The Challenge of Knowledge Management:
A Look into Trends and Applications
The Challenge of Knowledge Management:
A Look into Trends and Applications
Knowledge Management: An Overview
Knowledge Management is a current hot topic in the world of IT and business in general. Currently, this is a very misunderstood subject, and I will try to make sense of it all. First of all let me clear up a misconception about what knowledge is. It is not merely information such as stats and figures, it is wisdom you can glean from that information. Also, let me try to define what Knowledge Management is because depending on whom you talk to you will get a different answer. Knowledge Management is often mistaken for a new type of technology or hardware (Deveau). It is, rather, a strategy to help organize and contain a company’s knowledge and disseminate it to whoever needs it. One good definition of KM is given this way: “The practice of creating, capturing, transferring, and accessing the right knowledge and information when needed to make better decisions, take actions, and deliver results in support of the underlying business strategy” (Horwitch and Armacost). Knowledge Management is basically the idea that you make sure your company and all its components “knows what it knows”. Knowledge Management keeps members of an organization from “reinventing the wheel”. Say someone has come across a problem that a fellow employee has already solved. Instead of taking the time to figure out the problem themselves, it would be much easier for that person to ask that person who has already solved the problem for help. Or the person could go into a very well organized database where employees go to find answers to problems. This is the job of knowledge management: to connect people, to give easy access to the knowledge they need when they need it, and to contain and store knowledge for future use.
I believe that several trends have come about that makes knowledge management necessary. First of all, Knowledge Management has been created in response to the vast amounts of information that companies have at their disposal. Organizations have found out that they need a way to make this data useful for their employees or it is useless. Secondly, there is an increasing need to create a competitive advantage over competitors because organizations who manage their knowledge better are faster and more efficient. Finally, KM has developed because of ubiquitous computing. Ubiquitous computing has made it possible for people to be in constant contact and for knowledge to be transferred at never before seen costs and speeds.
Interest in Knowledge Management is booming. A recent study revealed that 80 percent of companies are developing Knowledge Management systems at the moment and spending on KM projects will grow to $12 billion dollars by next year (Horwitch and Armacost). Some experts are going further, and saying knowledge management may be the most important element to an organizations success or failure, more important than raw material, and money (Stewart).
Knowledge Management is vital to an organization to stop duplication of effort and to reduce the time it takes to find answers to questions that need to be answered. A recent study found that engineers spend 60 percent of their time searching for proper information (Schick). A large portion was spent re-creating what they couldn’t find and only a quarter was spent on their doing engineer work (Schick). This situation is commonplace for knowledge workers, and is the main reason why KM is so important. In the ever increasing competitive world of business, time is now more than ever, equal to money. A common current problem with many organizations is that companies lose a lot of intellectual capital when employees retire or leave the organization. For example, Los Alamos National Laboratory is facing losing their half of its top designers within the next couple of years due to retirement (Silver). If it fails to retain their intellectual capital, they will not have enough people that know how the nations 6000 plus warheads work (Silver). Knowledge Management tries to keep this from happening by containing that knowledge for future use.
Although the term Knowledge Management is relatively new, the concept of sharing knowledge is not. Successful companies have always made good of information (Mudge). Companies have been exchanging data and collaborating on design projects using technology as basic as E-mail since the 1980’s (Whiting). Before that companies would share their knowledge with regular face to face or group meetings, informal discussions, telephone calls, periodicals and even letters. With the advent of technology such as networks there is now a great opportunity to share knowledge amongst workers at never before seen speeds and costs. Knowledge management lets employees access the best problem solving resource they have: each other (Zetlin).
Difficulties of Knowledge Management
Although Knowledge Management has gone from being considered a passing trend to now being a major part of how organizations conduct business, it is not without its problems. Currently, the biggest issue in knowledge management is that it is difficult to implement successfully. No one doubts that KM is potentially very valuable to an organization, but the problem is that it seems few organizations have been able to implement it successfully.
There are several problems when trying to implement a Knowledge Management strategy into an organization. The first problem is that files of information may be in multiple forms. Many times the information an organization uses is in “anecdotal and heuristic form” and is not easily codified and organized into computer databases (Schick). For example, if an organization tries to organize their files by indexing them with key words then some files that are in video or sound will be overlooked. When files cannot be easily organized, it makes it hard for an employee to find the information they need to make a decision. And if too much time is wasted looking for that information then the whole point of Knowledge Management is missed.
