The Was and Is of Knowledge Management

As I write this, I am hearing about the death of music legend Johnny Cash. The first record I ever heard was "Live from Folsom Prison." I can remember sitting in front of my parents' console stereo with the album cover in my lap, studying the tall man in the smoky spotlight, with his guitar high up on his chest and his eyes burning with deliberate force.

Notice I didn't describe him as a legend of "country music." Just music. When something is good enough it crystallizes to its essence and transcends category, and simply "is." Johnny Cash simply was.

I wonder what it is about certain iconographic ideals that allow them to escape mere categories and become something singularly important? In Johnny Cash's case, it's a combination of scope (he was one of only two people inducted into both the Country Music AND Rock and Roll Halls of Fame—Elvis was the other) and longevity (he made his first recording nearly five decades ago). Another example still with us is Ray Charles, who made his first "jump blues" recordings in the 1940s! He's still a young and vibrant man at 73, but when he passes, I will mourn. Again.

What these monuments have in common is that they earned their places in the firmament one step at a time. They weren't born as icons; they became icons. And that's the progression it's supposed to take.

Knowledge management—KM—took the completely opposite and flawed trajectory and suffered as a result, I believe. KM was granted iconic status from the start. "KM is a Philosophy." Remember that one? KM never had the chance to earn the respect that should have grown from proven successes and demonstrated returns. Instead, we—and I certainly include myself in this group—assigned KM the preeminent position at the top of the management ladder prematurely and frankly undeservedly.

Luckily—but somewhat belatedly—thoughtful market players are recognizing that great things grow from the ground up.

"Knowledge management is a bright idea, but bright ideas should not be the impetus for investing in the various components," states Michele Kersey, Product Marketing Manager, Document and Records Management Solutions, for Hummingbird, Ltd. "Instead it should be the specific project, the specific compliance effort that drives the automation decisions. Then, having started somewhere, you move on with some hope of consistency. That's the real crux of KM," Kersey says.

"By starting somewhere under the KM umbrella and gaining success and proven return, you can then add other success factors and other critical elements within the same paradigm, using the same tools..." she continues. "Start with, say, an imaging project and that leads to the next logical step of archive and destruction, so you add records management. Then you find yourself facing electronic document management, so you add workflow." And you eventually arrive at an enterprise-wide business ecosystem that has grown and evolved along logical and measured initiatives.

That's the way it's supposed to work, anyway. The problem is, life isn't always that logical. For years, organizations have been deploying automation wherever it hurt the most. And even though there may have been an enterprise standard for the organization overall, that mandate never entirely tied the departments' hands from going with a best-of-breed technology solution for its particular needs.

"What I've seen change," Kersey observes, "is that customers are beginning to recognize the concept of ‘lifecycle information management.' They see that the various systems—document management, records management, workflow, portals—all touch the lifecycle at different points." This, Kersey believes, creates an entirely new attitude toward information management investment. "It's no longer fiscally responsible to run rampant with multiple platforms and multiple vendors. We have customers who are now looking at lifecycle management in its totality, and that's an entirely different discussion. There are different players at the table, different education needs, different vendors...it's a whole new ball game."

"KM, before, was a feel-good topic," Kersey says. "If you have a better representation of your information, and better access—the right information at the right time buzzwords—you can get jobs done faster. But today's customer expects proof that information access gets jobs done faster, and proof that business cycles close faster. They want customer testimonials and ROI studies.

"The talk has been there for a long time, but ROI is the walk. Customers expect that proof before they're going to commit investment dollars. There are no more million-dollar purchases that sit on shelves. Our customers are forcing that litmus test all over the place," notes Kersey.

Fixing the Mistakes

It's a hindsight view, to be sure. What appears now to have been done in error and haste now was probably a really good idea at the time. If I can home-grow or engage a vendor in a solution for my business unit, and therefore hit my performance marks and get my MBO bonus at the end of the year, you're damn right I'm gonna do it.

So now the vendor community has a responsibility to correct these "mistakes." "And these so-called mistakes," Kersey reminds, "were million-dollar investments in ERP systems and CRM systems and Web servers, you name it. You can't just expect them to abandon those previous investments. They need to get bang for that existing buck."How do you go about that, and what is the vendor's role? "Any KM vendor that has technology beyond that of the traditional imaging, doc management and workflow buckets should first be able to expose and index ALL the content captured in those various stores, and make it wholesale available to the users. That's one step of the way," replies Kersey. "Another step is the universal portal front-end for one-stop shopping to enterprise content," she continues. "So the complete package is indexing for search and retrieval plus access from a usability standpoint."

The conclusion is that no matter what level you view it from—bottom-up departmental solutions or top-down IT standards—the pursuit of something resembling KM is best described as a "sum of the parts" rather than a lofty corporate version of religion.

Evolving to the Plus Side

One of the dampening factors on the acceptance of KM has always been the level of confusion surrounding its precise value proposition. I always think of the "Saturday Night Live" commercial parody: "It's a floor wax!" "It's a dessert topping!"Yep, it's both. KM can have enormous effect on the performance of an organization, in terms of productivity and in efficiencies gained through smoother communication and seamless access to pertinent information.

But KM can also have great influence on the other end of the ledger sheet, the top line. Using business intelligence to reveal opportunities and then create revenue-generating programs to exploit them is pure KM, too.

And nothing has demonstrated that better for me lately than a conversation I had the other day with Regis Rapp and Bob Lynch. Rapp is Senior Vice President and COO, of Fiserv CCS, and Lynch is Fiserv CCS's VP, New Segment Development.

Fiserv is generally thought of (by me, anyway) as being in the data warehouse space. Data extraction, data cleansing, data mining...whatever the kids are calling it these days, Fiserv does it for the financial services industry—notably banking.Now, banking—good old branch retail banking—is not usually considered one of the wildest businesses. To say it's conservative is an understatement akin to saying Donald Rumsfeld can get a tad grouchy. In th

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