Shifting Toward Normalcy

Getting back to basics in a changing world

I’m paraphrasing someone badly, but writing about knowledge is like dancing about architecture. It really can’t be done to anybody’s satisfaction. “Knowledge” is one of those indefinable conditions. Like pornography or art, I can’t tell you what it is, but I know it when I see it.

And “knowledge management” is even further out of reach, since it tries to control, disseminate and manipulate a totally shapeless, placeless, mass-free, amorphous puff of smoke. Knowledge either is or it isn’t, and there ain’t nothin’ you can do about it.

That’s why there’s been a shift in the way we approach “knowledge management.” People tend to seek out that which they understand in concrete terms. Abstractions like “knowledge” need not apply. Nowadays, the focus slides from the slippery to the places where we can get traction. Places like “Customer Relationship Management...” now there’s a parade I can get behind. And “Intellectual Property Management...” it’s not very far from “I think, therefore I am” to “I thunk, therefore it’s mine.”

So it’s no surprise that—with a few notable exceptions—the articles we publish in these Best Practices White Papers are trending away from the theoretical, and more toward the familiar territory of the three “Ts”—tools, technology and tech sheets. The market seems to be seeking comfort zones in which to interact with its technology vendors. The economy and subsequent technology spending patterns has contributed to this. A queasy uncertainty about the political climate has contributed to this. And, unfortunately, the simple fact that many of the initiatives that are underway are not ... quite ... satisfying ... has definitely contributed to this.

A study by the Gartner Group quoted elsewhere in this white paper states that with all the spending on IT and customer retention software solutions, there has yet to be any significant positive effect. In fact, an IDC report states flatly that $7.5 billion will be wasted by the Fortune 1000 this year.

Back To Basics

“The first thing you have to do to be effective with customers is to first be able to communicate with yourself,” says Bob Kruger, CEO of Citrix Systems. “I think back to John Wooden (UCLA Bruins’ coach, and the winningest basketball coach in NCAA history). He believed in ‘learning the basics,’ and his teams did this better than anyone else. Companies need to focus on their communications basics before they can effectively deliver the kind of information necessary to keep customers happy, and coming back time after time.”

So is that knowledge management? “We have the technology and services that underpin knowledge management, and we have the software that facilitates knowledge management, so I guess you can say we’re in that space,” says Kruger, “but we look at it as improving the way companies do things so they can see a return on their investment.”

Or, in other words, getting back to the comfort zone where ROI, cost-savings and metrics still mean something.

Controlling the Flow

Kirstie Chadwick is CEO of Digital Owl, a company that manages the licensing, personalization and delivery of premium content.

“People spend 25% of their time looking for stuff. They make important business decisions based upon that information and a lot of the time it goes completely unvalidated. You don’t know where it came from, whether it’s accurate or how old it is. It’s easy to see the risk involved in failing to manage that content delivery,” says Chadwick.

But doesn’t all this strict management of content prevent the happy accidents, the serendipity, the discovery that leads so often to innovation? Can’t you clamp the pipeline a little too hard?

“Well, there’s ‘wanna know’ and then there’s ‘gotta know,’” explains Chadwick. “For instance, typically there’s a stratification in the information you need. There’s external stuff, such as stock reports that might be used, and internal stuff such as contract forms and details” that are more or less mandatory. Who knows what the ideal ratio of “wanna-to-gotta” is in any given situation?

The trick is to control the flow to a manageable, understandable amount. The risk in missing something is always a possibility—“There’s no magic bullet,” she admits—but the costs associated with NOT trying can be great.

So, what does it say about the current state of KM that these two, sharp solutions providers, one who encourages a high level of openness in the exchange and access of information and the other who advises a certain level of control, both consider themselves part of the underpinnings of knowledge management? Because they’re both right.

I think it underscores the interdependence of those two concepts: “knowledge” and “management.” That a Niagara Falls of information without a way to filter it through our little brains is just as bad as no information at all.

And that, at the end of the day, the surest way to solve a problem is to give a person the time, the space, the latitude and the resources to figure it out. There’s no better management strategy than that.

Andy Moore has often been a well-known presence in the emergence of new technologies, from independent telecommunications through networking and information management. Most recently, Moore has been pleased to witness first-hand the decade’s most significant business and organizational revolution: the drive to leverage organizational knowledge assets (documents, records, information and object repositories) and the expertise and skill of the organizations’ knowledge workers in order to create true learning organizations. He can be reached at andy_moore@verizon.net and welcomes feedback and conversation

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