The second problem is getting employees to share the knowledge they have and put it in the systems a company has to distribute it. Employees see sharing their knowledge as added work to their already busy schedules (MacInnis). They don’t see an immediate benefit from doing this extra work and are reluctant to participate. One solution is to use software to extract information from outbound e-mail and update information databases (Whiting). This software creates profiles automatically from the e-mail and creates high speed connections between employees. Some companies have now begun incentive programs for employees to take the time to put some of their knowledge into database systems and fill out employee profiles so that others may ask them questions on whatever their expertise may be. Organizations have gone so far at to offer frequent flyer miles and other incentives to employees for filling out profiles and making themselves available for questions. If organizations don’t do this, employees will just see sharing their knowledge as extra work on their already busy schedules.
Sometimes, it is nearly impossible to for employees to put their knowledge into an information system. This type of knowledge is called tacit knowledge or simply put: knowledge inside people’s head (Marwick). Tacit knowledge is obtained by workers through their experience, training and general know how. Tacit knowledge, by its nature, is usually hard to communicate, difficult to replicate and is a source of competitive advantage (Horwitch and Armacost). Explicit knowledge is more definable. Explicit knowledge is generally facts and figures, and is easier to enter into a Knowledge Management System (Marwick). Putting tacit knowledge into information databases is one of the many challenges knowledge management strategies face today. The best way to handle this situation, so far, is to make those with tacit knowledge available for inquiry to fellow employees through internets or intranets.
The fourth problem is choosing the right technology to implement a knowledge management strategy (Deveau). There are currently a vast number of knowledge management products out on the market and the number is growing. New products are appearing almost daily and the choices can be overwhelming (Silver). There is currently no single Knowledge Management product that fills all the KM needs of a single company. There are many products that handle things like expertise location, knowledge sharing and peer- to-peer collaboration. Companies must decide which one or combination of software is the right fit for their organization. Organizations must keep up with the latest technologies through daily news, industry reports, conferences and talking with industry experts and colleagues (Silver).
The fifth problem with Knowledge Management is the issue of security. In knowledge management the big idea is to share information and thoughts. This is in sharp contrast to information security, where you try to make sure certain information does not get distributed into the wrong hands. Deciding who gets what information is an area that shouldn’t be overlooked. Some information may be sensitive in nature and cannot be on display for everyone to see. Precautions should be taken to limit users’ access to such information. How to go about taking these precautions is currently up for discussion.
Another problem with Knowledge Management is that because of its nature it is difficult to measure the return on investment of implementing a strategy. A recent survey revealed that 65 percent of respondents said they do not have the ability to measure their Knowledge Management initiatives success (Schick). Because it is hard to measure, management has a hard time justifying the high cost of implementing a very expensive KM strategy. The idea of Knowledge Management is still only around ten years old and some still see it as a fad and just a current buzz word in business. Critics unjustly think that Knowledge Management is just a ploy invented by consultants and software producers to make an extra buck.
Knowledge Management Trends
Now that Knowledge Management is becoming more and more accepted, there are a few trends emerging as organizations try to figure out what is the best way to implement a knowledge strategy. There are a number of current trends for the use of Knowledge Management today. I have defined two types of trends. The first type are strategy trends, the second are technology trends. Let me begin by explaining some current trends in Knowledge Management strategy.
Knowledge Management Strategy Trends
One trend I have identified is that companies have begun appointing CKO’s in an effort to take care of an organization’s Knowledge Management needs. More and more companies are now appointing CKO’s which stands for Chief Knowledge Officer. CKO’s may also have different titles such as director of intellectual capital or vice president of organizational learning or more commonly Chief Learning Officer (Greco). Companies who are now utilizing a CKO are usually larger companies who have the resources to appoint such a position. A CKO’s duties are currently evolving since the job is so new. Currently, CKO’s have somewhat vague job specifications. CKO’s are many times designers. They design knowledge directories, knowledge exchange events, and knowledge based systems (Earl and Scott). Generally, a CKO’s primary task is to articulate a knowledge management program (Earl and Scott). This means that CKO’s many times have to sell the concept of knowledge management to senior executives (Earl and Scott). They also have to be technologists meaning that they have to understand with technologies are best for their organization. They must keep up with the latest technological developments and be well informed on new knowledge products. CKO’s many times must also be a meeting organizer (Earl and Scott). This means that they must organize meetings such as summits, leaning centers, and retreats, so that workers can share their tacit knowledge. These face to face meetings and video conferences, where workers can speak to each other in real time, have been found to be a great way for tacit knowledge sharing.
