posted 6 Mar 2006 in Volume 9 Issue 6
By Jessica Twentyman
While information wants to be free, knowledge is much ‘stickier’ – harder to communicate, more subjective, less easy to define.
Brainstorming with experts often leads to a glut of ideas and information, but no single, coherent way of considering the challenge as a whole.
Corporate knowledge is a complex beast, difficult to capture and even trickier to tame. It can also take a number of forms, which can make it hard to identify in the first place when an organisation embarks on a knowledge management (KM) programme.
As US management guru Tom Davenport once put it, “Knowledge is information combined with experience, context, interpretation, and reflection.” For the sake of simplicity, however, most KM-savvy organisations divide knowledge into two discrete forms: explicit and tacit.
Explicit knowledge is that which has been articulated and, more often than not, captured in the form of text, tables, diagrams, product specifications and so on. In a seminal and frequently cited 1991 Harvard Business Review article titled ‘The Knowledge Creating Company’, KM expert Ikujiro Nonaka referred to explicit knowledge as “formal and systematic” and offered product specifications, scientific formulas and computer programs as examples.
But it is the second form of knowledge – so-called ‘tacit knowledge’ – that presents knowledge managers with a far more exacting challenge. Tacit knowledge can be broadly defined as the expertise that resides in the heads of individuals. It is typically not written down and has been gathered through personal experience. Not only that, but it is often untapped, because it is hidden.
Tacit knowledge is a treasure trove of competitive advantage but one that is frequently overlooked in KM projects. Experts estimate that about two-thirds of an organisation’s vital knowledge is tacit, yet the vast majority of corporate KM programmes limit themselves to the remaining third – explicit knowledge and information. That means that when an individual leaves a company, their tacit knowledge is often lost forever.
For that reason, many organisations now attempt to capture tacit knowledge and codify it so that it can be shared around the organisation. That can be a time-consuming process and involves channeling the conclusions of informal discussions between experts into a more formal structure.
That can be an uphill struggle, but technology can help, says Dr Akeel Al-Attar, managing director of XpertRules Software, a company that offers software designed to “represent, encapsulate and structure” tacit knowledge.
“Experts typically make decisions in an intuitive way and are rarely called upon to explain how they reach certain decisions,” he says. “And even when they do, it can be very difficult for them to articulate the process. As a result, knowledge acquisition needs to be an iterative process, performed with interactive tools engineered specifically to capture tacit knowledge.” Once captured and recorded, the knowledge base that is built through this process can then be transformed into automated systems to underpin, for example, call centre operations.
A knowledge base can free experts in the organisation from having to answer the same questions over and over, or from making repetitive routine decisions, ensuring that decisions are made in a consistent way and as speedily as possible – and retaining the organisation's expertise in a readily maintainable form, he adds.
XpertRules’ KnowledgeBuilder works by representing knowledge prised from the minds of subject-matter experts in graphical formats, primarily decision trees. These provide a structure in which alternative decisions and the implications of taking those decisions can be displayed and evaluated.
In the example shown, the decision tree represents the process logic by which the finance department of a company will decide whether to pass or reject claims for hotel expenses from employees. These decisions are based on factors such as the grade of the employee (director, senior manager or junior manager) and the type of hotel they stayed in (a quality rating of A, B, or C). They want to automate the processing of claims so that, for example, when a claim is sent in by an employee with a grade of senior manager and the hotel stayed in was type A then the system would reject the claim.
The XpertRules approach has been used to capture tacit knowledge and build knowledge bases by organisations as diverse as the Swedish Board of Industrial Development (to evaluate product ideas from budding entrepreneurs), drinks company United Distillers and Vintners (to optimise the movement of whisky casks required to produce quality blends) and Channel 4 Television (to help sequence commercial breaks).
Another is Ebara Manufacturing, a Japanese manufacturer of wind and water pumps for the construction industry, the water and drainage utilities, petrochemical plants and nuclear power stations. It produces more than 3,000 types of highly configurable pump and, as such, its sales staff have often found it difficult to recommend the right product, according to Yutaka Shigeshisa, manager of the production, planning and control department at Ebara.
In response, the company built a knowledge-based system to help sales staff to identify customer requirements quickly and accurately, according to rules based on the tacit knowledge of its pump experts. The operator selects options from XpertRule-generated menus of the possibilities offered, based on issues such as type and volume of fluid to be pumped. “Even quite new employees can now specify a complex, special-purpose pump by using the system,” says Shigeshisa. “The value of an expert system lies in capturing the knowledge of the company or the individual and XpertRule easily packages that knowledge for the computer,” he adds.
Another technology company that has adopted a graphical approach to knowledge capture is Mindjet. The company’s software, MindManager, provides a platform where ideas that emerge in brainstorming sessions can be shepherded into bubbles, arrows, colours and pictures to construct a graphical representation of a problem, project or a proposed corporate presentation.
“Brainstorming with experts often leads to a glut of ideas and information, but no single, coherent way of considering the challenge as a whole,” says Dustin Newport, UK managing director of Mindjet.
MindManager, he explains, helps create a dynamic, interactive ‘spider’ diagram in which concepts and information can be moved around the chart as connections are drawn and redrawn and contact details or links to web pages and Microsoft Word documents can be incorporated into the diagram. Once the map has been created it can be exported straight into Microsoft PowerPoint or Word or into an HTML format for use by employees throughout the business.
In this way, says
One organisation using MindManager is Pantek, a provider of industrial automation systems to companies such as pharmaceuticals chain Boots, mining company UK Coal and Network Rail, which handles the infrastructure of the
Now, he uses MindManager on a laptop computer to ensure that all topics are covered during an appraisal and to form a more complete view of the company’s internal expertise – that is, the tacit knowledge of its employees. In that way, says Bailey, “different ideas can be viewed from different angles and the programme can be used later for job descriptions and succession planning.”
While both XpertRules and Mindjet are relatively niche applications, the concept of knowledge capture is one that is increasingly of interest to some of the giants of the software world, especially those working on products that promise to provide workers with a collaborative ‘information workplace’, such as IBM and Microsoft.
The necessity for that is clear, says Connie Moore, an analyst with IT market research company Forrester Research. “Today’s tools don’t help users manage the barrage of inputs from communication and information channels and don’t help people organise or communicate their thoughts in a natural way,” she says. “Often, the tools don’t exist for what information workers need to do. And most of the tools don’t model the way people think,” she says.
The suppliers of information workplace technologies may not publicly agree with
In a January 2006 article for Newsweek magazine, Microsoft chairman Bill Gates summed up the challenge: “While information wants to be free, knowledge is much ‘stickier’ – harder to communicate, more subjective, less easy to define.” Tacit knowledge, he added, defines an employee’s value to the organisation they work for. “Your ability to combine it with the knowledge of co-workers, partners and customers can make the difference between success and failure – for you and your employer.”
The message is clear: knowledge capture will define competitiveness in tomorrow’s businesses – and further development of the tools and technologies that can support that process is certain.