Defining KM

Published: March 16th, 2003

In defense of the wacky misinformation pundits spew about KM (knowledge management), it really is challenging for technologists and business people to get their minds around KM technology.

Here’s why.

Early computer applications were easy to understand and use because their goal was to replace an existing single machine. The spreadsheet replaced the 10-key, for example, and the word processor replaced the typewriter. In these cases, users knew what to expect, the deliverables were familiar, and facilities knew where to install the hardware. The returns on effort were, therefore, astronomical.

When more complex applications came along, they were harder to understand and optimize because they replaced a quilt of manual business systems, procedures, and equipment. Electronic document-management and MRP (material requirements planning) systems, for example, were designed and delivered based on known business processes that occur without computers. Although these applications usurped many different processes and kinds of equipment, they were still firmly anchored in the real world, with known processes and known deliverables. But friction, misinterpretations, and missed subtleties in these systems meant more effort and cognitive difficulty.

Rolling out KM is significantly harder than those aforementioned complex applications because most organizations have neither the analogous processes nor the social behaviors that promote knowledge storing, organizing, and sharing in place.

A serious KM initiative will involve reinventing existing ideas and systems. Except for a handful of workgroups and companies whose very business is KM, there’s no proven model to follow – and the inertia of entrenched executives, line workers, and operating procedures can be daunting to overcome.

Clearing the KM confusion

The solution to KM confusion is to define the concept around business goals instead of products. KM, at the highest level, is an attempt to overcome the burdens to performance inherent in organizations of more than a hundred people. In a small, entrepreneurial company where people do multiple jobs, everyone knows other employees’ business and tasks and news; if they don’t, then they know how to find out. That energy juices the quality and productivity of entrepreneurial business.

Bigger companies lose that buzz because work is often specialized, staff members are spread across multiple facilities, and the flow of information is more hierarchical in nature. If these companies go public, the free flow of information is often sacrificed to red tape. The lost energy saps the motivation of high-performance employees, who then move on, while actively attracting those workers comfortable with corporate mediocrity.

At its simplest, KM is about crafting together people, processes, and technology in such a way as to recover the sense of a small business within a big organization.

The specific business problems KM should solve are all related to knowledge sharing and the application of knowledge. In a larger organization, knowledge acquired through experience doesn’t get reused because it isn’t shared in a formal way, and both positive and negative lessons learned tend to evaporate over time due to turnover or mergers. If you can capture what employees learned about suppliers, customers, or competitors and can make it readily available, you can turn that knowledge into perpetual-motion buzz.

Reaching the KM goal means working in four, all mandatory, areas: knowledge gathering, organizing, refining, and distributing. Each of those is enabled by functions – for example, knowledge can be organized using search, filtering, cataloging, and linking functions, to name a few. Technologies can be implemented in combination with business practices to achieve specific KM objectives – for example, an auto-categorizing XML tagging program or one filtered through the query mechanism of a database can aid in organizing a company’s acquired knowledge.

In some places, however, technology alone will not suffice. Such an enterprise might polish knowledge organization by having human experts manually enter links after getting the quick liftoff from electronic tools doing auto-categorization and filtering.

Keep in mind that KM is a systemic way of doing business. It is still achievable if people are given incentives to support it, if you tweak procedures and processes to remove barriers, and if you use the right technologies.