Knowledge management: easy to say, difficult to do.
One of the reasons that I feel IT is currently held in such low regard by the business is that it has a track record of over-promising and under-delivering. The industry bandies about terms in a completely cavalier fashion and unrealistic expectations are then generated. However, when people try to install what is promised they usually find the challenge is much more complicated than they had been led to believe. A classic example of this is the term "knowledge management". This appeared on the IT horizon around 1998. People spoke about it as the successor to executive information systems. It seemed obviously important. Yet how do you achieve it?
The penny only dropped for me four years later, when I was digesting some IDC research on the topic for an upcoming InTEP session. IDC stressed that knowledge management is not a product such as search engines or document management systems. Instead it sees these as enabling services that provide the foundation for knowledge management.
IDC recognised that the ultimate aim of knowledge management is to get the right information to the right people at the right time to improve productivity. It believes that IT facilitates this through software and services in support of this process. In its opinion, there is a mixture of infrastructure and access software. The infrastructure components are things like data warehouses, document management systems and workflow that support knowledge capture. The access software are tools like portals, search engines, XML and OLAP systems that support knowledge access and sharing.
Other IDC research identified the main business reasons for embracing knowledge management. Nearly 80 per cent of the CIOs interviewed regarded enhancing internal collaboration as the purpose for adopting knowledge management. This undoubtedly reflects a feeling that, in many businesses, wheels are constantly being reinvented over time. If the experience of individuals can be captured, translated into repeatable processes and leveraged across the organisation, then better, quicker and more cost-effective decisions can be made, especially should similar events occur in the future.
Reluctance to Adopt
On the other hand, the same report highlighted the reasons why knowledge management initiatives are not adopted. A third of these respondents reported they were still examining options. This may mean that many CIOs are confused about what they can do to assist knowledge management. This uncertainty probably influences the other two reasons behind an inability to adopt knowledge management: lack of executive support (18.3 per cent) and a lack of funding (15.6 per cent).
The InTEP speaker came from the Reserve Bank of New Zealand, which has spent the last four years developing its knowledge management initiatives. The presentation stressed the importance of the right cultural environment to support these activities. Above all, you need an environment of trust between co-workers if they are going to be open to sharing. The RBNZ's experience has been that the most effective knowledge transfers happened informally between colleagues. When it attempted to formalise these exchanges around a process it found it prevented the spontaneity and openness that had given the best results in the past. Instead it found environmental considerations, like open plan offices for all staff, including the executive, had much more positive returns.
Other IDC research recognises the advantages that knowledge management can realise. The consistency and quality of deliverables can be enhanced, resources can be better leveraged, the knowledge centres on particular topics within the organisation can be appreciated and better decision-making can be facilitated. The InTEP session showed that effective knowledge management is clearly something of a trial and error learning curve. However, it gave me an appreciation that in this "do more with less" world of today those of us in IT are going to hear quite a bit more about knowledge management in the years ahead.
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