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Knowledge Management - A Fad or a Ticket to Ride?

Dr David Skyrme

Notes accompanying a presentation to the Institute of Information Scientists, February 1998. This was subsequently updated and presented at their 40th anniversary event in September 1998. You can browse the presentation given on this occassion or download the Powerpoint file. (203K)


Since you are here and reading this, you have already bought your "ticket to ride" the knowledge management bandwagon. Its a roller coaster ride, and only those with the right skills and know-how will not be thrown off course. Hold tight and enjoy the ride!

Knowledge Management - Fad or Fundamental?

New, yet not new

  • What’s not new - philosophising (cf Plato), knowledge as a factor (e.g. Drucker), ‘fads’, search for the Holy grail
  • What is new - importance (intangible value); context (globalisation etc.); the label

We have tracked its strategic impact since the mid 1980s (when I was Strategic Planning Manager at DEC UK), and its importance has been slowly but surely gaining momentum over the last decade or so, culminating in its widespread visibility as a strategic lever in 1995 (USA), and 1996-7 (UK).

Like all new terms, the number of definitions grows daily. Here’s our synthesis of the mainstream:

"Knowledge Management is the explicit and systematic management of vital knowledge - and its associated processes of creation, organisation, diffusion, use and exploitation."

  • explicit: knowledge is explicitly recognised (language, documents etc.)
  • systematic: it is too important to be left to chance
  • vital: there’s lots of knowledge around; focus on that which is important
  • content and process perspective (nouns and verbs)

Typical Knowledge Management Initiatives

  • Creation of knowledge databases - best practices, expert directories, intelligence etc.
  • Active process management - of knowledge gathering, classifying, storing etc.
  • Development of knowledge centres - focal points for knowledge skills and facilitating knowledge flow (see attached article)
  • Introduction of collaborative technologies - Intranets or groupware for rapid information access
  • Knowledge webs - networks of experts who collaborate across and beyond an organization’s functional and geographic boundaries
  • Learning organization initiatives - culture of learning, individual/org development.

Two main thrusts:

  1. Sharing what is known e.g. best practice
  2. Innovation - creation and conversion

Several key strategies - exploit knowledge in products, people, processes (see article). Also not forgetting what you knew e.g. downsizing.

What has happened to your corporate library?

Information Management vs. Knowledge Management

Knowledge Processes

Explicit vs. Tacit knowledge - that which is codifiable e.g. in documents, databases; that which is in people’ heads.

Nonaka and Takeuchi conversion processes:

  • Tacit-to-tacit (socialisation) - individuals acquire knowledge directly from others;
  • Tacit-to-explicit (externalisation) - articulation into tangible form through dialogue;
  • Explicit-to-explicit (combination) - combining different bits of explicit knowledge;
  • Explicit-to-tacit (internalisation) - such as learning by doing.

ICT and Knowledge Management

Effective knowledge sharing is more than ‘explicit’ databases. However, information professionals can help the organisation move towards ‘knowledge bases’:

  • Adding contextual information - where was this information used? What factors need to be considered when using it?
  • Giving details of originator- allowing users of the information to contact the contributors e.g. via email hypertext links.
  • Offering an experts database - pointers to people, information on the location of experts and expertise, rather than the expertise itself.
  • Addition of multimedia material e.g. a visual demonstration of an entry, such as a team at work.

Your best contribution - the personal interface between the business need and the database(s) of information; the link between those with problems/queries and others with solutions. Be a ‘business partner’ and consultant. You are a key link in the organisation’s ‘web of vital knowledge’.

New Roles

New roles identified in our research:

  • Knowledge engineer - elicits tacit knowledge and turns it into explicit
  • Knowledge editor - refines information from conversations/emails/notesfiles
  • Knowledge brokers/analysts - links those who have with those who need
  • Knowledge shepherds - coaxes knowledge from teams (facilitator)
  • Knowledge gatekeepers - monitors what around and redirects to key users
  • Knowledge Navigators - knows where to find things!
  • Knowledge (intellectual) asset manager - identifies, records and manages knowledge assets
  • Chief Knowledge Officer - creates architecture, manages knowledge programme, gains organisational commitment to the knowledge agenda and shows knowledge leadership.

Some Key Skills

Shades of a hybrid, with varying depths of knowledge in particular areas:

  • Technical skills - information (resources) management, use of IT (Internet etc.)
  • Business knowledge - your industry, markets, customers, competitors, and general business context
  • Interpersonal skills - networking, listening, interpreting, challenging; being a good team player, above all excellent communications.
  • Management skills - motivating, coaching, facilitating, influencing
  • Company/Organisation knowledge - "how to get things done around here"
  • Personal characteristics - integrity, confidence, openness, trust, supportive, honesty (e.g. admit mistakes); "willingness to continually learn"
  • Other - time management, goal setting, know yourself, learn to say NO!!

Note: Specific knowledge e.g. of sources, needs continually refreshing, and decays faster than the basic skills.

