posted 17 Nov 2000 in Volume 4 Issue 3
Smart technology, smarter people
Technology plays a crucial role in most KM initiatives, but it can also be seen as a threat to personalisation and individuality. David Burns argues that, used correctly, smart technology can provide the underlying power in an organisation to open up knowledge to every employee.
We are experiencing today the dehumanisation of corporate communications. Increasing amounts of email, greater use of virtual teams, and the rollout of ERP, CRM and Web site analysis applications all conspire to remove people further and further from personalised service. In dealing with any organisation, of whatever size, on almost any matter, itís become increasingly difficult to find the right person to talk to.
This is not to say that the prevalence of computer technology is a bad thing. Rather, that its uncontrolled implementation, and lack of business context, often means that when things go wrong companies are left in a worse position than before. When technology works, in short, it works very well; but when it doesnít thereís hell to pay.
To counteract this growing dehumanisation, and to create a knowledge-based environment, organisations need to look firstly towards creating a collaborative enterprise, and then an extended enterprise that includes supply chain and other partners. The process begins by forming communities of relevant people and groups who will benefit most by sharing knowledge.
None of this can be a prescriptive process, or be carried out dictatorially. All members of communities have to understand the benefits involved, and indeed actually want to take part, otherwise the entire project risks failure. In these environments, knowledge must be seen as a shared resource, not a secretive asset kept only by those near the top of the corporate food chain.
None of this can happen, of course, without some smart technology to integrate the vast amounts of content now available to everyone, everywhere. Itís not the only factor, but it can go a long way towards making knowledge available to everyone who needs it. And the proper implementation of appropriate technologies has effects that reach well beyond just improving knowledge exchange.
Intelligent knowledge agents, for instance, minimise the skills and manpower needed to develop knowledge management systems, which are prime targets for consultants from all the major firms. In one case, a large company employed some 300 consultants from a Big Six firm to create a knowledge management system, so the potential savings from avoiding such excesses are clearly vast.
In fact, itís estimated that between 80 per cent and 90 per cent of a systemís requirements can be fulfilled by using technology that intelligently searches, acquires, translates and disseminates information according to each user and group
Similarly, such technology, given its innate knowledge sharing capabilities, reduces training times and costs dramatically. One large telco, after implementing smart technology, found it was spending 20 to 30 times less on training new employees than it had done. Whatís more, the rollout of new recruits is speeded up substantially. In one pilot project, new recruits are being put into production environments within a few days, as opposed to an average of six weeks.
Knowledge management technology also allows for learning or training to happen remotely, as and when necessary, cutting down on travel, time off work, facilities use and instructor costs. The high cost of ongoing training is one of the biggest headaches facing companies today operating in all areas, but especially those which insist on managing and maintaining their own IT infrastructures; the speed at which industry is moving all but removes any chance of a single company keeping up to speed on all relevant technologies.
The issue of training, however, may very well be a passing phase. Current fashion dictates that individuals should be up to speed on all manner of new products and technologies, but now many are waking up to the fact that being highly productive simply means having the right tools and instant access to new or relevant information.
In traditional support environments, for instance, there are no discernible differences between novices and experts when it comes to carrying out easy tasks. The difference, or added value provided by experienced staff, only comes to light when things go wrong. In a knowledge-sharing environment, those differences are minimised, if not removed altogether. Valuable information is able to pass through the organisation and beyond, in turn transforming the helpdesk into a truly valuable employee or customer-facing tool.
In too many companies, the helpdesk is an oxymoron, which is somewhat at odds with the increase in spending on helpdesk software, customer relationship management (CRM) software and so-called personalisation tools. Many, it seems, are designed to avoid helping, with automated messages and touch-tone multiple-choice questions keeping you at a safe distance from human agents, which are after all the only type most of us want to deal with.
Creating this end-to-end knowledge environment wonít be easy. For one thing, despite the potentially huge benefits, many companies will be wary of investing in yet more technology after so much previous investment in client-server systems, data warehousing, ERP and CRM. All have been sold on the similar messages of providing higher quality information to whoever needs it, in the most relevant format, regardless of where they are or what systems they are using.
Whatís more, the awareness of what knowledge management actually is and what it can do is still very low, while the term itself is used in many different contexts and carries several very different meanings. What awareness there is often comes stealthily, somehow managing to slip through the broader emphasis on using technology such as e-mail, ERP and CRM to solve communications problems, which in turn has created this shift towards dehumanisation.
But itís also true that technology is now able to help, by enabling a move towards more collaboration and away from the unthinking generation of emails which are forwarded, then copied and forwarded again - just to make sure. Smart technology can provide the underlying power to open up knowledge to everyone, leaving people unhindered to concentrate on productive endeavours, and free of the shackles of technology lock-in.
Knowledge management is not, after all, a discreet technology, but part of a companyís everyday processes. And smart agents allow those processes, information sources and technology assets to remain in place, helping to build a corporate knowledge map that precludes the creation of a physical repository of replicated data.
And what about the vast majority of additional information, which sits outside an organisation? The scale of the problem manifests itself in web searches, where itís common enough to be informed that your particular search has yielded 13 million hits. That, of course, is absolutely useless, which is why itís best to start with a community of users, departments or indeed other organisations where shared knowledge will be both more relevant to each member, and part of a smaller data set. The new B2B markets, comprised of buyers and sellers within a specific industry, are ideally suited to this type of application.
So what, exactly, is the value of knowledge? As the information age truly emerges, information becomes a commodity, freely available to anyone who wants it. The real value, therefore, goes beyond pure data to the higher level of relevancy. Information overload is no exaggerated concept, and the notions of mining for data are as relevant today as when they were first mooted nearly two decades ago.
With that comes a stark warning: Information without relevancy becomes invasive, putting people off in the same way mailshots and incessant emails do today. Pervasive knowledge management will, ironically, only come about when no one actually notices. It must become an underlying technology, transparent to users, and part of their everyday processes.
That is the biggest challenge facing the knowledge management industry.
David Burns is director of business development at Knowledge Management Software. He can be contacted via: www.kmsoftware.com