Another current trend in knowledge management strategy is what is described as “Hollywood Management” (Trendspotter—What is hot in KM?). Hollywood Management is a different take on Knowledge Management. It is the idea that knowledge work should follow the “studio model” of making a movie. When making a movie, you develop a script, you hire the best director, and you cast all the parts based on who is best to fill the roles. When the movie is completed the cast and crew break up to pursue other projects. The idea is to follow this model. Start with a strategy, hire someone to oversee the project and then get the workers with the right knowledge for the project. When the project is over break up the group and begin anew. The idea is that by doing this you get the right people with the right knowledge for a particular project. Also, while they are together on a project they will share their knowledge and they will learn from each other. Then when you start another project you get the right people for that one and the learning continues.
Another current trend in knowledge management is called attention management. A common problem in many organizations is that employees do not have the time to share their knowledge and put their attention to it because of their main job (Trendspotter—What is hot in KM?). This involves allowing employees to have time set aside and allowing them to focus only on sharing their knowledge without having to be interrupted by their primary job.
There are a number of trends occurring in Knowledge Management technology also. They are portals, emerging standards, products that combine a service with a Knowledge Management service, and service providers (Silver). Currently there is no single software that will cover all an organizations needs. Portals with the help of the internet or a company intranet provide a single connection to the different sources of knowledge available to an organization (Silver). Portals can be connections to expertise location systems, knowledge databases and fellow workers. Some companies who provide portal software are Autonomy, Brio, Epicentric, IBM/Lotus, Plumtree, Verity, and Viador.
A very important trend in knowledge management technology is emerging standards such as XML. Standards are needed to make it easier for interoperability between knowledge management sources. XML, which stands for extensible markup language, is emerging as a good standard to use for many types of knowledge management applications. XML sets the rules for “defining data structures to make it possible for key elements in a document to be categorized according to its meaning” (Silver).
Another trend is the emergence of Knowledge Management products. These are products that already exist in other forms but have a Knowledge Management twist to them. For example, Tacit Knowledge Systems has created its own e-mail service called KnowledgeMail. This is e-mail system extracts knowledge from employees e-mails and creates high speed connections between employees to share knowledge. Another knowledge product is Intraspect Software’s Knowledge Server. This product monitors an organization’s information that it uses and makes the information available for sharing and reuse (Silver).
Another current trend is the rise of the Knowledge Management service providers. There are now companies who provider consulting such as assessing, evaluating, and planning, implementation, operations management, training, and support (Silver). Outsourcing for knowledge management is supposed to save an organization from the cost of designing a Knowledge Management system with ready made services.
Knowledge Management Applications
There are a vast number of uses for Knowledge Management. Organizations are using knowledge management to whatever they see fit to use it for. Knowledge Management is most useful for knowledge workers that use experience and know how. They are very useful for experts. Knowledge Management applications usually fall under three types: peer-to-peer collaboration, expertise location, and knowledge sharing.
Let me start by giving an example of how Hewlett Packard uses knowledge Management in its organization. Hewlett Packard has a variety of knowledge management strategies in place so that it makes it a good example of different knowledge management applications being used today in business.
Hewlett Packard uses a variety of web based knowledge management systems. Hewlett Packard uses Lotus Notes for discussion-oriented applications and the internet for written text such as papers and documents (Davenport and Prusak, 1998). One of their Knowledge Management systems is called ESP, which stands for Electronic Sales Partner. Electronic Sales Partner is a web-based application used primarily to assist sales people sell to customers (Davenport and Prusak, 1998). This is a peer-to-peer collaboration or knowledge sharing application. On ESP, Hewlett Packard has a large amount of sales presentations, guidelines and other documents that help sales people achieve their sales goals. Anyone that works for Hewlett Packard can submit a document to be included on ESP, and the submissions are screened by reviewers to ensure that they are related to selling (Davenport and Prusak, 1998). This system has been hugely successful with one manager saying that it has been the “most successful implementation of software” that they have seen in twenty years (Davenport and Prusak, 1998). The only problem they have experienced is the difficulty in navigating through the vast amounts of information on ESP. This is a common problem in many Knowledge Management systems. One of the key issues in KM is to find a way to give people the right information, when they want it.
