Facing competitive pressures and a bleak economic climate, chief executives are demanding better use of corporate resources. This demand applies not only to technology resources but also to the vast intellectual capital residing within employees and data stores, knowledge that can be capitalized on to bolster decision-making abilities.
Early adoptions of KM (knowledge management), which entailed sharing data via groupware systems and intranets, have helped facilitate knowledge sharing but haven’t gone far enough. And the core enterprise has become increasingly virtual, including an influx of intellectual capital from new channels such as e-business and enterprise automation. The end result: unmanageable data dumps.
Finding, organizing, and managing knowledge so that it can be meaningfully used to improve efficiency or to enrich corporate forecasting has become problematic, the resolution of which is a top priority. EKM (enterprise knowledge management) may hold the answer.
EKM is a strategy designed to take control of intellectual assets. Beyond consolidating data or offering unified search, EKM bridges the flow of intellectual capital within an organization, ensuring its availability to the rest of the enterprise. The resulting benefits include better collaboration and community, reduced redundancy on new bids and projects, faster time to market, and the ability to share past mistakes.
A number of tools lie at EKM’s technological core: content and document management, databases, corporate portals, and collaborative tools such as instant messaging,
Beyond hardware and software, EKM must infuse an organization with a knowledge-oriented culture, providing a collective corporate consciousness that extends beyond the boundaries of any localized business unit to the benefit of the entire company.
The true challenge in implementing an EKM strategy is that it imposes a considerable shift in employee work habits, forcing them to adapt to new system requirements and feed an expert knowledge base. The adoption of KM systems is therefore often met with friction and reluctance.
EKM also represents a cost challenge with large-scale implementations demanding upwards of US$200,000. Meanwhile, the ROI on the hefty investment is difficult to measure.
Finding funding might prove difficult under harsh economic conditions, but now is the time for companies to use the integrated disciplines of EKM to improve decision-making abilities and strategies that will ultimately eke out an advantage over competitors.
A company’s EKM framework will frequently take the form of a corporate portal, providing personalized access to applications, business processes, ERP and CRM systems, and to structured and unstructured data.
Although portals and push-based technologies can supply the framework for knowledge sharing, one challenge facing EKM is that knowledge is everywhere, and separating the wheat from the chaff is a sizable challenge.
Data mining and OLAP tools can extract data from sources, but they frequently leave users overwhelmed, awash in irrelevant data. For this reason, maturation in search-and-data visualization technologies is becoming increasingly important to usability of EKM.
As auto-taxonomy generation currently is the fastest means of scrubbing data for relevance, advances such as natural language-based searches, semantic metadata, and ontology relationship building are aiming to improve accuracy and relevance in knowledge extraction and availability.
A leading vendor in the knowledge management arena is Autonomy Corp. PLC, with large-scale products and niche solutions such as Autonomy Answers, boasting e-mail filtering, comprehension, and routing capabilities.
Another company, Lotus Software Group from IBM Corp., offers the Lotus Discovery Server and K-Station portal, providing impressive access to distributed knowledge repositories. Using predeveloped portlets to ease implementation, Lotus supplies a solid means of assembling profiling and collaborative technologies into quickly customizable portals.
Other useful features include the capability of quickly matching jobs to available human expertise within the company as well as building databases which provide quick, automated answers to frequently asked questions. Such a knowledge data store remains valuable, continuing to add value even after the employees that created it have moved on to greener pastures.
EKM portals can be further extended to include tools for analysing competitive and business intelligence metrics. Vendors such as Brio Technology Inc., Cognos Inc., and Business Objects SA offer such tools, which add the benefits of analytical insight and reporting capabilities to a Web-based interface to data sources.
Ultimately, the specific tools employed must fit the specific need of the company. But by deploying these tools within the framework of an EKM system, you will ensure information and application availability to a broader corporate audience and not merely an isolated business unit.
A KM State of Mind
With its roots in technology typically involving corporate intranets, portals, and databases, KM was traditionally tasked to CIOs for implementation.
But the difficulty in adoption of EKM strategies has typically not been associated with technology as much as with corporate culture. KM requires employees to change the way they work and feed the system with personal knowledge, so that knowledge stays with the employer long after the employee moves on. From entry-level help desk clerks to senior analysts, workflow must be re-engineered for the new knowledge system to be effective.
For this reason, companies adopting EKM should consider instituting a chief knowledge officer to set priorities and goals, maintain focus, and rally support of employees and senior management as the transition progresses.
It is possible to start off small, identifying key business units that will benefit most from knowledge management adoption just to get the ball rolling. Although this will mitigate some of the risk, a company will not enjoy the maximum benefit from EKM until the entire organization is plugged in to the knowledge grid.
Pitching EKM to CFOs likely won’t be easy. The benefits of an EKM strategy take time to bear fruit. Due to the time necessary to re-engineer business processes in support of EKM, and to get employees up to speed, expect delays of a year or more.
Moreover, because EKM is used in the pursuit of an objective and doesn’t produce a measurable objective itself, bottom-line benefits can be difficult to quantify. We therefore recommend that companies take steps to measure what impact EKM has on existing business metrics, such as efficiency and sales growth, to appropriately gauge the success of any initiative.
Even midsize companies with numerous or dispersed data sources and in need of unified, collaborative employee interaction could benefit from EKM. But given the time to implement and the intrusion to workflow, EKM is often best viewed as a long-term solution for highly decentralized companies for which enterprise synergy can be an elusive goal.
Effective management of intellectual capital has become a key component for driving business advantage. The operational efficiency and common corporate focus gained from EKM will help companies withstand economic downturns, offer protection in the face of high employee turnover, and proffer a better platform from which to excel in the coming good times.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Enterprise Knowledge Management
Executive Summary: EKM offers a more effective execution over early KM approaches, which resulted in isolated data islands. Information sharing and availability boosts efficiency, reduces redundancy, and helps employees focus on a shared corporate vision.
Test Center Perspective: An EKM strategy requires a shift in corporate culture, making the undertaking better suited for larger companies that would benefit from closing knowledge gaps caused by distributed work forces. Despite its intrusion, EKM is a better approach than wasting intelligence assets.
Test Center Managing Analyst James R. Borck ([email protected]) covers e-business solutions for enterprise computing.