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100 Companies That Matter

This article appears in the issue July/Aug 2000 (100 Companies) [Volume 9, Issue 6]

Learning, talent, strategy, customers, portal process help define them

By Dawne Shand

Good ideas. That's the essence of the 100 Companies That Matter. We identified organizations that have taken one of the airiest, most confusing management theories ever to be bandied about the boardroom--knowledge management--and created products and services that powerfully influence how businesses operate.

Selling knowledge has often been like selling bottled air. Companies know it's vital to their existence. Those in particularly polluted environments can sense its absence. Most can be convinced that better circulation of knowledge has medicinal benefits. Getting them to "take the cure" hasn't been as simple.

KM has always been--in the final analysis--a tough sell. Its smacks of the intangible; it attracts the worst kind of consultant (you know, the one with the PowerPoint deck that depicts the evolution from data, to information, to knowledge, to wisdom, in pyramid form).

To make matters worse, KM had appeared to become the equivalent of a document repository, a list of experts, an online chat, a team work space and, if it were a really fancy application, access to legacy data. Vendors and consultants talked process and culture, but they sold applications.

That is all changing. Being asked to help research and develop the 100 Companies That Matter dispelled my fears that KM had become rote and uninteresting. Knowledge has literally become part of the ether. It's pervaded how companies operate, how software performs, how employees learn and what customers expect. KM doesn't come in a plain brown wrapper; it's been repackaged into more tangible and creative containers.

Developing the list, however, was a little more like black magic than rigorous, methodical research. It stemmed, in part, from research I had done three years ago at Nextera Enterprises discerning trends in KM technologies. I looked back to see where the 40 companies identified as "cutting edge" in '97 had gone. Some had failed. Others had been pulled inside out like a sock; the technologies once used for internally focused KM efforts had gone "Internet." Components of a KM solution--like document management tools and expert lists--had been fitted together like a jigsaw puzzle, thanks to acquisitions. Those merged companies formed more complete and easier-to-implement KM applications. But it was clear that the most successful companies had focused on solving a specific problem, like improving customer interactions or informing the strategy-setting process.

KMWorld, with its journalistic feelers out in the market, provided many leads, distinguishing between companies using KM as a marketing tag line and those who infuse their products and services with it. Then we asked experts/consultants which companies they thought were doing interesting things.

The list represents ideas that peak our interests--companies that promulgate appealing concepts. It's not about the strongest technology, although a few award-winning tech companies made the list. It's not about the potential for monetary success. Many good ideas fail from poor execution. It's a study in KM's evolution and the revolution it's stirring in many fields.

Several themes emerged in the final analysis: learning, talent, strategy, customers, portal process. They demonstrate the myriad ways that knowledge management has changed the way business works.

Learning

Helping employees to learn and adapt served as one of the original impetuses for knowledge management; but it's taken a while to figure out how to do that well. Saba is laying the technical tracks for companies to better manage training. Ernst & Young, long an innovator in the communities of practice field, is using the same concepts to build Internet exchanges. One of E&Y's partner's, a small Internet development company named Plumb Design, facilitates the exchange of knowledge and the interplay of ideas (a great tag line). It renders complex information digestible and interesting instead of overwhelming.

Technology remains a key ingredient for learning; it's just no longer the focal point.

Talent

Ever since McKinsey Consulting published its finding in Fast Company on "The War for Talent," talent--and how to find and manage it--has been on everyone's radar screen. Talent is like the magic ingredient for an alchemist, or an HR manager. The HR-ERP vendors are catching on, realizing that talent and expertise can be found inside and outside the organization. To put knowledge to good use, several companies have created better ways to manage both full-time and free-lance resources.

Peoplesoft announced a partnership with SkillsVillage.com to build an exchange that helps companies find and manage consultants. Check out the Spanish ERP vendor Meta4 to see how it wraps KM around payroll, benefits, training and recruiting systems.

Strategy

Strategy setting, the least well-defined activity performed by most companies, has received an injection from KM. The need for dynamism in decision making has caught the eye of the largest ERP vendors, as well as of the smallest niche business intelligence tool vendors.

The analytic applications vendor Lawson Software makes it possible for companies to track lots of performance metrics. What peaked our interest in this ho-hum category, however, is that users can collaborate and discuss why metrics perform the way they do. If sales go down dramatically at a retail store, discussions ensue about why. Perhaps heavy snow kept people off the roads. Those cause-and-effect relationships can be recorded so that organizations know better what drives their business.

Customers

The customer relationship management (CRM) vendors, more than any other market segment, have swallowed whole the concepts of knowledge management. Of course, they've renamed it, but KM concepts fuel their efforts to personalize information to suit individual customers, to help customers solve problems, to better equip salespeople and so on. CRM vendors use every single technology that's ever found its way into a KM application.

Portal process

In a report I co-authored in 1995 called "Intranet Applications," we argued that intranets--then defined as TCP/IP networks--were inherently suited to be KM conduits, and found 10 examples of emerging applications that hinted at just that. Now intranets are portals. And there are some cool products out there, which provide the functionality needed to get enterprisewide KM efforts up and running quickly. Look at TopTier Software for an idea of how companies are trying to make it easier to put important information into the hands and minds of those who need it.

We hope that what peaked out curiosity will capture yours as well. You, too, can take the cure.

Dawne Shand is a free-lance writer, e-mail dshand@netway.com.


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