Distorted Perceptions of Knowledge Management

By Ben Burton

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For many, knowledge management is a frustratingly elusive concept. Unlike its counterpart, business intelligence, which deals with structured content such as statistics and fielded data, knowledge management seeks to capture a company's memory and the unstructured ideas and thoughts of its employees.

In a results-focused business environment, where launching products and providing shareholder value are paramount, decision makers struggle to quantify knowledge management. As a discipline it is, by its very nature, vague and is therefore often viewed by senior management as tainted.

Finding True Value

Business is about processes, functions and bottom-line results. But, equally, it is about innovation and ideas. In an article titled The New Knowledge Management, Mark W. McElroy, president of the think tank Knowledge Management Consortium International, says, "The degree to which a business supports a plurality of ideas, even dissident ones, will, too, have a material impact on its overall performance in innovation."

Valuable ideas emerge when employees consume, analyze, assimilate and spontaneously create repositories of information. Encapsulating these ideas forms the basis of organizational knowledge and its evolution. Managers acknowledge the importance of capturing ideas and are aware that they must deal with knowledge management.

A 2002-2003 European survey, conducted by KPMG Knowledge Management Services, found that 80% of senior managers consider knowledge management to be a strategic asset. At the same time, many managers are unable to define a knowledge management strategy.

This is due, in part, to the industry failing to find a sustainable definition of what constitutes knowledge management. Without that cohesion, internal attempts to define knowledge management will become diluted over time as new hires bring their ideas and definitions to a company.

A Filter System

Contributing to the tainted perception of knowledge management is the fact that companies are awash with information. Collaboration tools such as email systems and discussion boards, in addition to more traditional venues for discussion such as meetings and training sessions, have led to an information overload.

A 2000 survey of 423 businesses in the United Kingdom, continental Europe and the U.S. conducted by KPMG Consulting found 65% of organizations complained of information overload.

Among the reams of useless information are useful insights, retainable knowledge and even innovative ideas that might give a company the lead in its field. The challenge lies in separating the wheat from the chaff. A good assessment process is required to capture valuable information and filter out less important ideas.

One way to do this is by rigorously analyzing what resources employees use. Sometimes strategic systems put in place by senior management go unused, while an obscure system developed by a newly hired employee is embraced by fellow employees because it best fits the situation. Being able to identify and encourage these internal breakthroughs can be vital to a company's evolution.

Most idea assessment processes are tied directly to hierarchical organizational structures. For example, a sales associate might have an idea for restructuring a certain aspect of the sales process. The value of that idea might initially be assessed in casual conversations with peers. However, the potential of the idea will only be realized when it is presented to key decision makers in the organization's hierarchical structure.

Ensuring the fluid flow of ideas through the hierarchy is critical to enhancing the knowledge management environment.

On the other hand, such a process implies giving structure to the capture of ideas and knowledge, and that has the potential to undermine all that is most valuable about knowledge management. Too precise a definition of what knowledge management is and what it should contain detracts from the employees' ability to be adaptable and open in their communication and collaboration.

Adapt or Die

To reap the rewards of knowledge management, company decision makers must find ways to put some structure to what must, ultimately, remain an unstructured process. Organizations that fail to nurture their employees' valuable ideas will quickly be consumed or destroyed by more nimble rivals.

So, rather than thinking of knowledge management as "tainted" by vagueness, decision makers would do well to remember that because it is in some respects vague, it is open to interpretation, consideration and innovation.

Woo Song is chairman ofIntrasphere Technologies Ben Burton is application architect, content management at the company. Intrasphere Technologies designs and builds applications that support enterprise organizations. Please send comments or ideas to Ben at Ben.Burton@IntraSphere.com.