META Group research indicates an increasing interest in knowledge management (KM) across all Global 2000 markets. Employee turnover, staff cuts, information overload, an emphasis on product time-to-market, and a desire to learn more about customers have all conspired to recreate a KM market that many thought had expired a few years ago. Instead, KM had only been “hibernating,” awaiting organizations seeking an edge or making the best of reduced staffs.
Still, a consistent theme tends to run through our KM inquiries — where should a business start? Evidently, there is quite a bit of confusion about what KM is. (In its simplest terms, KM is the sharing of information throughout a business.) The confusion is generally not vendor induced, as it had been previously, because most “KM vendors” have moved on (typically to customer relationship management, portals, or other technologies).
During the next year, organizations will (finally) begin defining KM on their terms, creating management incentives to support the concept. During 2002-04, they will implement Web portals (which will result in a $6 billion portal market by 2004) as well as other mechanisms that support organizational and business objectives, thereby extending KM principles to drive innovation, service, and employee quality of life beyond 2005.
For organizations seeking the keys to the elusive “KM kingdom,” we suggest the following steps:
1. Define KM on the organization’s terms: The first trap that organizations can fall into is accepting someone else’s (e.g., a vendor’s or other user’s) definition of KM principles. KM success begins with understanding the basic tenets of employee collaboration, retention, and learning, but these must quickly include an organization’s application of these tenets in its own environment.
Innovation can mean one thing for a process manufacturing company and another for a consulting company, but each can apply KM-supporting technologies to deliver on its own version of KM principles. Managers of these projects must also understand that the definition is often “in the eye of the beholder,” and therefore its definition may change by group and individual as well.
2. Garner executive support and drive acceptance: Because most KM experiences involve changing behavior and encouraging employees to act certain ways or perform certain tasks (everything from entering taxonomy-supporting metadata to submitting best practices), executive support is key. This is true whether the KM initiative spans a department, a division, or the entire organization.
Moreover, technology implementations cost money, and in KM, these costs typically are great enough to require senior executive approval. Thus, even grassroots KM efforts soon require a sale to management. However, the reverse is true as well — education about KM value (at an individual and a group level) must occur to ensure broad acceptance. Human resource staff often must be brought into the loop, either to enact incentive plans or to communicate KM intent through the organization.
It is important to remember that little of what it takes to succeed is technical, making business support critical for the people and process requirements. This means the IT group cannot own KM projects.
3. Determine which business processes to attack: In the KM heyday, we suggested that efforts — even those intended to be used by an entire organizatioin — begin within a single department or function. That belief has not changed, and current economic times support it. Even executive-blessed “enterprise” KM efforts, of which we have seen none of late, should start by attacking a particular business process in pain.
One could also consider “best-practice contribution, archive, and retrieval” as a particular area of focus, even though its use might be enterprise-wide. In addition, such a path enables others across the organization to watch the effort gel, gain experience, and then accept KM on their terms (cultural or technological). In addition, organizations must consider whether their KM focus should be tacit (in the minds of employees and not formally recorded) or explicit (on paper or electronically created). Often a specialized product will be required to support a tacit KM focus (which we see increasingly with best-practice management).
4. Determine and implement appropriate technology: The most difficult aspect of KM to overcome has always been how not to fall into the trap of starting efforts with a particular technology in mind. Only once each of the previous three steps has been considered — particularly determining which business processes to attack) — should a decent picture of required technology emerge.
Moreover, this will have given the IT group (or other responsible KM organization) a chance to examine the organization for applicable technologies used elsewhere. For example, a pharmaceutical company may discover that the best-practice repository for an electronic lab notebook supported by document management technology is already used for, say, NDA submissions. We do believe, however, that the enterprise portal will be the main delivery vehicle for KM initiatives, regardless of the business processes required to support it.
5. Death of the CKO: This is not an order, merely a statement of fact. While we saw some chief knowledge officer (CKO) positions created two years ago, we see almost none now. This does not mean existing CKOs must go, but most organizations new to KM are sticking with a team or committee model. The team typically includes IT (often architecture, possibly metadata/database, unstructured information and content management, etc.), human resources, and business representation.
Given the current climate, particularly the pressure organizations are under to do more with less, we expect KM to remain popular for the next several years. Moreover, the strong enterprise portal market is playing a “chicken and egg” game with KM, both driving KM interest (by supporting it with a generic technical framework) and benefitting from a resurgent KM “market.” We expect this to continue, driving by 2004 a $6 billion-plus enterprise portal market. After that, KM technology will become embedded as a standard part of enterprise portal offerings, and the people and process issues will become standard operational best practices.
Business Impact: Organizations intent on reviving (or starting) knowledge management initiatives must proceed through four or five basic steps to ensure the appropriateness of the undertaking, regardless of its intended size.
Bottom Line: Knowledge management (KM) is back, but organizations often are still mystified by the concept. Planning must take place prior to technology selection, with a focus on business processes, but most importantly, KM must be defined on the organization’s terms, according to organizational priorities.
David Yockelson works for META Group, a technology research and consulting firm based in Stamford, Conn.