posted 16 Dec 2003 in Volume 7 Issue 4
Maintaining your KM edge
Earlier this year, Ark Group, in association with David Skyrme, launched a series of reports that give fresh insights and practical guidance into key knowledge-management developments. Skyrme gives the background to the series and identifies some of the ongoing developments in knowledge management.
Knowledge management is reaching an interesting stage in its evolution. Whereas some observers say that it is maturing, the majority believe that it still has a long way to go. Analysis of recent articles in Knowledge Management shows that practitioners in many sectors regard KM as being far from mature. Phrases such as ‘only just scratching the surface’, ‘still in its infancy’ and ‘its biggest impact has yet to come’ are evidence of this. Writing in the June edition, Simon Lelic, now managing editor, noted that whereas business process re-engineering faded from prominence after a few years, KM, after some seven years in the limelight, is still going strong.
Even while many practitioners are struggling to embed KM, as we know it today, more deeply into their organisations, others view the discipline as being on the cusp of some interesting developments. Thought leaders writing in Knowledge Management refer to ‘third-generation KM’, ‘new-generation KM’ or simply ‘the new KM’. Some describe this as a more people-oriented and collaborative approach; others go further to describe a holistic approach – balancing people-focused with technology-based KM. Others, such as Dave Snowden, write of narratives and complex-adaptive systems; while Karl Wiig describes the new KM as more systemic, self-sustaining and self-renewing with the starting points of sense-making and situational awareness. The lack of consensus about what this new generation is suggests there will be many surprises over the next few years. How, therefore, do KM practitioners keep on top of such developments?
Making sense of the info-glut
We are all aware of the problems created by information overload. Surveys suggest that professionals spend several unproductive hours a week seeking the knowledge and information they need. Indeed, the justification for many KM-related IT investments is based on the notion of saving time. Information-overload problems apply equally to those in the KM field. Most major journal publishers list five-to-ten journals covering KM topics. Amazon.com lists over 1,800 titles, compared to less than 200 six years ago, while a Google search on the term ‘knowledge management’ identifies over 2 million sources (compared to around 2,000 listings six years ago). And that’s not to mention the KM-focused discussion groups, e-zines or magazines, and the flood of e-mails.
As a result, KM practitioners, like other professionals, have to be selective. They apply filters to what they read and rely on respected colleagues and peers to point them to significant new material. They take advantage of specific KM events where they can exchange ideas and experiences face to face. But these filters alone are probably insufficient to truly separate the wheat from the chaff and identify which new developments are significant. It was to help address these needs that the Knowledge Insight series was born.
Content analysis: a pointer to trends
A technique introduced to me some 20 years ago when I was a market-intelligence manager is that of content analysis. A large body of input material is analysed and the key topics identified and classified. Reviewing the changing emphasis and making allowances for different types of sources – research outputs, suppliers’ briefings, user reports – allow trends to be identified before they become readily apparent in the mainstream. Although automated classification systems can do much of the basic categorisation, it takes human understanding of the subject to make sense of content through a situation analysis of their context.
This kind of analysis forms a core part of the research for a Knowledge Insight report. Jan Wyllie, founder of Trend Monitor and author of the first report – Taxonomies: A Framework for Corporate Knowledge – used it to identify the core themes, which include the drivers (e-commerce and portals), challenges (balancing breadth against depth), and technologies (statistical versus natural language). Of course, trends don’t always play out as planned, being subject to discontinuities or changes in the balance of factors affecting outcomes. Hence the portrayal of alternate scenarios is another feature of our reports.
The Knowledge Insight series aims to bring fresh perspectives and practical guidance to KM professionals and those involved in its planning and implemention. A wide range of sources is analysed, and experts are approached to comment on developments and initial findings. Some reports also include a survey of Knowledge Management readers. For example, the recent report, Public Sector – Public Knowledge, assessed the progress, practices used and barriers faced in implementing KM in the sector. These results and those from interviews showed that the lack of knowledge leadership is a primary cause of KM’s underperformance in the sector.
Knowledge Insight reports offer:
- A focus on knowledge-management context, strategy, practices and techniques, rather than IT tools (although IT tools that support appropriate techniques are analysed);
- Analysis of latest thinking and trends, identifying important elements, successful approaches and future scenarios;
- Identification of key issues/challenges: the opportunities and threats caused by the latest and anticipated developments;
- What the experts say: a selection of views and practical tips from academics, practitioners and others;
- Illustrative cases giving insights into the experience of others: successful practice, pitfalls to avoid and lessons learnt.
