The Time for Knowledge Management Is Now

For years now, we’ve heard the KM mantra: It’s not about technology; it’s about culture.

Yes, technology is an important component of knowledge management: It can facilitate knowledge sharing via centralized repositories of information, it can enable real-time collaboration through electronic workplaces, and it can help identify experts and expertise with intranet-based location systems, just to name three applications. But at its core, KM is about changing people’s hearts and minds. At organizations in need of KM therapy, behavior has to change. First, employees need to acknowledge that what’s in their heads is valuable, and then—more important—management has to convince employees that the best way to develop that value is to share what they know among others.

That somewhat anthropological bent to KM has made the concept a tough sell over the years for two primary reasons: First, changing people’s behavior is a tough task; and second, doing so doesn’t offer the kind of neat and tidy return on investment that fits nicely into financial statements. Yet KM as an idea seems to be picking up some momentum in the field, at least according to David Austin, CEO of Contextware, a software company that develops a platform designed to add context to content management.

Naturally, a representative from a vendor is likely to say that KM is gaining ground, but Austin’s take makes sense. Like other KM proponents who came before him, Austin doesn’t couch KM in terms of technology. He talks more about business processes. “There’s a strong resurgence in KM not as a technology but as a business discipline,” he says. In essence, Austin says, businesses are turning to KM in response to external business conditions coupled with internal forces. While there has been an evolution in KM-related technology—thanks in large part to democratization brought about by the Internet—there are social forces at work that make KM especially attractive today.

In a climate of globalization, mergers and the never-ending drive to accelerate product development, organizations need to tap into resident knowledge more urgently than ever. But as the economy improves, experienced employees, who have stayed on simply because the marketplace offered few options, will be on the move again, taking that knowledge with them. Employee churn means organizations must have formal procedures in place for retaining the institutional knowledge those workers have acquired.

Further, as noted in my last In the Know column, wholesale retirements are likely to occur at many organizations as baby boomers age. (For example, a recent study by government market research company INPUT projects that 42 percent of federal IT employees will be 50 years old or older by 2008.) That exodus with its accompanying brain drain will create a knowledge void at many organizations, particularly professional service-oriented ones such as law firms, advertising agencies and management consultancies. “There will be workforce attrition as the baby boomer generation starts to age,” says Austin. “The biggest [fallout]: Businesses need to become more productive.”

Of course, organizations have turned to a variety of management practices and technologies to enhance productivity. Things like total quality management, ERP systems and supply chain management have reaped benefits for organizations that have applied them with discipline. The time is right for KM to make its own contributions to productivity. While some companies may indeed invest in KM-related information technology, such spending isn’t the main ingredient for doing KM well. First and foremost, organizations need to look at employee knowledge and assign it the value it deserves.

Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.

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