologies effectively.

The Strategic Advantage

Managing knowledge is moving to the top strategic agenda in many companies. The strategic advantage from organizational knowledge can be realized in several ways. In our research and client work we have identified seven strategic levers, each of which benefits from the application of information and communications technology (ICT).

1. Knowledge in customers. This is a company’s most vital knowledge, according to every survey. Data mining, information gathering and intelligence processing are ways in which technology helps.

2. Market and business environment knowledge. Strong external connections, such as through the Internet, and systems for collating such knowledge are important here.

3. Organizational memory. This underpins ‘knowing what you know’ and reusing it in future situations. Organized databases, document management and efficient information retrieval are common forms of organizational memory.

4. Knowledge in Processes. Ways of turning ad-hoc activities into best practice processes are one way of converting human knowledge into automated routines. Workflow coupled to email and other tools blend the automation of the routine with human handling of the variety.

5. Knowledge in Products and Services. Smart products with embedded intelligence often command a price premium in the market. Simulation and modeling are typically used in the development process.

6. Knowledge in People. Attempts to capture this knowledge in expert systems have important, but limited applications. The crucial role of ICT is that of enabling people to connect, communicate and collaborate more effectively.

7. Knowledge as an Asset. An increasing number of companies now recognize the contribution of intellectual capital (Stewart 1997), and are using executive information systems to record and auditing them.

In all of the above, a clear distinction should be made between explicit knowledge and tacit knowledge (Nonaka and Takeuchi 1995). The former can be codified and stored in databases, whereas the latter is in people’s heads. Knowledge gains value as it is aggregated or reconfigured and converted between these two forms, e.g. from a collections of ideas into a single document, or from learning into a best practice database. A framework for positioning various technologies is shown below.

Table 1. Knowledge Transfer Mechanisms

 

Passive (information)

Active

(knowledge)

Person

to

Person

Computer conferencing

Expert networks

Meeting support

Video-conferencing

Person

to

Computer

Document Mgmt

Info Retrieval

Knowledge bases

Expert Systems

Decision Support

Computer-Computer

Data Mining

Neural Networks

Intelligent Agents



Collaborative Technologies

In our ongoing monitoring of knowledge technologies, it is found that collaborative technologies have the most impact on developing and sharing organizational knowledge. They connect people to information and people to people on a global basis. The commonly used technologies in this category are:

Internet, Intranet. Installing an Intranet is often the first activity of knowledge programme. It makes it easy for users to access "any information, any where, at any time". Booz Allen & Hamilton’s Knowledge Online is an Intranet that provides a wealth of information (e.g. best practice, industry trends, database of experts) to their consultants world-wide. Through active information management by knowledge editors (subject experts and librarians) the information remains well structured and relevant.

Groupware/Lotus notes. Groupware products like Lotus Notes offer several features over and above Intranets, although the two are converging. They provide discussion databases, different levels of security (especially useful for remote access by mobile workers). Users such as Thomas Miller, a London based manager of insurance mutual companies, access their ‘organizational memory’, as well as current news feeds in areas of interest, through one of Lotus’s key features, its multiple ‘views’.

Videoconferencing. The development of desk-top videoconferencing makes it practicable for dispersed knowledge workers to have a face-to-face conversation over a telecommunications link, while at the same time viewing and even manipulating computer held information. At BP, desktop videoconferencing has helped achieve better communication and higher levels of trust. Many problems at off-shore oil fields can be solved without resorting to jumping into the helicopter as was formerly the case.

The benefits of these technologies are well known e.g. asynchronous as well as synchronous communications, access to the most current information, recording of information, access to expertise, even when the existence of the expert is not previously known etc. However, our work with clients shows that organizations frequently do not get the benefits they anticipate from collaborative technologies. They fail to give due attention to people and processes.

The Human Dimension

The most common problem in most knowledge management programmes is that individuals do not share their knowledge, a problem that is compounded when people work virtually over a globally distributed network. Most organizations need a change of culture. There is no quick fix. It needs applying levers of organizational change over a period of time, including:

  • Leadership by example. Bob Buckman, when CEO of Buckman Laboratories was legendary. He participated actively in computer forums to help sales people on the front-line, and he expected his managers to do the same!
  • Knowledge sharing events. These bring people together in exhibition and workshop settings, so that people can share expertise. Often face-to-face contact is an important prerequisite to effective computer knowledge networking.
  • Active moderation. Many discussion databases are limited in usefulness because they do not have critical mass or because certain contributors, sometimes unwittingly, discourage dialogue. Active moderators will post items gained elsewhere, work behind the scenes to gain contributions and moderate behaviour.
  • Reward systems. Many companies do not reward people for sharing information. Management consultancies now include people’s contribution to their knowledge bases as part of their performance and salary review.

A complementary approach is to draw people together in ‘communities of practice’. Electronic communities are well known on the Internet, in the form of newsgroups, discussion lists etc. In the organization context, such communities have a sharper purpose and more is at stake. Their purpose may be mutual learning of new techniques, sharing best practice or a shared goal on a project or corporate programme. Companies like Shell actively nurture these communities, and blend online activities with embedding learning methods into regular work practice.

Systematic Processes

The second main way in that organizational knowledge is better developed and utilized is by focusing on the I in ICT - information. There is a well developed discipline of information resources management (IRM), but in practice it is woefully used in many companies. IRM deals with processes for nurturing information as an asset:

  • Identification. The needs for information and knowledge needed in key business and decision processes are identified. Key internal and external sources are validated.
  • Gathering. Based on needs this requires a proactive approach to bringing in vital information, rather than simply that which is easier to get.
  • Classifying. This is the classic librarian skill. Few search engines can access information as efficiently as an information specialist using a well organized database.
  • Dissemination. These are processes to send information to those who need it by ‘push’ e.g. via email, according to user profiles.
  • Verification and Quality. An effective information resource is one where information is validated and qualified. Feedback from users on relevance is used to maintain information quality. Outdated information is archived.

Some of the most effective knowledge programmes have a knowledge centre, that combines business experts with information specialists. These centres act as a focal point for knowledge flow and for the application of IRM.

Summary

Every year brings new technology solutions that can boost the effectiveness of knowledge processes. Our trend database has over 33 different categories. Examples include intelligent agents, text summarizing, thinking tools and conceptual mapping. Whatever the technology, the critical success factors for turning it into organizational knowledge and applying the seven strategic levers are invariably people and process related - systematic methods for organizing and managing information and knowledge, and due attention to the human, social and organizational aspects of knowledge creation and sharing.

References

Nonaka, I. and Takeuchi, H. (1995): The Knowledge Creating Company, Oxford University Press.

Skyrme, David J. and Amidon, Debra M. (1997): Creating the Knowledge-based Business, Business Intelligence.

Stewart, Thomas A. (1997): Intellectual Capital - The New Wealth of Organizations, Nicholas Brealey.


David Skyrme Associates provides consultancy services and workshops on information and knowledge management that address the topics covered in this article. The topics outlined in this presentation are described in more detail in Knowledge Networking: Creating the Collaborative Enterprise


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