Implications for Information Professionals

Knowledge is gaining visibility at top management levels. You can either be part of this, or watch it happen from the sidelines. If you want part of the action:

  • Articulate the value added that good information management can bring to your organisation and its contribution to the bottom line.
  • Develop closer partnerships with the knowledge champions in your organisation. They need your skills and you might benefit from their current popularity among senior management!
  • Help the users help themselves. Provide more "how to" guides so that they can make more effective use of the only information resources at their disposal, including the Internet/Intranet as an information resource.
  • Be an active Internet/Intranet user yourself. Use email as a primary means of communication. Work in discussion lists and have your own groupware areas, one for peer knowledge sharing of best practice, and one for your client base.
  • Seek out best practice, wherever it is. When did you last benchmark your activities against a comparable activity externally?

You have some key skills your organisation needs to succeed with its knowledge-based strategies. So go with the flow - join the bandwagon, and be successful!!

Suggested Reading

The Knowledge-creating Company, I. Nonaka and H. Takeuchi, OUP (1995)

Intellectual Capital, Thomas Stewart, Nicholas Brealey (1997)

Journal of Knowledge Management - quarterly (with case studies)

By the presenter:

'Knowledge Management: Oxymoron or Dynamic Duo', Managing Information (Sept 1997)

From Information to Knowledge Management, Online97

Creating the knowledge-based business, with Debra Amidon, Business Intelligence (1997). It costs £595, so its one for your library!!


Extract from I3 UPDATE, No. 16 (January 1997)*

Knowledge Centres - Aggregating Dispersed Knowledge

Do you need a knowledge center, particularly since all the users and sources of knowledge are dispersed? Too often, we see organizations investing quite heavily in document management software, Intranets, and groupware technologies such as Lotus Notes/Domino, yet giving scant thought to the structure and organization of information they support. The management consultancies, in particular, have realized the benefits of a knowledge center, that puts order and structure onto an internal Intranet. In the Skyrme/Amidon report 'Creating the Knowledge Based Business' we feature Booz Allen & Hamilton's Knowledge Online and Price Waterhouse's KnowledgeViewSM. These systems have information specialists who manage content and provide services to their consultants. So why should an organization invest in a central services group rather than leaving it to individuals?

Consider the services that a typical knowledge center provides. It:

  • identifies sources of important knowledge, both inside and outside the company
  • catalogues and indexes material so that retrieval is efficient and effective
  • maintains and sustains the knowledge repository (the knowledge bank)
  • provides a one stop shop for multiple information needs
  • knows who can help - pointers to people as well as information
  • runs a client advisory service - offering expertise on sources, their availability, relevance, quality and overall usefulness to the business.

In short, they are a focal point for collection, structuring and disseminating information. That does not mean they do it all themselves. They set the framework and structures, develop the good practice guides, and provide information management expertise.

A 'center' saves costs on generic information processes by:

  • economies of scale - saving the valuable time of professionals (searching for information)
  • gaining discounts from suppliers because of bulk purchases - sourcing once, but distributing widely e.g. via an Intranet
  • pooling expertise in a few locations
  • avoiding duplication of purchase and unnecessary overlap
  • reusing information and knowledge in different contexts
  • targeting distribution according to interests, rather than mass distribution

It can also act as a monitoring point that leverages knowledge for the rest of the business. Over time the cumulative knowledge and expertise within a center helps:

  • alert users to business opportunities and threats
  • make valuable connections - putting people who have problems in touch with those who have solutions i.e. "knowing what we know"
  • create communities - putting people in touch with each other who share similar needs and are tackling similar or related problems

All this adds up to concentrated competence, a good example of the benefits of aggregating knowledge that would otherwise be dispersed and lack critical mass.

Since writing our report, we have become aware of the Knowledge Centers at American Management Systems, managed by Susan Hanley. Their brochure explains this point very well:

"We know, that together, our collective knowledge and experience is more powerful than any one individual's knowledge and experience".

Hanley emphasizes that their centers offer more than a collection of information: "they actively and creatively link people". They provide "virtual communities of experts who find and deliver information to client teams". AMS have six knowledge centers and an AMS 'hotline', that consultants can call to get access to their knowledge. Hanley estimates that the center saved AMS $5000,000 in its first year of operation, mainly through faster query handling - on average, the experts at the centers can come up with relevant information and answers 8 times faster than the typical consultant!

Its a paradox of our times, that during a period when management consultancies have been building their centers, many industrial organizations have been running down their corporate libraries. If what's in their place can deliver these benefits, all well and good. However, how many corporations are missing the benefits of a critical mass that delivers the kinds of benefits experienced by AMS?

On the other hand, perhaps that why companies are spending so much money on consultancies - since the consultancies can now can put their fingers on vital knowledge quicker than the firms can themselves. Have they unwittingly outsourced a strategic asset, which once they had themselves? An interesting thought!

AMS is at http://www.amsinc.com


David Skyrme Associates provides consultancy services and workshops on information and knowledge management that address the topics covered in this article.



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