Keep tabs on your collective know-how, experts warn

With the world’s collective library of recorded information expected to grow at

a blinding pace through the next decade, Canadian companies need to wise up when it comes to knowledge management, concluded a panel of experts.

Knowledge management, explained the speakers at a recent SMART Toronto technology association breakfast, simply means the ability to collect, index, store and analyze the information an organization needs to do its work. Successful knowledge management initiatives, they agreed, may involve data management technologies such as relational database management systems, cultural and organizational behaviour modification or, most effectively, a combination of the two.

Whatever the solution, there is definitely a long-standing problem, said Doug McCuaig, vice-president of e-business services at Cap Gemini Ernst & Young.

“Employees think of knowledge as a threat – it’s what makes them valuable and they don’t want to share it,” McCuaig said.

Traditional hierarchical organizations like governments and enterprises have knowledge arranged in silos that aren’t set up to share information, McCuaig said. He explained that organizations hoping to keep pace with rapidly changing conditions need to migrate away from the old apprenticeship model where knowledge is transferred by watching senior people do their jobs or reading manuals.

Especially given the recently publicized mass retire-offs that will hit organizations such as Hydro Quebec over the next five years, causing thousands of years worth of customer, administrative and technical know-how to evaporate virtually overnight, McCuaig said the adoption rate for knowledge management practices and solutions in Canada is much too slow.

“I’d say we’re not adopting it, and we’re still behind the U.S. in a big way. We’re getting better, but … I think we have a huge challenge in that we’re slow adopters of technology, and we’re a slow adopter of innovation,” he said.

Heidi Amponsem, principal consultant for PricewaterhouseCoopers and an academic who has studied knowledge management, said the key Canadian industries driving the practice are business and financial services, communication, government and education. But despite the potential benefits she said many organizations seem leery of undertaking knowledge management projects.

“There is a lot of fear that it’s too big, it’s too expensive and it’s too complicated. Everybody wants to have the complete solution all at once, but it’s just too big so they don’t start. They need to know that they can start small and then grow [the program] with experience,” she said.

The role of the CIO or IT manager in knowledge management programs is to know what technology is out there, to be able to describe the cost of designing and owning a solution, and to be able to sell it to the highest levels of management, said McCuaig.

“What we’ve found over the last five years is that technology people have to be business people – the interpreters of what technology can do and enable. And you have to understand the business rationale behind technology. So the question you have to understand is that even though technology is crucial, knowledge management can’t be championed just by the IT department,” he said.