posted 2 Jul 2002 in Volume 5 Issue 10
Knowledge as standard
Towards a common approach to KM in Europe – Part II
Driven by a desire to instil greater transparency and co-operation in the field, the European Knowledge Management Forum is working towards the development of a set of open standards for knowledge management. In the final section of this two-part article, Frithjof Weber, Michael Wunram, Jeroen Kemp, Marc Pudlatz and Bernd Bredehorst discuss the principles behind their work, and outline the first draft of a European knowledge management framework.
Relevant areas for standardisation
A sensible degree of standardisation
Taking into account the parties involved and the objects to be standardised, the degree to which standardisation should be pursued needs to be defined. Although the very nature of standards is that they are fairly rigid, standardisation instruments may range from, for instance, best practices, common approaches, general guidelines and reference frameworks to fully defined rules.
The usage of the term ‘standardisation’ was discussed in a workshop incorporating a number of European KM experts. The consensus was that the term was slightly too concrete for a soft subject like KM, and that ‘common approaches’ would be more suitable with respect to the character of the standards to be developed. However, it was also felt that this latter term left too much space for interpretation and did not communicate the standardisation aspect clearly enough. It was therefore decided to use both terms in parallel.
Areas to be standardised
In the last part of this article, we outlined which areas relating to KM are currently being considered for standardisation by various organisations. As there are so many initiatives underway, it is necessary to draw up a list of priorities.
Figure 1 shows a mind-map detailing the most relevant areas for standardisation, as decided by the participants of the workshop. The need for a common KM framework was rated highest (24 points), while the definition of a common implementation methodology was seen as being second most important (23 points). The definition of a common KM terminology was given third priority (16 points). The close interconnection between the terminology and the KM framework was also emphasised in the discussion, as was the relevance of training and education to standardisation (7 points). And in addition to prioritising the individual areas to be standardised, participants also emphasised the importance of developing a process that is evolutionary and driven by user problems.
Figure 1: the most relevant issues for standardisation
The European KM Forum considers KM standardisation to be a holistic process involving a spectrum of standards on different levels for specific components of KM. In the first step of this process, the most appropriate and relevant areas for standardisation should be extracted and collated in a systematic, structured way in order to develop a common terminology, based on common experiences, and leading to a degree of commonality in how these issues are approached in future. This builds the KM framework. From this framework, further guidelines and standards can be built for other components of the discipline. With this set of solutions, different organisations with various knowledge needs should be able to solve their specific KM problems.
In summary, we believe that in order to develop a solid starting point for any attempt to pursue standardisation, it is necessary to define a comprehensive framework that describes each major aspects of KM as it is understood by academics and practitioners.
A European KM Framework
In the following section, we will offer an outline of different types of KM frameworks, analyse the requirements and usage scenarios for a KM framework, and present an initial proposal for a KM framework as a baseline for standardisation.
Existing types of KM frameworks
On a basic level, it is possible to distinguish between two types of KM frameworks:
- Holistic frameworks aim to describe and combine all major aspects of the discipline, and usually consider individual elements like organisation, technology, employees, strategy and so on, and explain their particular role in KM. Holistic frameworks tend to be similar in nature, but they nevertheless vary in their perspective, as their creators inevitably place different emphasis on each element. For example: the Know-Net/Lever framework seeks to incorporate process and content perspectives on knowledge assets and objects; the IPK reference model is an approach aiming to integrate the knowledge management process and its design dimensions; the Corma KM model represents a framework based on a human-centred approach; and, van der Spek and de Hoog’s ‘Framework for a knowledge management methodology’ is based on the methodological pyramid presented by Wielinga et al and distinguishes between a management and an object level;
- Explanatory frameworks aim to explain certain facets of KM, in order to emphasise a particular approach or message, or to offer a small sub-theory in itself. They describe elements that could otherwise form part of a holistic framework. For example: the practice-oriented KM model from Probst et al focuses on the processes of KM; the model proposed by Nonaka et al seeks to explain the organisational knowledge creation process; and, the systemic approach proposed by Willke applies the principle of double-entry accounting to the management of knowledge.
For the purposes of standardisation, holistic frameworks provide the basis for understanding and explaining the KM domain, allowing a common framework to be synthesised. Explanatory frameworks can then be used to elaborate on specific elements. Our functional understanding of a KM framework is defined in the following section.
Theory and requirements for a KM framework
We understand a framework as a holistic and concise description of the major elements, concepts and principles relating to a specific domain. It should aim to explain a domain and define a standardised schema of its core content as a reference for future design implementations. A KM framework explains the world of KM by naming the discipline’s major elements, their relationships and the principles of how they interact. It provides a reference for decisions about the implementation and application of knowledge management.
