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Bridging context and best practice

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An alternative bridging mode is through developing IT systems that handle semantics and "natural language." People who use their skills to improve business practice can sometimes verbalize what they do. When a group shares similar terms—for instance, the jargon call center agents use to separate customers whose anxieties are about the product user interface from those whose anxieties concern the correct functioning of the product-the resulting protocols can be programmed into the tool, codifying the skills necessary for best practice. Newcomers can be quickly socialized into that community of codified practice. Such expert system development is driven by real operatives' explorations adding dimensions to the "context" the KM tool handles. The operatives supplement the programmers' instructions.

When the bridging activity is driven by busines data, independent of the operatives' practice, the promise is IT's. In contrast, when it is driven by the specifics of the business's various practices, KM's promise is not to eliminate the input of people but to support them, helping operatives clarify what they find confusing and so focus on the essentials—to "help the dog see the rabbit."

Convergence

Obviously IT and KM converge in situations in which operatives' skills are no longer needed-when the practice has been generalized. Subway train control, automatic aircraft landing systems and retail store restocking provide examples. But there is an irony lurking there. Situations that are completely model-able are not likely to be sources of sustained competitive business advantage and profit. Reverse engineering, migration of techniques and of knowledge engineers, changes in the marketplace, all erode competitive advantage. High profit arises when uncertainties remain and knowledge is not diffused, when human skills are successfully deployed to engage the business situation's remaining uncertainties. In that case, the objective of KM goes beyond achieving the kind of control and predictability that completely engineered KM tools provide. It is about sensing where profit is coming from, not about conformance to plan.

Managing is never only about planning; it includes managing the best practices that go beyond the information computers can provide. Thus, KM's promise is always applied and particular to the business, to analyze the specific context of best practice and support those people who are able to close the gap-on the day and in the moment seized.

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