KM: The World Changer We Love To Hate
You’re Probably Already Doing It; You Just Don’t Know It Yet

I once asked a conference audience: “By a show of hands, how many of you work in organizations that have knowledge management implementations currently in place?” A smattering held up their hands... maybe three or four. “OK, now how many have, uh, content management systems in place?” Several more held up their hands. “OK, how many have systems that allow you to work together in collaboration, from remote sites, in some way?” Some more. “Now how many have the means to search your companies’ employee list and identify people by their job function or specialty?” Several more. “Now, how many of you have email?” Pretty much everybody raised their hands, of course.

“Look around the room,” I said. “Do you still think that you don’t have some form of knowledge management in place?”

The enduring problem with knowledge management is a semantic one. We HATE calling it that. Everyone does it, to one degree or another, but no one likes calling it that. There’s a long-standing enmity to the term that I have never fully understood. Acknowledge, yes, but understood, no. I mean, what could be more desirable than to have a seamless way to provide the necessary knowledge to your most important employees, in a timely manner?

Yet, most of the vendor community eschews the term as well. “The semantics around the term itself—knowledge management—can put people off the whole space. We don’t want to do that, said Ashley (“Ash”) Gorringe, a product marketing lead at Google Enterprise. Ash and I spoke for about an hour last week. I was trying to get a feel for the current market comfort with knowledge management. Ashley seemed more than willing to comply—gracious, in fact—but was cautious about misstating the approach his company takes to the concept.

“There’s no IT department in the world whose focus is ‘knowledge management,’ per se,” he said. “They are more concerned with practical issues such as reducing call volume to the help desk, etc. And line-of-business is similarly focused on being more effective at their jobs.” In other words, I gather, nobody’s job description says, “I do knowledge management.”

“Well, the tools of the trade DO include knowledge management,” admitted Ash. “But we would prefer they don’t frame it in terms of a KM system, or a content management system or a set of collaboration tools. We prefer it when they ask us how they can do their job more effectively.”

When you talk with a product marketing guy, it’s really hard to get the subject off of... well, the product. But in this case, it’s worth describing, in overall terms, what Ash’s responsibilities include. I hope I don’t over-simplify this. The Google you know and love (the commercial one) is not what we’re talking about. Google Enterprise is sort of a division of Google, which first developed something called the Google Search Appliance. This is a piece of hardware (in a pretty yellow box) that business users—not citizens—use to find content stored within their many file shares, data stores, CM systems, etc. Then, pretty recently, the division launched Google Apps, which is a set of Web-based applications that would be familiar in most organizations—email, discussion space, collaboration tool, calendar, word processing, spreadsheet, presentation tool, Web authoring and social network-creation tool. Oh yeah, and email security.

Whew. Tall order. But, after all, they’re not called Google Enterprise for nothing.

Anyway, despite its overarching set of business tools that seem to stretch from one end of the enterprise to the other, Ashley is pretty modest about the Google approach to market, and the degree to which it has a “take over the world” attitude.

First of all, they don’t pretend to do it on their own. “While there is a lot of out-of-the-box functionality in most search solutions on the market, any IT person worth his salt is aware that there’s development work involved in deploying a solution. Especially for very particular types of deployments... for example, if there’s a need for OCR, there are partners out there who do that very well, and would need to be involved.” So there is no “off the shelf” magic bullet, admitted Ash.

“We don’t define the business processes that we think customers should use,” he said. “But we have found that by putting in the right technological solutions, often the processes just sort of flow out. I wouldn’t exactly describe it as ‘organically evolving’ or anything like that, but the processes become much more evident. We don’t pretend to tell customers how to create their processes; that has to be led by the business itself.”

And the change-events tend to be driven by impending events. An Exchange license is about to expire, or servers need upgrading, or something like that. Currently, there are massive efforts underway to migrate to (or adopt for the first time) SharePoint, in its 2010 iteration. These are the feet-on-the-ground things versus the head-in-the-clouds things that ultimately lead organizations to KM.

And it’s coming to your town soon.

Is KM for Snobs?
I wanted to circle back around to the subject on the table: knowledge management. With a set of tools that ranges from search to collaboration to information interchange, it seems to me that Google is the poster boy for KM.

I also suggested, however, that many of the more academically inclined pundits tend to define knowledge management in such high-falutin’ terms that it reaches a level of snobbery. That somehow technology solutions are beneath KM; KM belongs to the realm of philosophers.

“We do think, in a broad sense, about knowledge management. But we don’t take that purist approach, either. We try to be practical about the business solution for the problem at hand without getting people bogged down in a grand vision. It sometimes evolves in ways we didn’t even foresee. But regardless, it has to be iterative. These are big, big steps for organizations,” he said.

Since this is a “best practices” white paper, after all, I asked Ash to provide an example of what he meant by “iterative.”

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