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Fact or Fad? Ten Shifts in Knowledge Management

Beneath the KM fad lie substantive management practices

David J. Skyrme

Increasingly questions about the future of knowledge management arise. This time last year, 47 per cent of managers in a study by Cranfield School of Management expressed the view that it was just a fad. Now, with the KPMG survey putting the figure at only two per cent, it seems that the future of KM is more secure.

To gain an insight on the likely future of knowledge management, it's instructive to look at how some earlier 'fads' have evolved. Few large companies today do not practice Total Quality Management, at least in some form. Quality has become embedded in all their products and processes - although you still frequently find companies who are not practicing what they preach. Similarly, most organizations have introduced some form of Business Process Reengineering, even if not restructuring as radically as Hammer and Champey defined it. The point is, that these concepts have matured into a set of desired management practices, that in turn have stimulated a thriving industry for experts, suppliers of tools and techniques, training and other services. One question that remains, however, is why many companies still deliver shoddy goods and services, or why BPR has frequently failed to deliver the desired improvements. However, just as you shouldn't blame the messenger, the success that many companies have achieved indicates you should not blame the tools and techniques. All depends on how well they are applied.

Knowledge Management Today

In just two to three years knowledge management has come a long way. It's becoming accepted and management interest in it as a potential 'Holy Grail' has encouraged much relabelling, not just by suppliers, but by many initiatives within companies that are dealing with knowledge (which is about all of them). Beneath the fad, many companies and individuals are genuinely trying to better understand the contribution of knowledge to business success. Of course, once they get to grips with it, they find that some 90 per cent is common sense and good management practice. Also, that not a lot is new - at least if you know where to look.

For each of the management fucntions within KM there are accepted disciplines. Its just that some of them need tweaking to deal with the intangible nature of knowledge, especially tacit knowledge. Also, what knowledge gives is a unifying perspective over many different aspects of management. So, whereas the nature of the fad is mostly relabeling, reframing and repositioning, beneath the fad are substantive management activities.

Ten Shifts in Knowledge Management

Back to the question: What is the future of knowledge management? Here are ten shifts that I think we will see.

1. From a Dimension of Other Disciplines to a Discipline in its Own Right
It will be a subject of degree courses and a profession distinct from information management. Watch out for the first faculty of Knowledge Management.

2. From Strategic Initiatives to Routine Practice
The CKO of the future will embrace some of the functions of today's HR managers and CIOs.

3. From Inward Focus on Knowledge Processes to External Focus on Knowledge Businesses
Companies will identify how their knowledge assets can be recombined to create new knowledge-based businesses. For example, an engineering/manufacturing company might create an engineering consultancy business; many computer manufacturers have shifted their focus to IT services.

4. From Best Practices to Breakthrough Practices
Rather than improve incrementally, companies should strive for factor ten improvements in key areas, like time-to-market and functionality per unit cost. Thise looking for five or ten per cent gains through process improvement, will be left behind those looking for factor of ten or twenty gains. Consider those innovations that consumers are now enjoying: email airline tickets, spectacle prescriptions in an hour, introduced as a result of such breakthroughs.

5. From Knowledge Codification and Databases to Tradeable Knowledge Assets.
Many other companies are now realizing the opportunities from trading their databases e.g. fleet car managers are now trading privileged information on car reliability with partners.

6. From Knowledge Processes to Knowledge Objects
Just as computer applications are going object oriented, so too will the application of knowledge. We will package knowledge as objects (that might include an information record, a multimedia clip, and access to a person) that can be manipulated and transmitted in different ways. There will be knowledge markets for them - precursors e.g. for intellectual property design rights, already exist.

7. From Knowledge Maps to Knowledge Navigators/Agents
Maps are static representations of objects, and without extensive realtime map making capability (which could happen in the future) we need other ways to find existing and emerging knowledge. These will be human brokers (people with know-where and know-who) and intelligent software agents.

8. From Knowledge Centres to Knowledge Networks
Although aggregating knowledge and knowledgeable people at knowledge centers gives critical mass, a more effective model may well be local nodes of expertise interconnected through human and computer networks i.e. the virtual knowledge center.

9. From Knowledge Communities to Knowledge Markets
Communities are emerging that provide an effective vehicle for knowledge exchange. But as knowledge acquires value, and becomes 'productized' as objects these communities will develop payment mechanisms and other trappings of a market place. The phrase "a penny for your thoughts" will have real meaning - people microchips embedded under their skin which handle knowledge transfer and micropayments under directives from the human brain!

10. From Knowledge Management to Knowledge Innovation.
Debra M. Amidon sees knowledge management as a transition phase to something more fundamental. Management implies custodianship and managing what you know - innovation is creating something new and better, and that surely must be the ambition of all existing knowledge managers.


David Skyrme is a strategist on knowledge management and innovation and collaborative technologies. He is the co-author of Creating the Knoweldge-based Business and Measuring the Value of Knowledge, both published by Business Intelligence. He also edits the I3 UPDATE / ENTOVATION e-newsletter, a free briefing analysing developments in the networked knowledge economy.
Contact David at david@skyrme.com or see http://www.skyrme.com

Published in Knowledge Management Review, pp. 6-7, (July-August 1998).

© Copyright 1998. David J. Skyrme. All rights reserved.


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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