In a more abstract sense, a framework is a set of ordered representations of co-operating objects, and their relationships, which provide an integrated solution within an application domain. It is directed towards explaining a domain, making its behaviour understandable and predictable. In contrast to a theory, a framework leaves enough space for individual interpretation, and unlike a method it does not describe complete steps, but only gives indications about a general direction and a normative message.
In a practical sense, a framework is a common agreement within a group of stakeholders about ‘how things should be done’. It is both an introduction for newcomers to a field, and a source of reference for the more experienced when decisions about the ‘how’ need to be made.
Within the overall industry context – supporting industrial uptake and academic research in KM – we can define the following requirements for a KM framework in Europe. It should:
- Provide a holistic view of the KM domain;
- Address all stakeholders in KM (SMEs, large organisations, consultants, academics, vendors and so on);
- Be based on broad consensus and offer a neutral, non-biased and broadly accepted view on KM;
- Address the information needs of newcomers to the field, as well as those who are more experienced in tackling knowledge management;
- Provide recommendations and links for the first steps in implementing KM;
- Include a core KM terminology;
- Represent the specific challenges and advantages of ‘KM made in Europe’;
- Be able to hook in to existing and/or emerging KM standards;
- Convey a simple yet serious language;
- Be concise yet comprehensive;
- Be in the public domain.
At the same time, we can also define what a KM framework should not do:
- Provide a complete KM implementation approach, drilling down to the deepest level (this would be the objective of, for instance, a KM implementation standard, and even this would still require customisation);
- Describe a standardised, one-size-fits-all enterprise model (as this simply does not exist);
- Be regarded as mandatory, defining an exclusive set of methods and tools for KM (a set of typical principles, approaches, methods and tools is more appropriate).
Usage scenarios for a KM framework
The relevance of the proposed KM framework can be best evaluated when discussing its potential usage scenarios. Figure 2 illustrates the potential beneficiaries, and the following section outlines the benefits they could realise.
Figure 2: potential beneficiaries of the envisioned KM standard
- SMEs – a KM standard will provide a quick and comprehensive overview of KM. On the one hand, it will offer a starting point for those companies that are new to the field, and on the other it will act as a guide for more experienced SMEs as to what they can achieve through knowledge management;
- Larger companies – common approaches and standards will allow enterprises to monitor the maturity of their KM efforts. Through a common language – which a KM standard will provide – large companies will learn from the experience of others and will be able to map their own activities against those of other organisations. Moreover, companies will be able to adapt and improve their existing efforts through an improved insight into the power of KM and its impact upon business stakeholders. A framework will also facilitate inter-organisational KM;
- Research and development – a KM standard will serve as a baseline for further R&D activities. It should help counter the problems raised when every new thesis in the KM domain is measured against yet another definition of knowledge management. Furthermore, the development of a common language will foster innovation through shared mental models;
- Training and education – a KM standard will act as a guide for future training and education activities. It will provide guidance in defining the curricula for knowledge managers and knowledge workers, and independent bodies will be able to use the framework for defining certification criteria for KM qualifications;
- Consulting – a KM standard will serve as a quality framework. Consultancy’s will also benefit in that a common approach to KM will always need to be customised to specific industries and tailored to specific customer needs and requirements;
- Software providers – vendors will be able to position themselves within the framework, clearly defining which solutions they offer. A KM standard will provide the baseline for software manufacturers as well as software providers;
- Policy makers – a KM standard will provide an insight into the discipline as a whole. Thus a standard could pave the way for policy makers in securing funding and stimulating interest in activities related to the knowledge economy and its required competencies.
Initial concept for a KM framework
Analysing the various perspectives on KM presented by a range of authors in different KM frameworks, it is possible to develop a synthesis that describes the major elements and thinking that the different perspectives have in common. Figure 3 shows the first draft of a common KM framework. The core modules (which might be subject to diverse degrees of standardisation) are described below. Work on the framework is still in progress, and it needs to be discussed intensely within the European KM community in order to achieve the necessary consensus to further develop and improve it.
