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Document: The Knowledge Vessel

This article is part of the Best Practices White Paper Knowledge Management [October 2011]
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Anyone who reads this magazine, attends our webinars or downloads these white papers already knows this: knowledge management is not an easy thing to define. You can't hit me hard enough with a stick to make me use the "elephant and the blind men" story again, but it's true. One person insists it's about the collaboration among people working in a "project space." Another talks about water coolers and prairie dogs (I'll explain later). The next talks about automated feedback cycles and converting tacit knowledge to explicit knowledge...

Bleh.

The fact is: KM is all of those things, and more. This month's experience underscores the slippery nature of KM. For some unknown and unknowable reason, a large number of participants this time gravitated toward "the document" as the central defining element of KM. Well, there are plenty of people who would like to argue with that, but for me, it makes sense. The document is the vehicle in which information arrives, and then soon departs, from your company's sphere of influence. It's the closest thing we have to an avatar for knowledge. I will not pretend that a document is "knowledge," but it's a damn good representation.

The Case for Document Management

So, having gotten that out of the way, I will now tell you about a couple really cool conversations I've had in recent days with two guys who are proud to identify themselves as "document management solutions providers," Steve Allen, CEO, of iDatix, and Greg Milliken, president of M-Files. Both of them see document management as key to productivity and efficiencies, for certain. But they both also suggest that a smoother path to find the value that documents hold is a better path toward knowledge management.

"I admit right up front, we are a highly document-oriented company," said Steve Allen. "We want all your Excel spreadsheets, your Word docs, your email, your PDFs... all that stuff that is mostly unstructured. But what we then do is link access to those things with all your other applications. We try to build a centralized repository of all that information to gain containment. And then we give you search tools and a dynamic platform that puts the information where and when it is needed to direct the business process."

By linking document management with a larger, more strategic business process management story, Steve cleverly hoists the conversation into a higher level, and thus creates a value proposition that resonates not only at the business level, but in the executive suite as well. "We're about process automation. We take document management a step further. We try to be the intersection between people, processes and technology, and bring those things together. That's the knowledge management part. It's not just delivering information when and where they need it—it's telling them when they need it, and enforcing policy into the process. Information workers need to be able to automate inferences between documents; that's illustrated by this—there's a relationship between a purchase order, an invoice and shipping confirmation—there's a sequence of transactions that are related to one another, but they are not necessarily related at the end point. The information about that relationship should come together automatically at the end point and should be able to be delivered when it's needed, rather than having to look in the document management system, or the invoicing system, or the shipping environment. The trick is finding—ahead of time—what the particular requirements of a task might be, and then finding ways to drive, expeditiously, information to meet that task. This allows better governance of information, it improves the effectiveness of information and can help find additional information. You use information as a springboard. If I can access all my various systems, that gives me a jump-start to find other important information that helps me do my job," Steve said.

Greg Milliken takes a similar view of the role that documents can play in the greater good of an organization, but wonders whether it's a widely held belief. "Documents play a key role in business processes," he stated. "Whether it's an invoice or a contract or a proposal, documents are the defining driver that contain vital information for the processes and are critical to completing the process," he said. "But for some reason, ‘document management' is not considered ‘must-have.' CRM, in contrast, is considered a must-have." This is a frustrating reality for Greg, and he tackles it straight on. "We tell people that not having a good structure around managing documents undermines the productivity of the overall system. But for some reason people still consider document management merely a ‘nice-to-have'. We want to change that."

I suggested that document management may be daunting for a company that has bigger, more mission-critical, fish to fry. "Granted it can get very deep and very complicated depending on the market you're in, but it really doesn't have to be," he answered. "I think the vendors are responsible for that. The document management market is very mature, and there are huge players, but it's noisy and it has never quite crossed the chasm. There are many small- to medium-sized businesses and even workgroups within large organizations that have never gotten it. There is no QuickBooks for document management, for instance. I'm not saying there has to be a consumer-friendly app off the shelf, but document management is weighed down by esoteric concepts such as metadata tags... and it doesn't have to be! In reality, it's very basic," Greg insisted. "It's just organizing information. For us, a document is just another object to be tracked. There could be lots of objects—they could be files, or devices like computers or equipment, or contacts... We keep it focused on document management because people have an easier time getting their heads around that. ‘Yeah, I have Word documents, I need to keep them organized...'"

The KM Intersection

I went back to Steve to pursue his concept of "process automation." That works great for workflows that are defined and repeatable, I suggested, but what about those ad hoc, unpredictable situations, where value may be added from information that is not part of the standardized processes? "Sure, take the traditional example of customer service. The caller has a problem. I start by looking at previous trouble tickets, then move on to other agents' similar resolutions, then into an even larger knowledgebase, if I have to. Then, if I truly find that this is a unique situation, I mark it as an exception item, and I have to solve it from scratch or send it over to subject-matter experts. But the answer we finally come up with will feed the overall knowledgebase for the next person who has to face it," he said. So it's a feedback loop; the "answer pile" just keeps getting bigger. I am starting to see why they wanted to talk to me about knowledge management! But I also wanted to know about user acceptance. Don't you risk disrupting the natural flow of things?

"Deploying a process like this at first requires a change management effort," Steve admitted. "But once the solution is in place, it is not longer as disruptive; it actually aids workers." He used Lockheed Martin as a great example. There are frequent exceptions to the standard work process. These are communicated directly to the floor instantly via a change document, and from then on the revised version IS the current version. "So exceptions become part of the knowledgebase going forward. This improves the process and actually increases the productivity. Change becomes programmatic; it's part of the process itself," he said. Quite the contrary to being disruptive, "to them it seems like easier work."

"We've all heard the statistics," added Greg. "50% of employees' time is spent just looking for stuff they need, etc. Well, even if it was only 15%, there would still be a huge productivity gain and high and rapid ROI opportunity. Next, avoiding the recreating of information, and the implications that flow from that and working with information that is not the latest or best or accurate." There are costs all over the place, he implies.

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