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As technology becomes easier to duplicate, knowledge is becoming the foundation of organization value and competitive advantage. Managing knowledge is the key to utilizing and exploiting this powerful asset. In government or business, success sides not with those who have the best knowledge, but with those who know best how to use it.

Knowledge exists at the top of a theoretical hierarchy above data and information. Data are facts, the essential raw materials that, by themselves, may not be very useful. Information has been described by Peter Drucker as "data endowed with relevance and purpose." It has meaning to users that data do not. Knowledge is information in the context of experience, values, and expert insight. It is action-oriented, addressing how things work. This brief definition is certainly debatable. An important first step in managing knowledge is to agree on some set of reasonable definitions and get beyond nitpicky arguments over details.

Knowledge exists in two types, explicit and tacit. Explicit knowledge is documented and accessible. It is maintained in records and databases. It is indexed for retrieval. Tacit knowledge is undocumented and not easily accessible. It exists in people’s heads. It is not easily indexed for retrieval. In spite of what appears to be clear-cut differences, both explicit and tacit knowledge can be difficult to access when needed, one because of volume and relevance (explicit knowledge), and the other because of awareness and retrieval (tacit knowledge).

A recent study by the management consulting firm KPMG revealed a Number of problems related to knowledge in today’s workplace. Organizations responding to the survey indicated the following:

  • No time to share knowledge (72%)
  • Information overload (69%)
  • Not using technology to share knowledge effectively (65%)
  • Difficulty capturing tacit knowledge (63%)
  • Reinventing the wheel (63%)

Another KPMG study indicated benefits realized in organizations that had taken specific action to manage knowledge, including:

  • Better decision making (71%)
  • Faster response to key business issues (68%)
  • Improved employee skills (63%)
  • Improved productivity (60%)
  • Increased profits (52%)

Knowledge is important to projects and project managers. Projects are increasing in prevalence as the preferred means for getting things done. Projects are very good mechanisms for action, but they are not good mechanisms for learning. Because projects are temporary endeavors, different people are involved in different projects. The expertise that people bring to one project may not be available in a future similar project if the same people are not available. Project productivity over time depends on transferring knowledge forward, a strategic action-learning link that is not a strength of current project methodology.

Managing knowledge consists of three components: people (employees, customers, partners, experts, and other individuals who are central to success), places (virtual workspaces in which people come together to brainstorm, learn, and interact), and things (data, information, and processes that are created, captured, classified, and shared). This view suggests a definition of knowledge management:

A process employed by an organization to—

  • Capture and share the experience, expertise, and insight of its staff;
  • Promote collaboration; and
  • Provide broad access to the organization’s information assets without regard to their source or structure.

Accordingly, a knowledge management system requires tight integration of three elements: content structuring (things), expertise location (people), and collaboration (places). These are not independent components. All are essential. Tight integration, with all components working together, is the key.

Content structuring deals with explicit knowledge. It is a process of structuring organization documents in a way that makes the contents available when and where needed. This usually involves some kind of discovery engine—a computer program that can automatically read and analyze documents as well as Internet sources. The discovery engine has the capability to identify specific knowledge elements and general concepts within the content and to assign categories to elements and concepts. Elements and concepts are assembled into a discovery map, which uses categories as a means for indexing. Some discovery engines are also able to prepare abstracts of documents. For people, these are labor-intensive tasks. Typical human performance is three or four documents per hour (documents vary in length and complexity, of course). Typical automated performance is 25,000 documents per hour.

Categories are combined into a hierarchical list that enables users to browse for knowledge when they are uncertain about their specific need. Discovery engines also include powerful search capabilities that enable users to identify relevant knowledge based on concepts or general descriptions of need. Pattern-matching and natural language technologies enable search engines to find fewer, more relevant documents and to operate in any language or alphabet/character set.

Expertise location deals with tacit knowledge. It is a process of identifying who knows what and where they are. The discovery engine can accomplish part of this task. As it analyzes documents, it can also identify authors as experts in the knowledge elements or concepts in the content. It may also analyze individual search histories and prepare user profiles that list areas of potential expertise based on the subjects of search activities. Similarly, it may analyze e-mail traffic and prepare user profiles that list potential areas of expertise based on the contents of e-mail messages.

