KM is the New Black

Knowledge management—KM—has known plenty of ups and downs. Long maligned as an expensive, unworkable, unfundable and user-unfriendly fad, it probably deserved much of that bad rep. Not all of it, but some. You don’t have to be burned twice to keep your hand off the grill.

Well, guess what? KM is now on an upswing. Thanks to simpler user interfaces, more accessible integration tools and a general understanding of the value inherent in KM, the business world is rapidly embracing knowledge management as the “new black.” The trend has reversed, and everyone from the boardroom to the storeroom understands implicitly how corporate knowledge can propel their businesses and their lives.

But what is KM? Boy, if I had a nickel for every time someone asked me that…

I have a couple of responses to that question. The first is the easy one: “Using corporate information and making it available easily so that knowledge workers can make better, faster and smarter decisions.”

Lame, I know. Accurate, but uninspired. The second answer is far more nuanced. Knowledge resides everywhere. The 30-year, close-to-retirement engineer has it. The recent hire just out of grad school has it. The document management system is teeming with it. Hell, the water cooler probably has more knowledge than you do. It’s not a measurable quantity; it’s about the manner in which you apply the experience and understanding of those who came before—“standing on the shoulders of giants”—and hearing above the noise of input and experiencing the wisdom of the crowd.

And “noise” is often the key deterrent. What do you think they’re doing with Hillary’s e-mails? They’re spending hours and days separating the noise from the knowledge. I like the way Isabell Berry from Adlib puts it (her article is here in this white paper): “As you prepare your enterprise content for the journey it is about to take through the document lifecycle, it is important to consider a few key components. Think about this as packing some essentials.

“You need to know what to pack and pack it efficiently so you can find it easily later. Both of these processes are critical in order to capture the information stored in vast mountains of unstructured content, prevalent in most enterprise-class organizations. Think about the information stored in emails and email attachments, social media, CAD diagrams, well logs, contracts and images. Most organizations don’t have a true handle on the management of this content, which means they won’t get to where they want to go without losing important luggage along the way.”

Where’s That Needle?

I would have to agree that much information is unnecessary baggage. The key ability is determining the good stuff from the not-so-good stuff. I can’t tell you how many speeches at KM conferences I’ve heard someone compare findability of knowledge as akin to “finding a needle in a haystack.” Heck, that’s easy. And totally incorrect. The hard thing is finding a needle in a needlestack. Information usually resides in large repositories, and it is poorly managed and badly identified. There are companies striving to solve this problem, through auto-classification and forced taxonomies and strict governance of data collection, but the fact is most organizations simply dump “spent” information into large buckets of info-goo and cross their fingers.

And as the user company becomes more complex, the task of managing information increases exponentially. As Angela Bunner at Clarizen writes: “Keeping a handle on project efficiency at a large financial institution is not easy. Not to mention having to accurately plan and assign resources so work gets done without wasting time and money.”

But she goes on to emphasize other important attributes to a solid knowledge management system:

  • Ease of use, which leads to greater user adoption;
  • Requires few IT resources which is important in these days of limited and complicated IT involvement issues;
  • Low cost of ownership, which of course comes from the above two, but has a major impact on the executive buy-in and upper-level support necessary for a successful deployment.

The Changing Landscape of KM

As I suggested earlier, there have been many attempts to solve this “KM problem” over the years. The early efforts involved mainly a document repository. That’s it. Then electronic communication—e-mail—came into vogue, and systems were created to “manage e-mail.” They could have called it “herding cats.”

But those challenges pale in the face of today’s two (I think) most disruptive trends: social and mobile. Social networking has transformed the customer experience aspect of information management, for sure. If you are a marketing person, and you’re not aware of the conversations taking place about your products and services in public forums, and are not taking steps to address them, then get on the unemployment line. There’s no place for you here today.

Social tools have also entered the “behind-the-firewall” mainstream of corporate activity. Social as it applies to business removes the departmental and geographic borders, and allows for collaboration to take place without hindrance. Which can also be a bad thing. For example, the sprawl associated with SharePoint alone had led to severe litigation risk and expensive back-office costs and IT overhead implications. Now get ready for “Twitter for the Company” and “Facebook for the Company.”

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