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A look at improving knowledge management

This article appears in the issue March 2012 (100 Companies) [Vol 21, Issue 3]
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Even though the field of knowledge management (KM) has been around for 15 to 20 years, it is still evolving and has room for improvement. When we look at the business environment today, we see a graying work force. With four generations in the work force in many countries, we'll have to improve cross-generational knowledge flows. And with a recessionary environment, we have to do more with less. If the success of organizations depends on developing and maintaining relationships, as Thomas Friedman has said, social networking plays a critical role.

The research core of the KM literature indicates that the KM community could add more rigor to the discipline. In 2011, an article by Wallace  et al. involved an analysis of 22,000 references in 2,700+ publications. About one-third of the KM articles used no identifiable research methods, and another one-third of the remaining articles used ad hoc methods. Thus, about two-thirds of the KM articles lacked formal research methodologies.

We can also look at a few interesting studies and works that highlight the interaction between IS/IT and KM in a knowledge-based way. In 2011, Shin-Yuan Hung et al. looked at 10 organizations in Taiwan to see why R & D employees would be willing to use an electronic knowledge repository for knowledge sharing. They found that reputation and reciprocity were the key influential factors of perceived usefulness, and altruism was an important antecedent to perceived ease of use. Organizational culture and friendly relationships among employees will help foster altruism.

Chich-Jen Shieh's 2011 work looked at the relationships between customer KM (CKM), learning organizations and organizational performance. He found that there is significant interaction between a learning organization and CKM. This means that after integrating the customer knowledge, the organization can utilize such knowledge internally and conduct external learning.

So, how well are organizations applying KM techniques and strategies? From a formal knowledge retention strategy perspective, not so well. In a study of government agencies and not-for-profits conducted by Masud Cader and myself, about 80 percent said they had no formal knowledge retention strategy.

If we look at industry, of the 426 companies responding to an i4cp study on knowledge retention, more than 77 percent didn't have an owner for knowledge retention initiatives and 68 percent had no specific dedicated operating budget for knowledge retention initiatives. Thus, with the graying work force, developing formal knowledge retention strategies and techniques is an important area. I do some work with the nuclear energy industry, and about one-third of those in the 104 nuclear power plants in the United States are eligible to retire in the next five years.

KM courses

An article was published in 2010 that looked at 13 graduate KM programs worldwide. The researchers found five main clusters of KM courses in those programs: The first set deals with KM principles, the second set with technologies, the third set with societal and marketing-related areas, the fourth set with more library and information sciences-focused courses, and the fifth set with electives.

The KM course modules indicate that a fairly comprehensive set of courses important to KM is being taught (with the possible exception of not focusing enough on KM processes and metrics, and also not borrowing techniques from other disciplines to adapt for KM usage). As an example, the U.S. Army identified nine KM competencies that they are teaching to their soldiers and officers.

We also noticed some limitations in the current KM methodologies. Perhaps we don't have a standardized KM development methodology that can be replicated easily by others. We often use learning as a single loop, but we should apply double-loop learning to explicitly identify and then challenge underlying assumptions.

Another area where we can improve in the KM field is to have a standardized KM maturity model similar to the CMMI model from the Software Engineering Institute at  Carnegie Mellon. I tried to develop such a model that we called K3M (Knowledge Management Maturity Model).

Another area for further examination is to view KM as part of the organization's human capital strategy. In the United States, the largest federal government agencies and departments have a fairly new position called the chief human capital officer, who is in charge of developing and implementing such a strategy, and one of the pillars is "leadership and KM."

The KM strategy should include a formal knowledge retention strategy. Some of the important pillars to consider are: the recognition and reward structure, the top-down and bottom-up bidirectional flow, the personalization and codification knowledge retention and transfer mechanisms, and the "golden gem" (looking at creative ways of tapping the retirees' knowledge back into the organization).

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