Knowledge Management Definition and Solutions

Knowledge Management (KM) topics covering definition, systems, benefits, and challenges.

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What is knowledge management (KM)?

Unfortunately, there's no universal definition of knowledge management (KM), just as there's no agreement as to what constitutes knowledge in the first place. For this reason, it's best to think of KM in the broadest context. Succinctly put, KM is the process through which organizations generate value from their intellectual and knowledge-based assets. Most often, generating value from such assets involves codifying what employees, partners and customers know, and sharing that information among employees, departments and even with other companies in an effort to devise best practices. It's important to note that the definition says nothing about technology; while KM is often facilitated by IT, technology by itself is not KM.

Think of a golf caddie as a simplified example of a knowledge worker. Good caddies do more than carry clubs and track down wayward balls. When asked, a good caddie will give advice to golfers, such as, "The wind makes the ninth hole play 15 yards longer. " Accurate advice may lead to a bigger tip at the end of the day. On the flip side, the golfer — having derived a benefit from the caddie's advice — may be more likely to play that course again. If a good caddie is willing to share what he knows with other caddies, then they all may eventually earn bigger tips. How would KM work to make this happen? The caddie master may decide to reward caddies for sharing their tips by offering them credits for pro shop merchandise. Once the best advice is collected, the course manager would publish the information in notebooks (or make it available on PDAs), and distribute them to all the caddies. The end result of a well-designed KM program is that everyone wins. In this case, caddies get bigger tips and deals on merchandise, golfers play better because they benefit from the collective experience of caddies, and the course owners win because better scores lead to more repeat business.

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KM has assumed greater urgency in American business over the past few years as millions of baby boomers prepare to retire over the coming decade. Tens of millions of baby boomers turned 60 in 2005, so those of them who aren’t already retired are certainly planning to do so soon. And when they punch out for the last time, the knowledge they gleaned about their jobs, companies and industries over the course of their long careers walks out with them—unless companies take measures to retain their insights. In addition to an immanent mass retirement, the outsourcing trend has forced CIOs who have entered into outsourcing agreements address the thorny issue of transferring the knowledge of their full-time staff members, who are losing their jobs because of an outsourcing deal, to the outsourcer’s employees in order to smooth the transition to the newly restructured IT organization.

What constitutes intellectual or knowledge-based assets?

Not all information is valuable. Therefore, it's up to individual companies to determine what information qualifies as intellectual and knowledge-based assets. In general, however, intellectual and knowledge-based assets fall into one of two categories: explicit or tacit. Included among the former are assets such as patents, trademarks, business plans, marketing research and customer lists. As a general rule of thumb, explicit knowledge consists of anything that can be documented, archived and codified, often with the help of IT.

Much harder to grasp is the concept of tacit knowledge, or the know-how contained in people's heads. The challenge inherent with tacit knowledge is figuring out how to recognize, generate, share and manage it. While IT in the form of e-mail, groupware, instant messaging and related technologies can help facilitate the dissemination of tacit knowledge, identifying tacit knowledge in the first place is a major hurdle for most organizations.

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