Magazine Article | December 20, 2006

Manage More Than Content — Manage Knowledge

Source: Field Technologies Magazine

A sound knowledge management strategy can provide your business with competitive advantage by fostering enterprise-wide innovation.

Integrated Solutions, January 2007

So you've implemented an ECM (enterprise content management) system. You're scanning all your company's mission-critical documents, indexing the images based on key metadata, and storing them in a centralized electronic repository. That's great. This investment will likely pay for itself in a matter of months simply by providing accelerated access to key documents and reducing physical storage costs. However, just like its paper predecessor, this electronic information is just sitting there, waiting for an employee to retrieve it before it offers any value to your business processes. Wouldn't it be nice if this and other corporate information could actually proactively influence your future business practices and decisions?

This is the promise of knowledge management. Knowledge management is not a technology application, but a range of practices used by organizations to identify, create, represent, and distribute knowledge for reuse, awareness, and learning across an organization. Knowledge management is a strategy focusing on capturing context and meaning from intellectual property and extracting new value from this information by allowing others to discover it in relevant situations. This article is intended to provide you with the basic building blocks for implementing your own knowledge management strategy and outline how successful knowledge management can produce tangible benefits for your business.

There are a number of drivers or motivating factors leading organizations to implement a knowledge management program. Perhaps first among these is to gain the competitive advantage that comes with improved and faster learning and new knowledge creation. Knowledge management programs can lead to greater innovation, better customer experiences, consistency in best practices, and knowledge access across a global organization.

According to Geoffrey Moore, author of Dealing With Darwin: How Great Companies Innovate At Every Phase Of Their Evolution, "What separates the most successful brands in the world such as Nike, GE, and 3M from their would-be competition is their ability to mine a broad base of experience to discover insights and best practices and capture them as intellectual property." This would not be possible without a knowledge management strategy or platform in place.

"The better your organization is at capturing ideas, managing them to execution, and understanding what has not worked well in the past, the better your organization will be at making future decisions based on knowledge of previous outcomes," adds Dirk Shaw, customer experience architect at Vignette. "Leveraging these insights is essential to sustaining innovation. Without a process for managing knowledge and insights, an organization is likely to make the same mistakes over and over again. These mistakes can result in loss of market share, time, and cost of production." Other considerations driving a knowledge management initiative may include:
n making increased knowledge content available in the development and provision of products and services
n achieving shorter new product development cycles
n leveraging the expertise of people across an organization
n increasing organizational collaboration to improve the overall quality of a product or service.

Although knowledge management is not a technology application, several IT systems facilitate the flow of knowledge throughout an organization and may play an instrumental role in your knowledge management program. An ECM system is a primary example of one of these technologies.

"An ECM platform enables organizations to automate both the description of metadata and the long-term management of information through policy management and archive services," says Bryan House, group manager of content management and archiving for EMC. "These and other capabilities of an ECM system will have a positive impact on knowledge transfer in several ways. First, it makes information easier to locate and reuse through improved search functionality. An ECM system also enables more effective collaboration because information is more accessible within business process applications. Lastly, an ECM system facilitates the sharing of knowledge. Once information reaches some end state, it can be easily published for distribution and archived for long-term access."

Besides ECM systems, other knowledge management enabling technologies include knowledge bases, software help desk tools, classification software, search engines, expert location programs, business intelligence software, and visualization software. The growth of the Internet has also created an explosion of other enabling technologies, including e-learning, Web conferencing, collaborative software, e-mail lists, intranets, Web portals, wikis, and blogs. These Web-based tools have led to an increase in creative collaboration, learning and research, e-commerce, and instant information. You may already have many of the systems that enable knowledge management in place, but may be interested in investing in others to enhance your knowledge management practices. Keep the following in mind when considering knowledge management technologies:
n Since untrained knowledge workers may be responsible for creating, managing, accessing, and sharing information, compare each technology's ease of use.
n Look for software that conforms to open Web services standards, which will make it easier to customize, expand, and integrate. A Web services platform will be more accommodating to applications you might want to add in the future.
n Look for directory-based access controls and encryption that can accommodate your organization's security and privacy rules.
n Scrutinize each product's ability to scale up to handle future demand.

The important thing to remember is you should let your knowledge management strategy drive your technology decisions — not the reverse. Develop your strategy first, and use this as criteria for what technology components you buy and the role each will play. By doing this, you may realize you don't need any new tools. You may just need to change a process.

As with any technology initiative, there are basic and advanced applications of knowledge management. "As organizations proceed up the learning curve in their knowledge management strategy, they move from capturing and categorizing information to analyzing and recommending information based on business process context," says House. "The first is a pull approach — individuals drive the discovery process based on personal need. The second is a push model — where the knowledge management system is actively recommending relevant information based on the context of the user's day-to-day work processes."

Examples of basic knowledge management applications may include a suggestion box, corporate directory, or employee-driven collaborative team spaces. These systems capture knowledge and distribute it for reuse. More advanced knowledge management applications may include an idea management system, social networking system, or a multifaceted classification solution that auto extracts information relationships.

Regardless of whether you are a small start-up company or a well-established enterprise, continuously enhancing your knowledge management efforts is something every business should strive for. Knowledge management at any level helps organizations improve decision making, eliminate redundant work efforts, and connect distributed teams working on related activities. "I often refer to knowledge management as your corporate memory," says Shaw. "When guided by an overarching strategy, the old adage 'your company will have to relearn what it knows every 10 years' effectively disappears as you can continuously build on your past successes and mistakes."