Read in 7 min. Knowledge management is based on the assumption that the potential for sustained improvement exists in the knowledge derived from people, processes, designs, and ideas within the organisation. It also implies the creation of a culture and structure that will overcome barriers to communication and promote information sharing and learning.
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Knowledge management is based on the assumption that the potential for sustained improvement exists in the knowledge derived from people, processes, designs, and ideas within the organisation. It also implies the creation of a culture and structure that will overcome barriers to communication and promote information sharing and learning.
One very good reason for investing in knowledge management is to encourage innovation, a major contributor to competitive advantage. Successful innovative firms invariably share a long-term vision and are committed to change. They are willing to seek information from any source, and they encourage information sharing. Their senior executives are willing to delegate both authority and responsibility, they assess ideas rapidly, and they offer appropriate rewards.
Basic tools for knowledge management
The two primary tools for organising information are classification and indexing. To classify is to assemble or group items in a rational and consistent manner. Classification is based on a pre-conceived plan with the whole field of interest divided into categories, classes, and sub-classes. Indexing allows us to label and locate documents and records so that they may be retrieved. If indexing is to be effective, users need to know what keywords or descriptors to use in order to find relevant information. This means that we need to control the vocabulary by means of a taxonomy or thesaurus.
Knowledge management systems
One school of thought divides knowledge into two kinds. Explicit knowledge involves skills that can be codified (such as assembling components or conducting a sequence of operations) and can, therefore, be easily articulated and readily transferred. It's management calls for a fairly formal structure and devoted staff.
Most knowledge management systems, however, attempt to exploit tacit knowledge: knowledge that is gained experientially and, therefore, cannot be articulated or explained to inexperienced parties (for example, planning and decision-making). An organisation or individual will acquire tacit knowledge only through turning information into action and by acquiring experience.
Tacit knowledge is extremely complex and constantly changing, which makes it impossible to manage in any traditional sense. Data and information are easily transferred electronically, but tacit knowledge is best transferred through human interaction. It is the value added by people (employing context, interpretation, insight, and experience) that transforms data and information into knowledge.
Because tacit knowledge is primarily embodied in people, both within and external to the organisation, its management is essentially about communication. In fact, knowledge is shared whether or not the process is managed at all. Usually, however, this transfer is local and fragmentary. It is often confined to seeking information or advice from the person closest to us; one whom we believe may be able to help. But this is not the optimum solution; for that we need a more formal arrangement.
In many cases knowledge management may simply mean being able to identify and locate individuals possessing pertinent knowledge. Hence, the most effective knowledge-management systems are often based around a knowledge map - a directory or database of people possessing, or having access to, specific knowledge or expertise. This should be a guide to, not a repository of, that knowledge. The value of a knowledge map depends much more on the quality of its content than on the capacity or sophistication of the system or software used. The essential attributes are accuracy, accessibility, and clarity.
In order to ensure consistency and ease of use, the knowledge map must have an associated thesaurus or taxonomy (to control the vocabulary), and a glossary of terms (to define the terms used), together with relevant indexing rules. Since this aspect of knowledge management calls for specific expertise, you may wish to consider appointing a librarian, information scientist, journalist, or classical scholar to carry out the task.
Information technology aspects
Knowledge management is about people. Computers do not acquire knowledge, people do. Computers do not yet have an analytical capability; they are unable to understand the data that they process; they cannot take the initiative; nor can they make sense of abstract, contradictory, or incomplete information.
Nevertheless, technology has an important role in knowledge management. For instance, it can facilitate the transfer and exchange of information, help to manage networks and communities of practice, and provide access to a knowledge map. But be aware that although there are many products that claim to offer knowledge management solutions, they are often simply existing database, document management, or publishing packages that have been renamed.
In any case, before considering what contribution information technology might make, it is essential that the company have in place the means to encourage an information-sharing culture, together with senior executive commitment and support. Without these, no amount of investment in technology will succeed. In fact, excessive emphasis on technology aspects is a frequent cause of failure in knowledge management operations.
Those people charged with improving the performance of an organisation, as well as senior managers responsible for strategic planning, business development, and innovation, need to be familiar with the fundamentals of knowledge management. They should be:
* aware of various techniques to encourage an information-sharing culture;
* effective communicators, with the skills to produce briefings and reports that will stimulate executive response;
* able to decide on the content and focus of a knowledge management system;
* familiar with the basic requirements for compiling a knowledge map and its accompanying taxonomy and glossary of terms;
* versed in simple rules for safeguarding company secrets;
* comfortable with corporate change and innovation.
Over and above that, you need to select the right person to manage your knowledge; he or she should have:
* considerable experience in at least one aspect of knowledge management - for instance: its creation, classification and indexing, storage and retrieval, communication or dissemination, or application;
* a sound knowledge of the business environment in which you operate, together with an awareness of your critical success factors and those of your competitors;
* familiarity with knowledge-oriented facilities (for example, libraries or information collections, research groups or consultants, publishers, business intelligence specialists, product developers, and strategic planners) and with appropriate information technology tools and applications (the Internet, intranets or groupware, computer networks);
* frequent contact with knowledge management or intelligence professionals.
Bill Gates, in Business @ the speed of thought: using a digital nervous system, suggests a most appropriate summary:
Knowledge management is not a software product or a software category. Knowledge management doesn't even start with technology. It starts with business objectives and processes and a recognition of the need to share information. Knowledge management is nothing more than managing information flow, getting the right information to the people who need it so they can act on it quickly.
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