Carla O'Dell is President of the American Productivity & Quality Center, located in Houston, Texas. The APQC is a world-renowned resource for process and performance improvement for organizations of all sizes and industries.
RL: As you know there has been plenty of attention directed at KM, but there still a lot of confusion around its conceptual limits and what it takes to be successful. What's the starting point?
CO: It is important to tie what's happening in KM now to the legacy of the last 50 years. There is a strong heritage. It came directly out of the arena of process -- the recognition that there are processes in organizations, that processes could be improved, and so we collectively went through an era of quality improvement and re-engineering. The learning from that era was that process improvement alone is not enough.
We found that processes worked in many cases because the people in the process had knowledge that they used to make judgments and choices all the way through. We started understanding that processes work better if people get the right information at the right time in the process. If information can get to the right people in the process at the right time, they can apply their judgment to it and make better decisions. The whole era of downsizing and re-engineering taught people that a process was more than the steps that comprise it. It was also the knowledge underlying the process.
So KM is really about trying to get the right information to the right people at the right time so that they can make good decisions and more informed decisions than they would have otherwise.
RL: What advice or guidance could you give to people who are exploring KM, and what would be the top three critical success factors?
CO: The most often missed first step in this arena is to ask and understand what knowledge is really important to the organization. There is a lot of knowledge in organizations, and individuals know what they need to know about what they do and what they used to do and what they think the organization ought to do in the future.
If we're going to try to make it possible for people to share what they know, we need to recognize that it can be expensive and time-consuming. So the organization needs to articulate what knowledge will really make the difference of how it meets its mission, serves its customers and so on. And the answer to that is very different in different organizations. If you're a manufacturing company, for example, the answer might be: the knowledge we need is how to get higher quality. So transferring best practices might be the kind of knowledge we need. If you're a customer-oriented organization and customer service is how compete, then the knowledge you may need to capture and share is knowledge about customers.
The second step is to understand how are you going to be able to capture and share that knowledge with other people in a way consistent with your culture and your resources. Is it going to be on-line? Can we make some of this available to people on the internet, and if we are going to do that who is going to make sure it is the right information and the right knowledge? Would people rather learn face-to-face because the issues they're dealing with are complex? If that is the answer, then we need to figure out how to connect these people with each other across time and space. Is it going to be through building directories of experts or is it going to be bringing them together face-to-face, or via teleconference or videoconference? What methods are going to be used?
The third step is to measure if it worked. How do we design measures to learn if we got value out of these initiatives? That is probably one of the toughest questions because there is so much intangible value that people get out of sharing knowledge. It is important to identify and capture some success stories and derive some measures that matter so that you can say yes, it matters and yes, we should invest more or no, we've done all we need to do.
RL: Where do you see this going? Where is KM going to be in 5 years?
CO: I think it will be pretty much an embedded part of most large-scale organizations, and by that I mean that they will have developed systems to manage knowledge that are both people-oriented, with appropriate roles and responsibilities, and they'll have the information technology infrastructure that will enable knowledge sharing. We're relatively far along on the information technology side, but we're barely scratching the surface in understanding what resources it's going to take and ROI. People have to massage information to turn it into knowledge, and you've got to be willing to take the time for that. We believe people can only do this in a commercial context if it is part of their job