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Passing the Cringe Test Has Knowledge Management Made It to Prime Time?

Once upon a time, saying the words "knowledge management" was the fastest way to get thrown out of a meeting. And not only would you be ejected, you would never be invited back.

That was then, but this is now. I asked a panel of experts not only whether KM was finally ready to pass the "cringe test," but what it would take to propel KM to even greater prominence as an enterprise set of solutions. And I was surprised—and pleased—at the reactions.

"One of the big failures of knowledge management, and the reason it had the reputation it had, is that it tries to solve problems at too much of a macro level," said Brandon Lackey. Brandon is the global solutions director for BEA Systems. "They tried to build a database of everyone's knowledge, and it can't be done. The successful systems may go in under the basis of knowledge management, but they address very specific business problems."

So can you "talk about KM" during these meetings? "You can, in pockets," noted Paul Sonderegger, the principal strategist and "evangelist" at Endeca. "There are companies that are more dependent than others on the movement of information in order to affect the bottom line. Take a professional service organization—a consulting company, for instance. Its whole ability to leverage the work their consultants do depends on their ability to take information others have created and apply it in another context. In that kind of environment, yes...you can absolutely talk about knowledge management."

Tim Shetler, vice president, marketing at InQuira, thought his company knew the difficulty in the terminology: "We deliberately named our product ‘Information Manager' to avoid any issues with the term ‘knowledge management.' We discovered they don't exist! We thought there would be some tarnish around the term. But every RFP I look at uses the phrase ‘knowledge management.' The end users don't have that baggage."

It's probably a matter of whom you ask, and what type of organization they work for. "The term ‘knowledge management' doesn't make sense to a guy pouring concrete," insisted Sally Hicks, marketing manager at Noetix. "Our biggest dashboard customer is Florida Rock. Their name says it all—they move rocks. It's not sexy. But they allow their customers to log in through a secure dashboard and get a few basic pieces of data, and it's saving hundreds of man-hours per week. Their customers don't know the terminology of ‘knowledge management.' They just want a copy of an invoice."

"We are able to now talk about knowledge management without the audience rolling their eyes," said Sivija Seres, FAST's VP of strategic business development, "but we have learned a lot. People have been told one thing at a marketing level, but it's difficult to achieve those things when it scales greatly and gets more complex, and more features creep up into the original specification," said Silvija. "Recently, the technology—not the core, but the functionality—and our understanding of how to set things up from the beginning has reached a level that we can be really proud of."

Unmet expectations is a common theme in technology deployments, of course. But maybe it's worse in KM, because the goals are often so ambiguous. "The problem with asking users to describe what they want is like the old saw about Henry Ford," remarked Paul Sonderegger. "If Ford had asked people what they wanted, they would have said ‘faster horses.' Luckily, there is a rising generation of managers who have a greater baseline of familiarity with technology than the departing generation. They're still not technologists, but they have new ideas about what they want from their infrastructure."

Lowell Anderson, VP marketing at SchemaLogic, agreed with that assessment. "There's definitely an increased awareness of the capabilities that a focused KM strategy can bring to an organization. As we become familiar with collaboration techniques, people are becoming more comfortable with moving away from fixed standards as a way to govern knowledge. Open collaboration effectively becomes the standard," said Lowell.

The KM Formula

If KM is now accepted among polite company, what's holding up its widespread adoption? "We always come back to the same fundamental thing: people can't get the information they need to do their jobs," said Sally Hicks. "Even if IT is helping get information to people, they don't get it quickly enough, or it changes. Sometimes the users don't even know what it is they want; they just know they need something in order to make a decision."

The theme of "information+decision= knowledge management" is practically universal. "What's the connection between information and action?" asked Paul, entirely rhetorically. "It's the assessment of the problem and the appropriateness of available solutions. Before you can do anything logistically—like shipping something from one place to another to fix a problem—someone has to assess the problem, and become satisfied they have identified the right solution. And that's ALL about decision-making. It's the information being brought to the person that allows us to talk about the application of knowledge."

Of course, as is often the case, it's easier said than done. "As customers spend significant amounts of money deploying information-access networks, they are realizing they aren't working as well as they possibly could," said Lowell. "They are connecting different repositories and content silos, but they don't have a common understanding of the terminologies that describe the information residing in those content silos. There are also complex interrelationships among those terms they have no way to model."

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