Rather than wax philosophical about what knowledge is, let’s let it be any information that can further an organization’s goals. If managing IT can be compared to herding cats, managing knowledge is comparable to ranching fleas on a cat herd.
The knowledge management model implies that those organizations best able to collect, index, store and analyse knowledge have an advantage over their competitors. To differentiate between information and knowledge, consider what happens when you interpret data logs. Looking only at the logs, a twice-daily drop in bandwidth usage at a particular office may be quite mysterious; only by checking in with on-site managers can you discover that those lulls mark the arrival of the office coffee cart.
These mysteries crop up with every new hire or responsibility change, wasting valuable time solving the same problem over and over. With knowledge management, systems are put in place to collect the answers and make them more accessible. This approach can be used anywhere in an organization but most often makes sense in customer support applications. Applications can include compiling solutions to MIS problems, offering human resources support for employees and providing self-service support for retail customers in many industries.
Though it’s more a business model than a technology, knowledge management incorporates new technologies as they appear. Organizations networking their PCs in the late 1980s and early 1990s enabled more employees both to use and contribute to early knowledge management systems. These systems depended on centralized databases in which employees entered information about their jobs and from which other employees could seek answers.
Knowledge management systems have always relied on data management technologies such as relational database management systems, data warehousing and data cleansing. To track and analyse how knowledge management systems are being used, managers turn to the reporting utilities in their database systems. Such reporting tools also help generate knowledge for the organization and manage existing knowledge assets.
Practitioners of knowledge management have been quick to adopt advances in groupware tools, too. Distinguishing between knowledge management and groupware can be difficult: Knowledge management systems often rely on groupware technologies such as Lotus Notes, and, by definition, groupware facilitates the exchange of organizational information. One telling difference is a knowledge management system’s emphasis on identifying knowledge sources, knowledge analysis and managing the flow of knowledge within an organization all the while providing access to knowledge stores. The knowledge management model regards the sum of all knowledge within the organization as its “intellectual assets,” and provides tools for managing those assets.
As a management tool, knowledge management systems require technology as well as consultants who advise on how to handle knowledge audits, analysis and flow. And knowledge management consultants are quick to apply new technologies. Over the past few years, just as groupware applications shifted from proprietary client/server models to a platform-agnostic Web model, knowledge management’s embrace of Web technologies has extended its usefulness and cut costs. Web-based knowledge management systems require no (or minimal) change to users’ desktops and can be simpler to install and administer.
More recently, knowledge management systems started using XML to identify relevant data elements and extract knowledge from them both in and out of the organization. XML offers document schemas and tags, allowing readers to collect meta-information about each piece of information. For example, a data object marked “” in a help desk application is more likely to have useful answers than one marked “.”
Is It for You?
Knowledge management requires buy-in at the very highest levels of an organization. Costs can be quite high, as off-the-shelf products are unlikely to solve the typically massive and complex challenges facing large organizations. And knowledge management systems are rarely useful outside of large organizations. As a result, high costs for software and hardware may be dwarfed by consulting fees for customizing knowledge management software or creating customized in-house applications.
Ultimately, whether you build or buy, creating a knowledge management system represents a significant management decision – one that must have support throughout the organization.
Pete Loshin is a freelance writer in Arlington, Mass.