What's the definition of a trend in the IT industry? How about four separate invites in less than three months to seminars on a previously unheralded subject? Each unsolicited, shiny brochure extolled the importance of knowledge management. Mind you, some of my InTEP members may classify the definition as five separate invites because I shamelessly purloined the topic as the first Sydney InTEP session for 1998.
In fact, one of the debates at the InTEP meeting was whether knowledge management was the next best thing in the IT industry. The argument clearly has some merit. Much has been written about the power of the Web. Intranets have mushroomed in the last couple of years, and the browser war is so hot the American Department of Justice has been called on to intervene. All of these are indicators of the potential for IT to better empower employees with knowledge.
Yet the InTEP speaker warned there is a danger in taking a technology-centric approach to knowledge management. Instead he saw the need for effective human resources investment strategies. In his view the challenge is one of getting people and technology working together.
He cited the example of the market value of a prominent executive recruitment organisation. Twelve months ago this organisation had a market capitalisation of $190 million against hard assets of $15 million. The speaker argued that the remaining equity in the organisation reflected the intellectual capital of its staff. As such, he considered that any investment in boosting the skill sets of its staff was likely to pay far higher dividends than investments elsewhere.
[See "Get Smart", page 26 -- Ed.]
The presenter saw that companies could source knowledge both externally and internally. Therefore, he advocated more prominence for the librarian position.
Instead of being the cataloguer of unread journals, the "new" librarian would be closer to the business, appreciating the sort of information required to help the organisation serve customers and win new clients.
He also envisaged the development of online libraries staffed by "cybrarians".
He mentioned that this is pretty advanced in some Scandinavian countries where the trend is for companies to turn their libraries into cafes where people go grab a coffee, to mingle and to garner information.
With internal knowledge, the challenge seems to be getting staff to impart their expertise. In a climate where middle management have been "machine-gunned" for over 10 years, and where knowledge is power, it is going to be difficult to encourage staff to share their knowledge for the general good.
In fact, a view expressed at the InTEP meeting was that perhaps knowledge management has emerged as the new flavour of the month because so many companies have downsized and lost a great deal of internal expertise.
Establishing a knowledge management system would protect against future information losses.
One of the more interesting suggestions during the session was that businesses could learn a knowledge management trick or two from Aboriginal society -- where tribal elders have always played a key role in the decision-making process. Following that lead, businesses could establish a group of elders who are consulted over key strategic decisions. If long-term employees see their loyalty and experience acknowledged, it is far more likely they will be amenable to the transfer of their wisdom into some corporate knowledge management system.
Peter Hind is the manager of User Programs, which includes InTEP, at IDC Australia
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