What’s the New Face of Knowledge Management?

Here’s a shocker: There was a time when knowledge management wasn’t very well accepted. The early proponents—self-described "global, big-picture" thinkers—made a critical strategic error. By overloading the significance of KM with visions of utopian "transparent organizations" and "corporate agility," they gave the reigning executives of the day the perfect exit route. Had they simply asked for technology support for certain broken business processes (as many did, but not all), they probably would have gained a fair share of executive buy-in. But instead they insisted on weighing down the conversation with talk of "the sharing organization." To which, the typical executive simply replied: "We already have sharing technology. We have networks, and file shares. We have email. We have meetings. Why should I spend more money to do something we are already doing?"

Of course, the well-read proponents were appalled by their leaderships’ naïveté and lack of understanding—they just don’t get it!

But, looking back, I wonder whether that was far from the truth. Is it possible that the executive leadership of the day had, in fact, an extremely sophisticated and accurate perspective? After all, hadn’t we been taught that KM is NOT a technology issue, but in fact is a cultural one, steeped in business practices and corporate values?

"The reality is that knowledge is something that only exists in people’s heads; everything else is information. And yes, people ought to talk to each other, and in fact they do. But the sheer magnitude of those conversations in aggregate is enormous, while the decisions themselves are highly variable and unpredictable. That problem right there is why it is so difficult to ‘scale’ knowledge sharing. You’ve got to introduce tools into the mix." That’s Paul Sonderegger speaking. Paul is the chief strategist for Endeca, and has seen KM initiatives both fail AND succeed over this very dichotomy. "It’s an intractable problem ... we can’t possibly build information systems that can anticipate theunpredictable—all those highly variable interactions and the decisions that flow from them. So the tools were applied to the big questions, and that’s where things like reporting play really well. The VP of sales needs to know activity by each rep per region. Reporting is great at that. But if the question has more variability—‘how prepared are the reps to handle objections and position our product?’—then reporting doesn’t help much. A lot of people just threw their hands up in the air."

What choice did they have? "How many executives do you know who will continuously throw money at a problem with no measurable outcome?" asks Brent Hayward, VP of professional services for the Americas at InQuira. "That’s been the challenge for several years." But Brent doesn’t leave his rhetorical question unaddressed. "One way to develop an ROI is to differentiate between the ‘one-time events’ versus the lingering problem that just made 400 people call you over the past 24 hours. If you can reuse information to make THAT resolution faster, you can measure the effectiveness of the solution.

So the low-hanging fruit—transactional processes that could be measurably improved—became the first front of the war. In the brand-new Ken Burns television documentary "The War," we’re reminded that the first Allied engagements of World War II took place in North Africa, not on the European continent where all the serious action was bubbling through. Why? The inescapable answer: It was easier. And in picking the easy fruit first, the troops became trained and, in a way, culturalized to be "at war."

It’s a sketchy metaphor, I know. But there’s a universal truth. Not only is the first path the obvious one; it may be SO self-evident that it obscures the direction one ought to be taking.

"Document management, for example, demands a lot of top-down control, and for some processes (new drug applications, technical and design documents) that makes a lot of sense," says Bryan House, group marketing manager, strategic marketing initiatives at EMC Software. And it worked great. "But what people look for now are not top-down controls, but rather end-user-enabled tools that help them do their day-to-day jobs. These are iterative processes that can’t be mapped out in a BPM/workflow type of scenario. Now people are understanding how information sources relate to one another."

Still, many organizations remain complacent in the trust that their fancy automation systems are getting the job fully done.

"To your excellent question of whether executives have a naïve or sophisticated view, I would add: they have an assumptive view," points out Morris Beton, CEO of Noetix. "At a high level, there’s an assumption that things are being taken care of that really aren’t! It is assumed that things like KM, reporting, analytics are just happening automatically...and they are not. The reason: the vendors have focused on the transactional systems. People don’t realize the complexity; in many ways, the act of KM and reporting/analytics is more complex than the transactions themselves," he says.

"Many organizations have systems in place to capture information, store information and even access that information... but few have addressed the issue of sharing that information," says Marko Saarinen, senior director, product and solution marketing, Fast Search & Transfer (FAST). "Much of the focus has been on ‘capturing’ an expert employee’s knowledge. But now people realize that to make it valuable, they need to share that knowledge across the company. So a lot of companies will say they’ve ‘had KM’ for a while, but they really haven’t tackled the sharing aspect." Marko adds: "Just having a wiki or a blog is not the entire solution; people often lack any incentive to share knowledge they have."

"KM investment has long been about constructing and making knowledge explicit," adds Jean Ferré, CEO of Sinequa. But he also thinks the steps thus far have been focused on only part of the picture. "For example, search solutions have limited scope, not to talk about scalability issues. But knowledge access solutions help implicit content to flow around the organization by allowing connection between the ones with issues and the ones with experience or expertise."

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