In recent years, the term “knowledge management” (KM), which is the merging of a company's human and technical knowledge assets from the supply chain to customer service/feedback, has become such an ill-defined concept that it risks becoming nothing more than an overused buzzword.
But despite the ambiguity, KM is vital to businesses. And while KM is more a business practice than a technological solution, analysts agree that technology is a key component.
"KM is a discipline for implementing a business process that helps you to extract maximum value out of your knowledge assets or your intellectual assets," said French Caldwell, an analyst with GartnerGroup.
But unlike concepts that couldn’t deliver, KM seems to be integrating itself into business.
"We've all seen management terms hyped and promoted in the past and then they get overhyped and then there's a backlash,” said Connie Moore, an IT industry analyst at Giga Information Group . “But if you look at the concepts behind them, they're very valid, and they're things that companies are still doing. In that context, as a business discipline, I think knowledge management is here to stay."
In this article, we’ll take a broad look at knowledge management, how a CIO should be involved in its implementation, and how analysts see it used in business. In other installments, we’ll examine more about KM, including implementation, emerging technologies, and overcoming barriers to full integration.
A CIO’s responsibility
According to a recent GartnerGroup survey of more than 800 of its business clients, 90 percent of companies knew of KM, with a majority indicating they were implementing KM into their workplaces during 1999 and 2000.
The survey noted that 63 percent of businesses have delegated responsibility for KM efforts to the CIO, reflecting the perception of KM as a technological challenge instead of a management approach.
Caldwell sees that trend continuing, especially with a CIO’s knowledge of both business and technology.
"You're seeing more CIOs who are being appointed from within the business side of the company versus from within the ranks of the IT professionals,” he said. “Plus, you're seeing CIOs being tasked with taking on implementing knowledge management processes, which is right, because knowledge management should be oriented toward supporting the business."
Greg Dyer, a senior research analyst at International Data Corporation , agreed. "The first thing that a CIO or anyone needs to know is that KM is a process," he said. "It's not PCs, it's not printers or things like that, but it's a process and it's a flow."
E-business and KM
Evan Quinn, director of Application Strategies for the Hurwitz Group , believes e-business will spur KM’s growth. He contends that companies that have both content-management strategies and an understanding of XML will have an advantage.
“When you start to talk about automating your supply chain over the Web, you start talking about automating your customer interactions over the Web or through other wired interfaces,” he said. “One of the things you're going to need to have is a wonderful grasp of what's going on with your supplier or your customer.
"If you're talking about making more creative business decisions in the world of the Web, and you're hoping that KM will help your organization get there, you have to be able to mine content."
Implementing KM in business
Dave Yockleson, who tracks IT trends as senior vice president and director of META Group Inc ., offers a general step-by-step approach for CIOs as they consider implementing KM:
- 1. Encourage KM’s implementation.
Ensure that your culture will support a knowledge management effort. Remove boundaries that both discourage collaboration and encourage information hoarding.
"CIOs need to be very proactive in reaching over to the business side of the company, and saying, 'Look, I'll be glad to honcho this, but it has to be your project; it is to support the business objectives of the company, not to build in some new IT capability.' There also may be some incremental IT capabilities that need to be added to whatever the company's current foundations are.
"Most companies, we find, have either some type of Lotus Notes foundation that you can build on for knowledge management, or they have some type of Microsoft Exchange-type of foundation that you can build on.”
- 2. Determine which processes and functions would benefit most from KM.
"What we would prefer people to look at are those individual pinpoints, areas, or functions that cry out for the need the most. [These are] areas like research and development, product development, customer support, sales and marketing, and competitive intelligence,” Yockleson said. “At that point you can decide what the appropriate technical components are.”
- 3. Coordinate with other departments.
"The CIO should be working with [human resources] people, working with the functional leads from R&D and the areas I just mentioned, and should have the blessing of the CEO to do it,” Yockleson said. “Implementing technology, such as portal technology, on a broad scale is the next step.”
An array of KM-geared technologies are available to help merge explicit knowledge (hard data) and tacit knowledge (human skill and know-how). These include:
- · Portals
- · XML-based technologies
- · Groupware products, such as Lotus Notes
- · Office suites, such as Microsoft Office or BackOffice Server 4.5
For now, Caldwell says, KM is not an off-the-shelf solution that can be achieved with one technology, such as online meeting, e-mail, knowledge servers, and middleware. “[But] all of these are capabilities and products that may be appropriate to support your knowledge management process."
Any attempt at KM, Gartner’s Moore contends, must start with the idea of fostering knowledge-sharing, communication, and collaboration between people, and building a system to support it.
Use of KM in business
One of the businesses that analysts often cite for their use of KM in business is Buckman Labs . Amaker of specialty chemicals with industrial clients worldwide, the company touts its "Knowledge Network" in helping the company improve its internal knowledge sharing and customer relations, as well as linking its field representatives around the world.
According to a July/August 1998 article in The Journal for Quality and Participation, the K'Netix network started as a crude attempt in 1987, when the company used the IBM network to link sales reps with the company via e-mail.
However, the system proved cumbersome. So, in 1992, it established knowledge-sharing forums and an e-mail system via CompuServe. Dubbed “K'Netix,” the network established forums known as "open places" where any employee in the company could post messages, ask questions, or request technical support.
In one instance, a Buckman customer in France had a problem that was posted on K’Netix one morning by an associate in Monaco. By the afternoon, a U.S.-based associate proposed an answer, which was discussed by others in the forum. During the next few days, others offered alternate solutions.
Buckman's K'Netix system has also gained industry respect, winning the 1997 Computerworld Smithsonian Award for innovative applications of technology in manufacturing.
Moore also cited Xerox and The World Bank Group as organizations with effective KM systems.
Driving many KM successes have been CIOs who have switched their emphasis from the technical side of data management to becoming active players in shaping corporate cultures. And a recent InformationWeek article cites restaurant company Brinker International Inc ., medical-products maker Becton Dickinson and Co ., and Prudential Insurance Company of America as examples of companies where CIOs have taken the lead in creating new organizational structures and workgroups with KM concepts.
Does your company embrace some of the same concepts covered here? Do you think knowledge management could improve your business? Post a comment below or send us an e-mail.