Individual staff members may also self-declare areas of expertise, although this approach has been less than reliable in practice. In any case, individuals must have an opportunity to confirm areas of expertise suggested by profiles obtained through analysis before those areas are assigned.

Individuals are associated with categories according to their areas of expertise and assembled into a knowledge map. This is similar to the discovery map, but pertains to people instead of documents.

Collaboration deals with explicit and tacit knowledge. It is a process of linking both to apply the right knowledge—and complete knowledge—to the right problem at the right time. Historically, collaboration has occurred in physical spaces where individuals meet face to face. Collaboration can also occur in virtual shared spaces where individuals meet electronically but with similar results.

Communities of practice are aggregations of people with similar knowledge, interests, or needs. An electronic shared space will provide the capability for discussion, sharing documents, sharing images, drawing, joint Internet searching, or any other activity in which people might need to interact effectively. Instant messaging, a capability to send a message immediately rather than waiting for e-mail routing, may be helpful.

Virtual talk rooms are the electronic equivalent of a physical space in which individuals meet in an unstructured environment and explore whatever may be of interest at the moment. Such activities often disclose interests and insights that were otherwise unknown. Question-and-answer boards may go by several different names, but the function is the same. These allow users to pose questions to be answered by one or more designated experts. Responses are reviewed by more senior experts prior to final posting, and all questions and answers are archived by category for independent browsing and searching by any user.

The three components of knowledge management—content structuring, expertise location, collaboration—are made available to individuals through a knowledge portal. Far more than a simple Web page, the knowledge portal is the window to enterprisewide knowledge resources and capabilities. It is customizable so users can configure its appearance and function to suit their individual needs. It allows generation and definition of individual user profiles that facilitate transfer of knowledge to users based on expected interest or need, often in anticipation of an actual requirement. It allows virtual agents, which are software programs that autonomously search organization databases or other Internet sources looking for items of interest to the individual. It provides the mechanism for browsing the categories and searching the discovery map and knowledge map so that search results include links to documents and people, both sources of knowledge within the organization. And it provides a universal document viewer that displays and prints documents in any format without loading a specific application program to do so.

Implementing a knowledge management system is not easy. No recipes for success or cookbook solutions exist. Managing knowledge probably requires a significant cultural change within the organization that will move people from knowledge hoarding (individual benefit and reward) to knowledge sharing (group benefit and reward). Because of the associated complexities and costs, knowledge management systems are best suited to very large projects or enterprisewide activities.

An implementation plan should follow existing work practices, even though managing knowledge may eventually enable different and better practices. The changes required to manage knowledge are significant enough on their own without the added burden and organization disruption of an extensive process reengineering effort. During development and implementation, it is acceptable—perhaps even desirable—to lead with technology. Because the technology is so new, people may need to see it to believe it. An incremental approach that exploits similarities to existing processes, receptiveness to change, or urgent requirements may be a wise and effective strategy.

Experience shows that the greatest difficulty in implementation lies in moving a prototype to an organizationwide system. Things that can be very carefully planned and controlled in the prototype can become uncertain and chaotic when applied to the real world. An overall guiding principle is to obtain top-down buy-in and to demonstrate bottom-up value to users.

Managing knowledge is not the latest business fad. It’s not a new label that enables vendors and consultants to rename old products and services and rejuvenate sagging sales. It’s a powerful new approach that responds to a changing world and enables those who apply it well to meet the challenges of that change and march successfully into the future.

For more information

  • www.autonomy.com provides extensive information on a leading product for content structuring.
  • www.kenjin.com is a free program to download and try out content structuring on your own database, provided by Autonomy.
  • www.askme.com demonstrates expertise location and includes experts, categories, browse-and-search, and question-and-answer.
  • www.groove.net is free software that provides collaborative shared spaces. Applies "peer-to-peer" communication. (This is the next wave. Try it.)
  • www.plumtree.com provides extensive information on a leading portal product.
  • www.lotus.com/km. Look for the "Lotus K-Station" here. It’s a developmental, comprehensive approach to knowledge management. Also find the "Lotus & IBM Knowledge Management Strategy" white paper.
  • Working Knowledge, by Thomas H. Davenport and Lawrence Pruscak, Harvard Business School Press, 2000, is a leading book on knowledge management. Concept-oriented.
  • The Knowledge Management Toolkit, by Amrit Tiwana, Prentice Hall PTR, 2000, is another leading book on knowledge management. Action-oriented.

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