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Business in context and vice versa

At Documation '99, the question was: If KM isn't about capturing and making available everything an organization knows, what is it about? Nearly every speaker drove home the point that unless knowledge management activity is directly aligned with specific business processes, it becomes an academic exercise. Documentum's (www.documentum.com) Larry Warnock approached knowledge management as analogous to supply chain management.

In presenting case studies and describing knowledge management practices, Warnock and KM practitioners Chris Boyd of USWeb/CKS (www.uswebcks .com) and Bipin Junnarkar of Datafusion (www.datafusion.net) stressed the criticality of implementing knowledge management to improve business processes and solve business problems.

"Context" was a watchword for the entire knowledge management track at Documation--from practicing knowledge management within the context of business processes to showcasing applications that provide the capture, analysis and delivery of content plus contexts (the "know how," the "know who," the "know why" and "under what circumstances" information becomes actionable knowledge--akin to "metadata on steroids").

And although it was not directly addressed, the importance of context was implied in predictions about the future of corporate portals for delivering specialized, customized information, notably by Intraspect's (www.intraspect.com) Jim Pflaging and Plumtree's (www.plumtree .com) John Kunze. Context is also playing a role in product positioning, as vendors announce new alliances and directions that will ground them firmly in the KM marketplace. Intraspect's Knowledge Server is but one example: a product initially developed to support Web-based collaboration and build "group memory" that has been repositioned, in alliance with SAS Institute (www.sas.com), to enable collaborative business intelligence.

Implications abound

Knowledge management is hard to do and even harder to do well. Economic theorist Max Boisot considers it the intellectual equivalent of white-water rafting. At present, identifying, capturing and sharing the best practices of an organization, thereby capitalizing on the knowledge and behavior of experts, is even more of a hot topic than managing knowledge artifacts, even though considerable expertise is embedded in an organization's documents, databases and other information repositories. Applications that support capturing content and context, detecting patterns and relationships among knowledge artifacts, converting information into actionable knowledge (know-how) and delivering it based on user-defined specifications will be critically important and, for many, will represent the first generation of real KM tools.

Within the user community, everyone seems to agree that there is no foolproof approach to managing knowledge effectively. Therefore, the best advice for potential implementers is to find a discrete problem whose boundaries they can identify and tackle it. Start small; you don't have to address everything. Look closely at the functionalities you need in tools for managing knowledge and build on the IT infrastructure you already have in place. A lot of the hard work has to be done upfront. It's costly, labor-intensive and decidedly unglamorous, but the payback can be enormous. z

Excerpted with permission from CPV Analysis newsletter, a Software Strategies service of CAP Ventures (www.capv.com).

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