The (New) Age of Knowledge Management

How to prepare yourself for KM 2.0.

Knowledge management, or KM, is a relatively old idea. It set off a flurry of activity and investment throughout the 1990s, culminating in “visionary” companies spending a lot of money with consultants and even creating a new executive role, the chief knowledge officer. When the Internet wave hit, despite some successes, KM in many ways went to the back burner, relegated to some hard-core types and domains like customer support where ROI was straightforward and tools were relatively mature.

However, a funny thing has happened on the way to obsolescence. KM is back and is even returning to the spotlight as more lightweight, more focused “KM 2.0” tools make it easier to use and justify new investments (see Modern Knowledge Management Applications). However, beyond innovation in technology, we also see new architectures, models and processes emerging, which are less about centralizing content and applying the arcane language of 1980s artificial intellience, and more about deploying intelligent search and navigation, connecting and locating experts, and leveraging ad hoc publishing models like blogs and RSS.

As seen in some of our recent research with ServiceXRG (more on that below) and the views of industry watchers like IDC and Gartner, enterprises have started to increase spending on knowledge management again, and expand its role both within customer service environments as well as more general business applications.

At the same time, with many employees increasingly using e-mail, text messaging and even blogs and wikis as a way to communicate and share information on a daily basis, knowledge is everywhere, creating a need for new KM solutions that not only facilitate sharing and reuse—but also work across new-age interaction channels and deal with both highly unstructured as well as structured information. How to choose and apply these solutions, and determine where to focus initial efforts, requires both a big-picture and detailed perspective.

Think Globally: Is It Time to Bring Back the CKO?

Identifying areas where KM may deliver value, driving user adoption and even spearheading development or integration of various tools requires both vision and awareness of the latest KM models and approaches. Plus, certainly, an awareness of the ways people currently do and wish to interact, and the ways the organization (and management) can support this without being heavy-handed.

In our view, this is a key rationale for revisiting and even bringing back the role of the CKO. In fact, in an article from 1999 in MIT Sloan Management Review (What Is a Chief Knowledge Officer?), the authors noted that CKOs have two complementary design competencies: being a technologist and also an “environmentalist” who can create social environments that stimulate informal sharing, and also develop events and processes to encourage more formal knowledge creation and exchange. We believe a successful CKO needs to be a proponent for KM as well as for the applications that leverage knowledge. The CKO must balance corporate strategy with the practical concerns, constraints and needs of business units, and in fact individual users. In other words, they must think globally, yet act locally.

Of course the role of CKO could be filled by the CIO, members of the CIO’s staff or even a consultant on an outsourced basis. Debating the merits of these options or even differences between a CIO and a CKO is beyond the scope of this column, yet some of the tasks that we believe should be on the CKO/CIO/knowledge committee’s to-do list can help set the stage one for successful KM. These include:

  • Create a KM council with representation from IT and target business units—and conduct initial surveys or focus groups with target users
  • Identify/map existing content sources, interaction channels (where is knowledge created, where are requests submitted) and primary processes for contributing, accessing and sharing both formal and informal/ad hoc information
  • Evaluate existing and available solutions which support the mission of new-age KM, including content management, tagging, search, expertise location, communities and authoring tools, as well as integrated platforms and emerging open source alternatives.
Act Locally: KM in Customer Support

While having the right KM strategy and executive support is necessary to building a foundation for success, history has shown that it is not sufficient to achieve success with KM. Just as all politics are local, success with KM must happen locally, i.e., at the desktop, among a group of peers or at point of interaction between an agent or sales rep and a customer. This is especially the case when companies embrace more collaborative approaches such as communities or forums, which rely on individual users to see value in every posting they make or every answer they receive from their peers.

Within service and support organizations, long a proving ground for knowledge management approaches, there are definitive signs that 1) investments are on the rise and 2) new models are gaining traction. In a recent study we conducted with ServiceXRG (“Knowledge Management—Strategies, Benchmarks and Best Practices”), it is clear that significant investments are being made to develop knowledge assets, and the average cost of KM is now more than 8 percent of the support budget.

In terms of content, nearly all organizations make documentation and content authored by support reps available in a knowledge base (really a “classic KM” approach), but nearly half also index or import discussion forum threads as well—much more of a KM 2.0 approach. At the same time, the average knowledge base contains nearly 50,000 documents, yet more than half of them are seldom or never used.

Making documents simpler to categorize and easier to retrieve is part of the solution to making KM more usable. So is tapping into less formal Web publishing models like blogs or wikis. But the real payoff with KM may in fact come from solutions that are capable of accessing, codifying and sharing structured as well as ad hoc, informal knowledge from across the enterprise to turn the idea of KM inside out, with expertise distributed rather than centralized, and users getting information where they are and in the format they prefer, rather than by logging into a central repository.

KM 2.0 tools may be part of the ultimate solution. But reusing existing content, knowledge bases, training material and other know-how is essential. Like most technology revolutions, the journey from version 1.0 to 2.0 may in fact be more difficult—and rewarding—than the ultimate destination.

Allen Bonde is the Senior vice president of strategy & marketing at eVergance, a management consulting and systems integration company focused on CRM optimization, knowledge management and Web self-service. Prior to joining eVergance, Allen was the founder of strategic advisory firm ABG, Inc., a practice expert at McKinsey, the director of management consulting at Extraprise and an analyst at the Yankee Group.

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