Knowledge management has been touted as everything from a way to organise documents to the driving engine of the new economy. It is a powerful lens for viewing management in a technology-enabled world where what is being managed is intellectual capital, and its very substantial subset - information.
There is not a single organisation, from the one-person consultancy to the global behemoth, that doesn't face a knowledge management challenge. But these challenges are different in nature for each organisation and require unique knowledge management solutions.
The first step in determining which approach makes sense is to isolate the core problem that knowledge management is meant to solve.
The recent growth in intranets, e-mail, e-commerce and e-business in general has led to a common misconception that knowledge management solutions are, by definition, technology-based.
It is true we would not be talking about knowledge management without these transforming technologies. But the trick is to understand when technology is playing a legitimate enabling role and when it becomes a solution in search of a problem.
For many organisations, getting information is ground zero for their knowledge management initiatives. Within the last decade companies have moved from a situation of information impoverishment - an access issue - to one of information overload - a screening issue.
Now hundreds of suppliers offer "knowledge management solutions" to help companies put their houses back in order following the flood. These organisational and navigational tools have done wonders for cycle time, but successful suppliers include users in the solution's design and deployment.
When an organisation is good at accessing knowledge:
Consider the case of the Ford Motor Company. In the mid-1990s, the company surveyed its car design teams and found that people could only find half of the information they needed to do their jobs. Information was everywhere, but mostly it was stored on people's desktops.
In 1996 Ford launched a centrally managed intranet using 82 information categories prioritised by the design teams. At the same time, it developed a central repository of technical and other valuable information.
The aggressive use of metadata to tag searchable documents, and the gradual migration of design teams to "shared drives" where they housed work in progress, led to substantial results.
A follow-up survey indicated that people could now find 90% of the information they needed. In addition, an online product development review process that hyperlinks reviewers to relevant documentation in the centralised information repository has dramatically reduced cycle time for product approval.
Many organisations that enthusiastically launched knowledge management initiatives - aimed at funnelling information to people at the point of need - find themselves stuck at the very point where members of the organisation are expected to contribute hard-won knowledge.
Technology can certainly facilitate this process. But it can never solve the disconnect between what skills companies say they value and what they demonstrate they value. Getting full participation in the contribution process requires a basic rethinking of the relationship between the organisation and its members.
In organisations that rethink relationships:
Some organisations have found ways to legitimise knowledge sharing through clever use of technology. A good example is Hewlett-Packard which has developed an electronic "micro-payment" system for knowledge contributions.
Under this "pay-per-view" system, people who download a piece of information - whether it is a line of code or the latest schedules from the Official Airline Guide - are charged a small fee which is deducted from their electronic credit card account. Revenues from the download are automatically funnelled to the department of the individual who contributed the information.
While the revenue streams do not pay for the development of the information itself, they do pay for the extra effort required to contribute, creating a virtuous cycle in which contribution is rewarded and thus repeated.
What's more, the HP system provides an elegant means of assigning a "market value" to a particular piece of knowledge. In other words, technology is used to create a navigational scorecard, directing the organisation to the type of information knowledge workers need.
When we come right down to it, this is ultimately what we mean by viewing management through a knowledge lens - giving people what they need to do their jobs and then getting out of the way and letting them do it. The more technology can contribute to this, the greater the role it has to play in achieving the aims of knowledge management.
Stick together let the herding instinct come to the fore by encouraging knowledge sharing
Knowledge management problems... and the challenge