posted 20 Nov 2001 in Volume 5 Issue 4
Desktop knowledge management
The role of office continuity systems in retaining corporate memory
One of the biggest challenges facing knowledge management programmes is to somehow capture and store the knowledge held in the heads of departing employees. Bob Lewis explores the contribution office continuity systems can make in addressing this need, arguing that by taking KM to the desktop, the shortcomings of traditional solutions may be overcome.
An important part of managing knowledge assets is simply retaining, in some form, the experience and insights that exist in the organisation. As staff members leave or retire, large segments of knowledge leave with them. To help preserve these hard-won intellectual assets, companies have implemented a number of approaches, most of which are manual and depend heavily on staff membersí co-operation. Few such approaches have worked successfully.
Knowledge management offers some solutions. This article proposes taking knowledge management to the desktop in order to make it even more effective in reducing duplication in an organisation and in limiting the loss of knowledge and experience. It also addresses ways of making the process of capturing and organising the work being performed at each desktop more transparent and less of a burden to the user.
In its most basic terms, the problem of retaining the experience and insights of a departing staff member is one of converting that personís tacit knowledge into an explicit form, and then organising it so that it is ready for use. At the desktop, a personís tacit knowledge is generally converted daily in the form of e-mail, professional papers, reports, notes, contacts and virtual team discussions. However, to be useful, this assemblage of ideas, observations and thoughts needs to be structured and then, most importantly, filtered and rated.
Some examples of current approaches in organisations to capture experience are:
- Participation in communities of practice and interest, both virtually and Ďliveí;
- Facilitated group decision support systems sessions with peers;
- The continuity book, or record of important sources, people and techniques.
Each approach has shown some success. However, results are generally scattered, with significant segments of knowledge still going missing. Structure and usability are often also poor.
An ideal system might be one that watches and records a personís activities during work Ė continuously, whenever there is work going on. Extending this ideal further, the system would be able to distinguish between personal and business information and contacts, and know to ignore the former. Going still further, this system would organise all of the information and insights it had captured so that another person could sit down and go to work, carrying on where the departing authority on the subject left off.
As it happens, in recent years knowledge management systems have been moving towards many of the same capabilities described for this ideal system. They are becoming more automated and less of a burden to the user. At the same time, knowledge management systems are learning to categorise not only all the content presented to them, but the people as well. And they are now capable of weighing or gauging the value of information and the level of expertise of the people.
Knowledge management-based filtering and structuring
The knowledge management view of work at the desktop is composed of four elements: collaboration, content structuring, expertise location and the presentation portal itself. Each of these elements is processed separately. However, the results of the processing within each knowledge management element are shared with the other knowledge management elements so as to form a tightly integrated system. For example, a level of expertise can be assigned based on a personís published work, viewings and comments; conversely, a documentís weighting can be based, in part, on the level of expertise of the author. Another example might integrate collaboration and expertise location: a collaborative community can be formed by assembling the best talent mix, obtained by using the results of the expertise location elementís processing.
Using this KM-based model, this desktop system, sometimes known as an electronic continuity book (ECB, from the US militaryís use of paper continuity books), captures and filters the userís activity at that desktop. The content that is accessed and viewed by the user is categorised and weighted. The people who are contacted are similarly categorised and weighted. Daily calendars are retained in order to build a history of the activities that make up that job position. Participation in virtual communities of practice and interest are captured.
Run silent, respect privacy, be ready to serve
ECBs are, in reality, KM systems that have been adapted to the desktop, and, as we will discuss later, are designed to Ďjoin handsí with other ECBs moving up the organisationís hierarchy. Knowledge management systems developed for use throughout an organisation are typically implemented in phases, making their way from manual to automatic, from requiring actions on the part of the user to becoming mostly transparent. However, when implemented at the desktop, the ECB form of KM systems must operate at an advanced level and be as independent and as self-contained as is practical. In other words, the user should not be asked to perform any function beyond his daily duties.
Just as avoiding becoming a burden to the user is a tenet of knowledge management, so is respecting privacy. A number of privacy protections are indeed placed in the system. However, the overriding one uses the organisational taxonomy to determine what material or transaction is appropriate to record. This works by comparing the results of any categorisation task with the Ďofficialí taxonomy. If the documentís or contact personís category does not have a place in the organisationís taxonomy, if there is no suitable category to place it in, then the system assumes it is personal and does not include that item in the ECB.
Since the ECB is working constantly in the background capturing and structuring a professionalís activity, it is ready to assume the lead at any time, reverting from passive collector to active advisor.
From observer to guide
When activated, the ECB presents virtually everything that the previous occupant of that position has done, in a prioritised form rather than a historical one. The contacts made, the material referred to, composed, viewed or edited, and the virtual communities of practice and interest participated in are all categorised and prioritised so that the new resident of that professional position can pick up where the previous occupant left off.
Using the initial screen as a starting point, a person new to the job can quickly surmise the most significant and current activities, content and teams, and make an entrance into each. At the next level down, knowledge management software has automatically categorised the content and the people into all of the taxonomy elements that apply to that domain. In addition, the knowledge management functions have identified relationships, showing graphically those areas or concepts that are linked.
Networking ECBs into an office continuity system
An enterprise-wide view of each professional job position, its categorised and prioritised content and important sources, its major contacts, and a history of activity in that position can be obtained via the network. This can be gathered continuously or periodically, and can be integrated into other applications such as business intelligence or an executive information system.
This networked aggregation contributes to an expansion of the organisationís useful content and, thus, a sharing of experience and knowledge, pre-screened and given a degree of weighting. Furthermore, a directory of contacts is automatically assembled at a central location and is prioritised, a ready resource for rapid response teams and the quick formation of communities of practice and interest. Lastly, the enterprise has a history of what is taking place in its purview at the most granular level. When chronologically merged, a picture is drawn of the project or programme as it moves through to completion.
Implementing a knowledge management system can significantly reduce two important problems plaguing most organisations: the loss of knowledge and experience with the departure of skilled personnel and the lengthy delays associated with position changes in professional and knowledge worker posts. The closer the KM system gets to the heart of the action, the greater the impact it will have in reducing the loss of knowledge and in reducing the latency inherent in trying to replace that knowledge.
Knowledge management software is now at the point where it can be applied at the desktop, although some of the processing must be done on a central server, such as that for categorisation and relationship building. This new capability can significantly reduce the time needed in bringing new employees up to speed and can give a new degree of resolution and visibility to the enterprise KM system.
© Bob Lewis, Mitretek Systems
Bob Lewis is director of knowledge management for Mitretek Systems and an adjunct professor in the engineering management programme at George Washington University. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org