Figure 3: first draft of a European KM framework
- KM strategies – before starting any kind of activity, we have to develop a clear sense of direction. Overall business goals must be clearly defined, in addition to the means for reaching these goals;
- Human and social KM issues – this module focuses primarily on the fact that knowledge is bound to humans and exchanged in a social setting. It defines the role of human beings, cultural issues, trust and so on in sharing knowledge;
- KM organisation – the KM framework will provide guidance on how to create, run and maintain a knowledge-friendly organisation. This will include the structure of a ‘KM organisation’ as well as defining the roles necessary within such an organisation. It should be regarded as a guide for aligning existing organisational structures with knowledge management;
- KM processes – this module will explain the business processes and their relation to KM. It will also cover the general processes evident within an organisation;
- KM technologies – This module will answer the fundamental question of which technology suits which purpose in an organisational setting. It will provide an overview of existing and emerging KM technologies, and will help organisations make the right decision when considering which tools to implement;
- KM leadership – what are the critical success factors in introducing a KM leader within an organisation? Which characteristics are particularly desirable? What activities should the leader focus on? This module seeks to answer questions such as these;
- KM performance measurement – a KM system cannot be improved if its performance cannot be measured. This module provides metrics for assessing the maturity of a KM system and measures for pushing a KM system forward;
- KM business cases and implementation – this module provides good and best practices in different areas of KM, together with a general roadmap. It will help organisations on their way to installing and establishing a KM system, in addition to supporting organisations in making a business case for KM. Due to the general orientation of this implementation methodology, it will also be possible to customise it to specific business requirements.
As knowledge management as a whole is generating so much interest in both industry and academia at the moment, the issue of developing common approaches and standards is attracting a great deal of attention. A variety of common approaches, standards and standardisation initiatives are either currently underway or are emerging. A rough overview of many of these has been provided, and we have argued that the development of a common KM framework (including a core terminology) should be the baseline for future standardisation activities.
We have also presented a rough draft for a KM framework, and we are keen to develop this further within the structure of a CEN workshop in order to produce a CEN workshop agreement. This ‘pre-standard’ has the advantage that it can be developed within a reasonable timeframe (approximately 12-18 months) and upgraded to a formal European standard (EN) afterwards. This would allow the initiative to achieve maximum industrial impact within a relatively short space of time.
It is also important to achieve a broad level of consensus among as many interested parties and organisations as possible in order to accelerate the debate on KM standards towards the realisation of a pragmatic KM standardisation initiative. We hope that this article will serve as an appetiser for such a discussion, and we invite all stakeholders and interested parties to join in and continue this discussion at KnowledgeBoard, the portal of the European KM community (www.knowledgeboard.com), and to actively contribute to the future development of common approaches and standards in the field of knowledge management.
This work is partly funded by the European Commission through IST Project No IST-2000-26393 (‘European Knowledge Management Forum’). The authors wish to thank the commission for its continued support. We also wish to extend our gratitude and appreciation for the continued support of all the project partners and members of the community.
1. Mentzas, G., Apostolou, D., Young, R. & Abecker, A., ‘Consolidating the product versus process approaches in knowledge management: the Know-Net approach’ presented at the PAKeM2000, Manchester, UK, 12-14 April 2000
2. Corma – Practical Methods and Tools for Corporate Knowledge Management (IST Project IST-1999-12685, www.corma.net)
3. Wielinga, B.J., Schreiber, A.T. & Breuker, J.A., ‘Synthesis report’ cited in Wiig, K.M., Knowledge Management Methods – Practical Approaches to Managing Knowledge (Schema Press, 1995)
4. v.d. Spek, R. & d. Hoog, R., ‘A framework for a knowledge management methodology’ in ibid
5. Probst, G.’ Raub, S. & Romhardt, K., Wissen Managen – Wie Unternehmen ihre Wertvollste Ressource Optimal Nutzen (3rd Ed., Gabler-Verlag 1999)
6. Nonaka, I. & Takeuchi, H., Die Organisation des Wissens – Wie Japanische Unternehmen eine Brachliegende Ressource Nutzbar Machen (Campus-Verlag, 1997)
7. Willke, H., Systemisches Wissensmanagement (Lucius & Lucius Verlag, 1998)
Frithjof Weber is head of the Department of Computer-Aided Design, Planning and Manufacturing at BIBA at the University of Bremen, and co-ordinator of the European KM Forum. He can be contacted at: email@example.com
Michael Wunram is a researcher at the Department of Computer-Aided Design, Planning and Manufacturing at BIBA at the University of Bremen. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Jeroen Kemp is a senior researcher and consultant at the Fraunhofer Institute for Industrial Engineering. He can be contacted at: email@example.com
Marc Pudlatz is a researcher and consultant at the Institute of Human Factors and Technology Management at the University of Stuttgart, as well as at the Fraunhofer Institute for Industrial Engineering. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Bernd Bredehorst is a researcher at the Department of Computer-Aided Design, Planning and Manufacturing at BIBA at the University of Bremen. He can be contacted at: email@example.com