Wendi Bukowitz and Ruth Williams, authors of The Knowledge Management Fieldbook (Financial Times, 1999), answer questions about their area of expertise - knowledge management - and offer tips on implementing KM within geographically dispersed organisations.
Q: When starting a KM project, what questions should management be asked in order to determine their KM needs?
A: First of all, we see a bit of a red flag when you talk about determining management's KM needs. A KM system designed around management may not be helpful to those who really need to gather information. In fact, management often fails to see a KM need, because when they need information they generally just ask a subordinate, and it miraculously appears. A KM system should meet the needs of the people, not simply the needs of an elite group. The first question you need to ask those who are expected to use and contribute to a KM system or process is: "What mission-critical information do you need to do your job?" Is it previously completed project deliverables? Is it process methodologies? Is it customer information? The answers should serve as the cornerstone of your KM initiative. Furthermore, you will want to look at how your organisation conducts KM now (every organisation practises some form of KM, even if they don't call it that). What is your company good at? What needs work? You can then prioritise where you ought to focus your efforts.
Q: Why is KM different from information management?
A: One persistent myth about the difference between knowledge management and information management is that knowledge management is about managing knowledge, while information management is about managing information. While knowledge and information are not the same thing, this is almost beside the point when discussing the difference between these two areas. For the sake of argument, let's just call what's purportedly being managed "stuff". What makes the discipline of KM different from that of information management is that the latter focuses on finding the stuff and moving it around, while the former is also concerned about how people create and use the stuff. Furthermore, information management is usually, though not always, concerned with electronic and paper-based information, while knowledge management deals with a far broader range of approaches to communicating and using both knowledge and information. KM is also made up of a whole range of soft issues that involves fostering an environment in which knowledge and information are shared and new knowledge is created. In short, information management is a subset of knowledge management.
Q: What resources are needed for ongoing management and maintenance when a know-ledge management system is worldwide in scope?
A: If by knowledge management system you mean some kind of information repository that members of the organisation contribute and have access to the "organisational brain", these things don't run on autopilot. In large global organisations, the infrastructure required to maintain a well-oiled KM system are enormous. Technology support is needed not only to keep all the servers housing information in working order but to develop databases and Web sites as well. The human infrastructure also includes a host of people to maintain information currency and a consistent taxonomy within the KM system.
Q: Most KM case studies showcase large, global organisations. Can a small- to medium-sized organisation implement - and realise benefits from - knowledge management?
A: Not all KM initiatives have to span mega-organisations. By the same token, not every organisation needs an IT-based KM system. Our advice would be to find someone outside IT with whom to partner and co-develop a pilot project.
Q: What strategies have you used or heard of to get employees to participate in a KM project?
A: Bringing people into the equation is always a good idea. But if you have to force people to participate in communities, you do have to ask yourself whether they're necessary. We did a study of online knowledge communities (OLC) where we looked at what it takes to get people to participate. An online community will work only if it serves the needs of members, not if it simply serves the needs of the larger organisation. The acid test: does the OLC help members do their work better? We're also fond of quoting our former colleague, Joe Cothrel: "There are things I'll do only if they're mandatory - like my time sheet. There are things I'll do regardless of whether they're mandatory - like organise my files. And there are things I'll do only if they're voluntary. Participating in a community is a little like that."
Q: Do you see enterprise portal technology facilitating KM?
A: It seems to us that portal technology is overhyped. Clearly people in organisations are overwhelmed by the amount of information available to them. Solutions that help them organise information and customise and personalise access to it are critical.
To this end, portal technology can be a real boon to KM - portals are a way for people to make sense and order of their information environment. We would just add the caveat that having a portal strategy doesn't mean you have a knowledge strategy.