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KM is Back, Baby

This article is part of the Best Practices White Paper Knowledge Management [October 2012]
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If I had to issue a forecast for the future of knowledge management—and I guess maybe I do—I would say we're in the early stages of a warming trend. And unlike global warming, the outlook is bright and encouraging.

At least that's what Carla O'Dell and Chris Musico think. Carla is well known as the leader of the American Productivity & Quality Center, typically referred simply as the APQC. More on that later. Chris is the director of global communications for AvePoint, a very active part of the much-discussed "SharePoint ecosystem" a community of independent software vendors that create products that enhance and otherwise buoy the Microsoft SharePoint platform. I talked to both of them back in August.

I don't usually plan these conversations—truth be told I mostly wing it. But this time, I had prepared a few "themes," which I will call "premises" for the purpose of this column.

Premise #1

My first premise was this: Knowledge management had a hard row to hoe for a long while. The best way to get thrown out of a board meeting was to mention "knowledge management." But now, it seems there is a greater affection for the term and the practice. Do you agree? And, if so, to what do you attribute it?

"The short answer is yes," Carla said succinctly. "It depends on the side of the fence you're on. You can either say KM is coming back, or, as our position is, it never left. But it's true that we and you at KMWorld were the two last men standing during that decade," she said. "It's because there was a lot of over-promising and under-delivering. That's due to trying to solve a complex problem by simply throwing technology at it. Or the other extreme, that exhortations and poster on the walls would do it. The solutions were either too hard, or too soft. Rarely were they just right."

Carla continued: "We consider KM a business endeavor more than an academic one. There were a few companies, and we were one, that actually thrived during the recession—that ‘trough of disillusionment,' as Gartner called it—because there were a few companies that had business leaders who could identify what knowledge was important to the business, plus had competent KM teams that could enable that knowledge to be available. For those companies, they had really successful, long-term ROI pay-offs during that period. But the problem was, people defined KM during that period in many different ways, and not always in terms of the business value."

Chris picked up on that. "That's exactly where the business landscape is now. With social networking and global dispersion and the exponential rate of information growth, the question becomes: ‘How are you going to use all that information? How are you going to store it, manage it and utilize it in a way that will meet your objectives?' That's knowledge management. All the catch phrases—‘need to do more with less,' ‘derive value from your information...' Those are all true! That's why we are seeing knowledge management warming up again," Chris insisted.

Also keep in mind that during that period, a lot of companies did things that we now define as knowledge management in hindsight that they didn't define as knowledge management. They didn't use the term (partly to avoid the inevitable backlash). But they did things they called "knowledge sharing" or "best practices," because that's what resonated for their internal audiences. But KM is what it was. So there are more successes than you think.

Maybe it's time to explain a little bit more about this unique conversation. As I alluded, the APQC is one of the stalwart knowledge management protectors of the realm. If you're a member of APQC—and especially if you are one of the organizations that it considers a "best practice" implementer—you have earned the "Good Housekeeping Seal Of Approval" for a KM practitioner. Best described as a business research organization ("We're like Harvard or Stanford without the endowments," laughed Carla), APQC is really a big networking hub, allowing organizations to meet and learn from one another in a very frictionless way.

AvePoint, as I mentioned earlier, has picked up on the idea—perhaps to a greater degree than anyone else—that SharePoint is not a product... it's a platform. "People who use SharePoint—maybe as a knowledge management repository—may run into issues regarding data protection, storage management, integration with other business processes... that's where we come in. SharePoint is great, but it can't solve everything," said Chris. And it doesn't pretend to. Believe me, there's nothing Microsoft wants to do LESS than get into competition with its many development communities.

Premise #2

It sometimes strikes me that KM is a rich man's game. It is a luxury tax on being in a very technical, very information-intensive segment of the economy. But, maybe, just maybe, it's not for everyone. So my second premise was: Do all organizations benefit equally from KM efforts? Are there sweeter spots than others (vertical markets? size? global-ness?) that KM benefits more than others? Conversely, are there any examples of organizations that just shouldn't bother... not enough benefit to justify the effort?

"If you're a technology, scientific or engineering company, there's a lot of money to be made when you get stuff right, and allow the right people to talk to each other. That is all enabled by beaucoup bells and whistles," said Carla. "But the guys in the shipping department need to share information, too! They should have SharePoint meeting places, for example, and take part in the conversation."

"I think it depends," Chris said. "In certain businesses, shipping DOES need to be part of the conversation. They may have knowledge that is different, but valuable. But there is a hierarchy of information value, and that needs to be part of the consideration, too. It is not a universal judgment call; for Company X, the shipping component (or as they like to call it now, logistics) can be a critical competitive advantage, and leaving them out of the strategic planning would be a mistake. In Company Y, possibly... not so much," said Chris.

And it wasn't necessarily a slam dunk for the so-called pioneers, either. "A lot of early adopters screwed it up," Carla said bluntly. "Take pharma as an example. They meet the criteria—they're knowledge-intensive, tons of money is at stake—but they crashed and burned early. The reason, we think, is that the measurement of the effectiveness of a KM initiative in a pharma company may not be known for eight to 12 years," she said. So, the reasoning goes, those executives didn't see any value quickly enough to justify further investment. So they clammed up.

"What they're doing now, which is smart, instead of waiting until the entire process plays out, is measuring at the R&D stage. Had they been doing that before, they would not have crashed and burned." So KM lost luster in that industry, essentially, by no fault of its own... it was just badly deployed and incorrectly managed.

Chris agreed. "Companies didn't find out what knowledge mattered, and what knowledge didn't matter. Or even what information there was. There were—maybe still are—no comprehensive audits done to determine the value of organizations' knowledge. So, as Carla suggested, there was a lot of over-promising and under-delivering," he said. "Any technology implementation will fail if you don't plan it properly with all the right people in the room. The philosophy and the planning and the technology all have to go hand-in-hand."

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