Knowledge management came under the microscope at last week's IT Director's Forum at Cranfield School of Management, as KM guru Larry Prusak considered the theme Exploding the myth: strategies for harnessing organisational knowledge.
If the stated intention was to demystify one of IT's most maddeningly woolly buzz-phrases, Prusak was too smart to raise delegates' expectations too high. His warning - that you cannot hope to measure or capture knowledge, but can only "manage an environment that is more likely to introduce it" - set the tone.
Prusak prefaced his lecture with an attempt to define knowledge. Words like wisdom, shrewdness, street-smart, values, connections and experience were all bandied about, although Prusak warned that, "experience itself is not necessarily knowledge - the ox that goes to Mecca is still an ox."
As for a definition of knowledge management, Prusak was understandably guarded, although he did quote the answer he gave to a Wall Street Journal reporter looking for a summary of the concept: "Hire smart people and let them talk to each other."
From this platform, he proceeded to outline a set of questions that an organisation would do well to consider before rushing into a knowledge management solution.
Why do you want to manage your knowledge?
Prusak encouraged delegates to look beyond the stereotypical image of knowledge management simply as a means of diffusion by posting best practice up on the intranet.
As well as knowledge diffusion, he identified knowledge replication (in use when a fast food chain sets up identical branches globally); knowledge innovation, or the bringing together of people with a rich understanding of a subject in order to spark innovation; and knowledge commercialisation, which boils down to the simple question, "what do we know that we could turn into something we could sell?"
What form of knowledge infrastructure will best suit your organisation?
When you know what your objective is, the next key issue is that of governance. Who should head up the initiative? Should you rely on knowledge-sharing on an ad hoc basis ("like an orchestra playing a symphony without a conductor", said Prusak)? Should the IT department be in charge, or is a knowledge manager the answer?
What do you put on the screen?"
Having decided you want to manage your corporate knowledge, you need to decide how you will make it visible. Do you point staff to individual colleagues with specialist knowledge? Do you represent process best practice?
"The key unit of analysis is a group," said Prusak. "Knowledge is in groups of people that share common vocabulary and passions. It clumps in networks or communities- it's local, contextual and sticky".
Asan example, hereferred to the Ford Motor Company, which found that it had over 400 employees who were fascinated by brakes, and who were "across geographies, functions, across the firm, but all talked to each other". Groups have always talked, he said, but technology can aid their communications.
How do people do their jobs?
In order to know how knowledge will help employees, you need to take time to understand how they do their jobs day by day. "Access doesn't equal value. The idea of ending a project with 'now you have more stuff on your computer' is nuts. It's what people do that counts," said Prusak.
What sort of technological framework should you introduce in order to enable knowledge management?
Prusak said, "Connectivity is far better than capture. There has been no record of success in capturing knowledge. Technology isn't the key driver - business is the driver. Technology is an enabler."
Should you incentivise knowledge sharing?
No, was the answer - unless you offer team rewards. "If you reward individuals, they will act individually," according to Prusak - something which is anathema to a knowledge manager.
This was first published in January 2000