The second web-based knowledge management system Hewlett Packard uses is a system called Connex to help find experts in whatever field an employee needs help in (Davenport and Prusak). Connex is an expertise location application. Connex was developed by the HP Labs Research Library Information Technology team and has been used since 1997 (Carrozza). Connex was developed because Hewlett Packard has over 90,000 employees who work around the world (Carrozza). Many times employees encounter a problem in which many others have already solved. Connex puts them in touch with these employees so that they don’t have to go about “reinventing the wheel”. This system is essentially a “Yellow Pages” of experts. It is a database where you can find help to a specific question that only an expert can answer and get in touch with that expert.
Connex allows an employee to offer or obtain knowledge when the need arises. Connex has a feature called “nagging” which is designed to keep profiles current. This feature reminds submitters to update their profiles every so often. Submitters are given a list of 102 technical and 62 non-technical areas of knowledge and are asked to which their knowledge applies to (Carrozza). The submitter may then describe their “expertise” in more detail in a text box provided. Creating a profile may take from to 30 minutes and can be modified at any time from the convenience of the nearest on-line computer. Submitters also have the option of hiding their profiles for reasons like illness, vacations or laziness. Many other companies have similar systems to this one with varying degrees of success. A common problem is getting experts to submit their own profiles into and expertise location system. They see it as extra work and do not see an immediate benefit from it.
There are three different ways to locate knowledge in the Connex system. One may do a full-text search, a field search, or browse the system. A full-text search looks for a word or group of words to occur anywhere on a submitter’s profile. The results are then returned in relevance rank order. The field search is for more specific searches. Field searches are for finding matches in specific profile fields, such as language, or what country you are looking for an “expert” in (Carrozza). Lastly, a user can browse the system to find an “expert”. There are three forms of browsing that can be done on Connex. You may browse by knowledge areas, country and name.
Since its inception, over 7,100 users in more than 340 different areas have signed on to the system (Carrozza). This is a good number for a company the size of Hewlett Packard because too many profiles would clutter the system. Connex is the most used of over fifty services that you can get from Hewlett Packard labs Research Library (Carrozza). Connex has been the most successful service of Hewlett Packard’s knowledge strategy, but it does have some problems. Not everyone in HP knows that it exists and it should be promoted better. Also, some profiles are badly done and do not give a good idea as to what a person’s knowledge is.
Trainers’ Trading Post
Hewlett Packard uses Lotus Notes to for a system called
“Trainers’ Trading Post” which is a knowledge system to help its 2000 plus
educators or trainers in HP (
The Future of Knowledge Management
Laurence Prusak is a pioneer of Knowledge Management and helped organize the first conference about KM in 1993. In his 2001 article “Where did Knowledge Management Come From?”, he argued that Knowledge Management will probably take one of two future paths (Prusak). The first is the direction taken by the quality movement. What he means by this is that KM will become invisible and ubiquitous. There is not much talk, he says, about quality today in management because it is such an integral part of how business works. Knowledge Management, Prusak hopes, will also become just a regular part of everyday business. The second likely path would be like that of re-engineering. Re-engineering, he argues, was hijacked by those out to make money and became another word for downsizing and left no permanent value to businesses (Prusak).
Personally, I agree that KM will become just a regular part of everyday business. In reality, I believe Knowledge Management has been going on since business began in one form or another. The only difference I see is that we now have the technology to span great distances and very little cost when it comes to communicating your knowledge with someone else.
This paper was intended to give the applications of Knowledge Management, current trends, and a look into where KM is headed. Knowledge Management is a strategy and not just about technology, although technology is vital for knowledge to be dispersed. It is meant for knowledge workers who have peers that can help them from “reinventing the wheel” and duplicating previous work. Knowledge Management is also used to retain the intellectual capital of employees who retire or otherwise leave an organization. Organizations use knowledge management for whatever they see fit. Current trends include the strategy trends such as the increase of Chief Knowledge Officers, “Hollywood Management”, and “Attention Management”. Technology trends include portals, emerging standards, products that combine a service with a Knowledge Management service, and service providers. Applications range from peer to peer collaboration, expertise location and knowledge sharing. Knowledge Management seems to be on the path to following the quality movement, in which it will become “invisible” and a regular everyday part of how organizations do business.
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