Report titles are chosen for their topicality, relevance and importance to KM practitioners. The series will include generic topics, such as a forthcoming report on personal KM, and reports on vertical market sectors, such as public sector and legal profession.
The new KM
While examining the new thrust for KM it is instructive to reflect upon earlier predictions. Figure 1 shows predictions I made on KM’s evolution a few years ago. It indicates that, having addressed the fundamental issue of ‘knowing what we know’, the emphasis would shift to exploiting knowledge externally. But although there is evidence of an increased emphasis on innovation and initiatives like customer-relationship management, the development of online knowledge markets has occurred slowly.3 Other topics of growing importance were communities of practice, storytelling and measurement. While some frontiers are moving forward, there remains much consolidation work to be done on the fundamentals. For example, does your organisation’s expertise finders show you who knows what?
Part of the ongoing background work for the reports is discerning what topics are important for practitioners to address over the coming years. Early in 2004 we will publish KM Insight 2004/5: Rethinking Knowledge Work. It will be a synthesis of material from five sources:
- Trends analysis;
- What the experts say;
- User survey and interviews;
- Supplier survey and interviews;
- Results of academic and market research.
Themes identified from our initial analysis are:
Increasing pervasiveness – more functions, such as risk management, and sectors, such as small businesses, are applying a knowledge lens. KM is also appearing at national and societal levels;
- Strategic embedding – KM needs to be embedded into the strategic fabric of the organisation, such as its decision-making and investment processes. KM can improve an organisation’s value creation and sustainability ambitions;
- Work embedding – at another level there is growing attention to the nature of knowledge work. KM needs to be fully integrated into the daily routine of knowledge workers, not just in their IT tools and systems, but in the way they go about their work;
- Narratives and networking –more attention is rightly being given to human, social and organisational culture factors. Nurturing and sustaining social networks and communities of practice remains a challenge to many;
- Sense-making and learning – building on the two previous themes, helping individuals and teams learn, create, develop and share knowledge is important. The role of games, simulations and e-learning is receiving renewed attention.
- Collaborative technologies – although groupware, such as Lotus Notes, has been a key KM tool for many years, newer products are making it easier for virtual teams to collaborate on a wider range of activities. Other technologies to consider are video streaming, artificial-intelligence, mobile knowledge and new developments in classification and search-and-retrieval systems;
- Governance – as knowledge becomes a more important resource, it requires appropriate governance arrangements. Senior managers must balance the advantages of openness and trust with the need to protect vital knowledge and minimise organisational risk. The events of 11 September 2001 and failures at Enron and other companies have put increased attention on governance issues. In a wider societal context there are also major challenges in areas of knowledge values and ethics – balancing common knowledge for the public good with giving knowledge owners due reward for creating new knowledge.
These themes and more will be explored in some depth in KM Insight 2004/5: Rethinking Knowledge Work. To add practitioner’s perspectives on these issues, readers are encouraged to contact me with their views on these and other challenges they see confronting them in the near future. None of the critical issues for 2004 are entirely new. Expertise and knowledge often already exist, albeit outside the realm of KM. As KM becomes more pervasive, practitioners will need to build on established practice. In other words, following good KM practice, they will need to join up the islands of knowledge and collaborate across organisational boundaries in communities of practice.
A deep understanding of developments and the wider context within which KM operates is essential for practitioners to face the future with confidence. But most are too busy and overwhelmed with information to carry out the necessary analysis that details the key factors and their implications. Selective sensing of the evolving situation by attending conferences, reading articles and discussions with peers all contribute to increased understanding. The Knowledge Insights series aims to help practitioners short circuit time-consuming filtering and analysis and provides a solid foundation for ensuring that an organisation’s KM maintains its edge in 2004 and beyond.
1. E-mail management is the subject of a new Ark Group conference on 26-28 January 2004 and is being addressed in a forthcoming Knowledge Insight report on Personal Knowledge Management.
2. Wyllie, J., Taxonomies: Frameworks for Corporate Knowledge (Ark Group/David Skyrme Associates, 2003)
3. Answer networks and knowledge markets like AskMe and KNexa were expected to flourish. In the event, both companies have switched emphasis to providing enterprise-software solutions, leaving Google Answers and Keen.com to develop this type of market. If knowledge markets do emerge from the embryonic stage, expect them to be the focus of a future report.