Unwieldy central systems versus personal files no one else sees? Jane Dudman reports on how to overcome the challenges of implementing knowledge management.
Knowledge management might sound like a good idea, but too many expensive KM projects languish unused, leaving IT managers wondering why it is so difficult to get this technology to provide their organisations with the benefits promised.
One challenge with KM is the need for close attention to technical detail, while keeping a clear, overall view of the way information is used across the whole organisation. Focusing too hard on the technology can interfere with this, say users such as Leeds-based legal firm Fox Hayes. Ian Coupland, head of Fox Hayes' commercial litigation department, says, "We think we have a knowledge management strategy, rather than a knowledge management system." Fox Hayes prefers to focus on the overall network components rather than the knowledge depository.
Neil Brennan, head of human resources services at professional services consultancy Jardine Lloyd Thompson, which has implemented its own KM system as well as advising clients, agrees that precise definitions of KM do not matter - as long as everyone understands the overall approach. "The driver for knowledge management should be all about doing things more efficiently, which means different things to different organisations. That is fine, as long as internally they are clear," he says.
Jardine Lloyd Thompson uses its own KM system to provide staff with suggestions for situations that come up regularly with different clients. "We provide KM space on our intranet where there are solutions for particular scenarios, so people know the information is there and can use it," says Brennan. "In my view, this is the most successful way to do it. But there is a change of culture when introducing such a system, because people are not at first used to looking at the central space. It takes a while for people to get used to looking there and to putting information there."
Brennan says there is little point trying to apply traditional return on investment measures to knowledge management. "You have to put in a lot of time and effort or it is a waste of time, but we do not measure the ROI," he says. Within Jardine Lloyd Thompson, the main aim is to classify shared information clearly. "We find many organisations have not done this well enough," says Brennan. "They may have some kind of technical library, but it is not well-publicised internally. People need to know what is there."
Others in the industry think it is possible to measure the benefits of KM systems, as long as these are carefully implemented and controlled. "People will not see a significant return unless they know why they want to share the information and tie it back to the objective of the business," says Libby Ralph, practice leader for knowledge management at IT services company EDS. Ralph believes it is also best to build up KM systems from particular functional or process areas within the business.
Colin Coulson-Thomas is professor of competitiveness at the University of Luton and author of the recent book, The Knowledge Entrepreneur. He says most companies have focused on packaging existing knowledge, with relatively little effort devoted to generating the additional know-how needed to innovate and create added value from that knowledge.
"General information, knowledge and training have been made available on corporate intranets, but key workgroups have not been equipped with the specific knowledge, skills and tools they need to do a better job," he says.
Coulson-Thomas says consequently too many organisations are putting enormous effort and resources into knowledge-management schemes that do not increase productivity and may not even be relevant to corporate objectives. "Knowledge management now urgently needs to move on," he says.
Coulson-Thomas's findings are backed up by Max Nathan, senior researcher at UK research charity, the Work Foundation (formerly the Industrial Society). He is author of a recent report into why UK businesses are failing to maximise on their investment in IT. "KM is very good at dealing with simple information, but in some firms managers are using KM systems to store quite complex information," says Nathan. "They are also attempting to gather all that information together and store it in a central place. Both of these are problematic."
Trying to codify complex, often subjective information into a single, centralised database is difficult, says Nathan. "If you take something such as sales prospects, people may have very subjective feelings. Our research found that in some organisations, people are having to go round the structured system - for instance, they may store more subjective notes in free text boxes."
Nathan gives the example of a local government body running a KM system that appeared to be working relatively well. "But people would then ask their colleagues to tell them about a specific person, or a specific case - information that was stored in the system, but not in a useful or usable form. The system was being used as a prompt, rather than as an archive," says Nathan.
Even if complex information can be codified, there are still problems with attempting to store it all in a large, centralised database. One global management consultancy, for instance, has set up a worldwide KM system, but local staff find it difficult to codify their own information into the global template and also find it difficult to access information in the system.
"One of the premises of that type of KM is that it provides a central device for managers, providing easy access to information, but there is a lot of work involved to get technology to do that," Nathan says. "It is difficult to get the information out of people's heads or hard drives, because it is all about people sharing and not everyone wants to play ball."
One answer to these problems is to move away from the idea of KM towards the idea of expertise management. "Rather than trying to take the information, instead you have systems linking the people who have that information," explains Nathan. He says this approach is already being used in some UK organisations, such as the central government department that has set up a system in which policy advisers can have as much unstructured storage space as they want - until they are working on standard policy documents, such as memos and reports, which have to follow a clear template and are stored in a carefully-structured environment.
This type of two-tier approach may already be informally in place in many organisations, where the controlled strictures of a KM system often prove too difficult for staff to use easily on a daily basis. "If there is one clear lesson, it is that IT allows everyone to develop their own system, with a strong element of personal choice and preference," says Nathan. "It is impossible to change that except through a heavily controlled and proscribed environment."
Finding a path between the anarchy of personal information and the Big Brother scenario of centralised information is the challenge that now faces a growing number of UK firms. The answers are likely to be as various as the organisations themselves.
The Knowledge Entrepreneur: how your business can create, manage and profit from intellectual capital, by Colin Coulson-Thomas, is published by Kogan Page Business Books
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Case study: Fox Hayes
Fox Hayes is a thriving legal firm that has grown by 600% in the past six years. Based in Leeds, it employs 150 staff and sees technology in general, and its approach to information in particular, as a way to help it compete against much larger law firms with the ability to invest much greater amounts in their IT.
"We are very much internet-based at the moment," says Ian Coupland, head of the firm's commercial litigation department and head of IT strategy. "We have continued to upgrade our systems and have a lot more web-based information access for clients and suppliers. We take a lot of our instructions over the web and we use online case management. It is all about being more efficient."
While larger firms may have more money to invest, Coupland believes it is possible for smaller firms to compete, as long as they remain forward-thinking.
He says Fox Hayes has a KM strategy, rather than a KM system, which includes not just the firm's intranet, internet and document-management systems, but also the whole spread of its networking, including wireless and the use of virtual private network, to enable staff to work from home.
"Communications are key," says Coupland. "We have concentrated on our end-user service and that depends on our communications, both internally and externally. The internet is crucial and speed is vital."
Try to think about how expertise works in your company
Linking the experts may work better than trying to get down all the information in a central store
Small, focused KM projects are likely to work better than large, diffuse schemes
Understand the cultural issues - if it is not in people's interest to share information, they will be reluctant to use a KM system
A two-tier approach may work better for some organisations.