We've all read or heard tell of knowledge management and the "learning organisation" and a pile of other trendy terms. But why should people in your company -- let alone your contractors and business partners -- bother to share their information or knowledge? If "information is power", then why would anyone voluntarily cede this power? What's in it for them? If these obvious questions are not addressed up front, then even the fanciest knowledge management effort is in vain. Finding the answers is a challenge confronting all organisations, and the firms which solve it most effectively will be the ones that lead the way into the new information-based economy of the next century. Take global consulting firm Booz, Allen & Hamilton. It began setting up an intranet-based knowledge management program, Knowledge On-Line, about six years ago, and today the system is successfully used by some 3500 Booz, Allen consultants around the world. Yet the firm acknowledges it committed many blunders along the way; their Chief Knowledge Officer warning that one of the biggest is to assume that sharing knowledge is anything other than an "unnatural act".
How did they encourage staff to go against nature? One path that Booz, Allen followed was to make consultants who shared knowledge look good to the firm and to outsiders. Their contributions were highlighted, for instance by linking documents they'd authored to their consultants' resumes. Anyone in the firm or any customer could see who was a star contributor. The firm also invented something called "equivalent billable hours" to acknowledge knowledge-sharing efforts, very important in a professional services firm where time is money.
Other companies have tried different techniques, some using rewards and some using punishments. One simple, but undoubtedly effective, suggestion I've heard is to require people to write up a one-page report every time they attend a conference, if they want to get their expenses claim passed. An idea with rather wider-ranging impact is to incorporate post-mortems as standard operating procedure. Whether an assignment or job goes bad or whether it's a smashing success, it should be normal practice to gather up the useful information that was learned, sift it through, and look for lessons that can be shared with the rest of the company. Naturally time needs to be allocated for this task.
One of the smoothest approaches is to reward information with information. For example, a salesforce automation system can be a form of knowledge management system that is enriched with constantly updated customer information. But sales people will only want to put information into the system if they can see how they themselves benefit, otherwise it's just a documentation chore.
Experts recommend that such a system should give back more information than it sucks in: if it requires call reports to be entered, then it could tell the salesperson how many calls they've made in the current quarter, what their commissions stand at, and where they are getting the best returns by area or customer type or size. Even when people are open to sharing knowledge, they may either fail to realise they have something that could valuably be shared with someone else in the organisation, or else simply not have the time. In order to overcome these obstacles, we need to put sharing knowledge front and centre of corporate attention. By implication, the overall message that sharing knowledge is important and that employees will benefit from sharing needs to come right from the top. Then, and only then, does it stand a chance of becoming part of a firm's culture.
Note: I am grateful to research consultant Joyce Yong, of executive search firm SpencerStuart, for pointing to an error in last month's column. There is indeed an Australian chapter of the Society of Competitive Intelligence Professionals: SCIPAUST is at (02) 9411 3900.
Steve Ireland is publisher of ComputerWorld newspaper
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