posted 1 Oct 1997 in Volume 1 Issue 2
Knowledge Management - A New Role for Information Professionals
Dr Marcus Speh , Senior Adviser for Corporate Information Technology, Shell International examines the professional implications of knowledge management for information managers and librarians who work as specialists in organisations.
The subject of this article is knowledge management (KM). KM describes the way in which organizations attempt to capture, enhance, and utilise the knowledge necessary to their survival. There is a fair overlap between knowledge management and information management as a way of dealing with the information needed and produced by an organisation. Hence, KM has professional implications for information managers and librarians who work as specialists in organizations.
Technology is rapidly making external information easily available world-wide. As companies move more and more towards knowledge-based activities as their primary product, knowledge of and access to these sources becomes vital to competitive advantage and business performance. Even more vital is knowledge of and access to information residing in the heads of an organisation's employees. In most companies this knowledge had never been identified or recorded, and is of course lost if the employee leaves. Even if the knowledge were known and available, few mechanisms exist to ensure that it is shared where needed and utilised creatively. Yet it is widely believed that managing this knowledge is likely to become the key to future wealth creation, and that it is in fact already at the core of present industrial performance.
In his seminal book on KM, Karl Wiig writes about the paradigmatic shift from factual to reasoning and methodological knowledge, linking it to the traditional way in which information professionals work:
' When analysing the work of novice, and even some seasoned knowledge professionals, for example, it is remarkable to observe that they often focus only on 'factual' aspects of knowledge, such as: 'What do you know about market conditions? Products? Who do you go to for help?' Only the more experienced knowledge professionals who are given deeper understanding of how knowledge is used by people and organizations have the additional insight to focus on the knowledge needed to use factual knowledge - i.e. knowing what to do and how to do it. In addition to factual knowledge they also understand to focus on knowledge required to reason and perform knowledge-intensive activities proficiently. Even though factual knowledge is very important, it is reasoning and methodological knowledge that creates value for the organisation by making it possible to build quality products and deliver quality services.' 1
Public discourse is also reacting to the interest in KM. Typical titles of talks at conferences featuring KM read:
|Leveraging Knowledge for Performance and Competitive Advantage' ;|
|Who in Your Company Should Drive Knowledge Management?;|
|Effectively Communicating to Employees the Value of Knowledge Sharing' ; and|
|How to Retain Knowledge Within the Organisation Which Would Otherwise Be Lost' .|
Information centres are the logical place for managers to look when trying to leverage their corporate knowledge; however the tasks required are not tasks fulfilled by most information professionals today. Nor do most people understand what operating KM requires. Nevertheless information professionals are increasingly being asked to act as knowledge managers. A new profession is forming here. The actual role is still not totally clear, but we are beginning to see the outline.
This article will attempt to explain what KM involves, and thus what the extended roles and responsibilities of knowledge managers are likely to be.
The Knowledge Manager Role
The primary role of a knowledge manager is to provide continuity and integration across management and content/relevance changes. Changes of management occur when the Organizational structure is changing or when employees are moving into or out of their positions. Changes of content/relevance occur e.g. when a company is changing its products, its market or its position in the market.
But how does an information manager go about making this move, and what are the activities of a knowledge manager? To answer this question, I will discuss four activities of a knowledge manager in some detail and link them to the needs of a business organisation which is modelling itself on a knowledge managing organisation:
|Catalogue, i.e. define the organisation's knowledge assets|
|Capture, i.e. decide how the knowledge will be structured and made available|
|Retrieve, i.e. assist users in the proper use of IT tools to access the knowledge|
|Utilise, i.e. assist managers to use the available knowledge creatively.|
As activities to collect and provide factual knowledge and information to customers, all these areas are already part of the task package of today's information manager. I have chosen the categories deliberately with this in mind. As you will see, KM is to some extent about doing things you either already are doing, or know how to do, in a different way, with a different perspective and within a different culture. There is no need to re-invent existing information services. Rather, the role of the knowledge manager is, to the most part, an extension, and re-definition of the role of the conscientious, dedicated and creative information manager.
Catalogue Knowledge Capital
Cataloguing knowledge capital means supporting the defining of knowledge assets within your organisation. This task area includes the following responsibilities of a knowledge manager:
1. Help determine what knowledge is important.
2. Conduct an internal audit of resources.
3. Identify external resources.
There would be no incentive to think about managing knowledge, or even to improve on the acquisition of information, if organizations were not interested in improving the quality of information, the applicability and the accuracy of the knowledge employed to provide business solutions etc. It is best knowledge that we want to collect, store, and disseminate, not just any information or factual knowledge. This knowledge is what is then called knowledge capital.
As the very first step of every KM program, executives must therefore determine what the knowledge capital of the organisation is. Based on this assessment, the next step is an audit of the existing knowledge assets of the organisation - the best knowledge. This includes physical as well as non-physical collections of knowledge, explicit as well as tacit knowledge. There is a wide variety of different forms of tacit knowledge: ideas, experience, intuition, expertise, learnt behaviour, understanding, skills, etc.
The knowledge audit will need to be led by the most experienced executives in the organisation. Information professionals can provide valuable insights in both the nature of the knowledge to be audited, and into ways of performing the audit. At a later stage, knowledge managers will also be the guardians of the knowledge to ensure that it is continuously weeded and that obsolete knowledge is replaced by new state-of-the-art knowledge.
Example (1).The board of a middle-sized manufacturing company established a multidisciplinary task force to perform a complete audit of the company's knowledge assets. The main objective of the task force was to find those business functions which most critically depended on knowledge sharing between the employees, and the quality of knowledge employed. The task force had two information professionals on board - a specialist industry information officer and the firm's head of information services. The head of information contributed to the task force's final report by producing research inquiry statistics of the firm's departments and by marketing the knowledge management to several senior executives. Her detailed knowledge on running a service allowed her to present both the complexity of the information needs, and the effort required to satisfy these needs in a value adding way. The industry information officer contributed by supplying a detailed account of the information required by industry specialist managers during a period of expansion into a new market, and a summary of how this information was relevant to successful market penetration. Using her industry information experience, she also compiled a list of keywords which allowed them to re-organise the internal reports produced by managers. One executive later said 'Before I saw this list, I had no idea that we had knowledge in several areas in which we indeed possessed a great amount of experience highly relevant for our competitive position!' After the initial knowledge audit had been finished, it became clear how important it had been to have the two information professionals on board. Their involvement in subsequent steps of the knowledge management program, planned as a result of the audit, provided an important element of continuity.
The audit of internal knowledge resources can be arbitrarily complicated. It can - and should - go well beyond merely cataloguing available internal information. It should be a step to re-categorise all areas in which the company performs in terms of the organisation's knowledge capital. Examples which would not usually be contained in an ordinary audit focused only on document management are: to what degree are new hired and leaving employees debriefed about their experience on the job? What did the company learn about the new market that it penetrated last year? Why did the organisation fail to impress a particular client?
Many companies who are interested in KM are realising that they are sitting on a gold mine of internal knowledge of which they are making only very limited use. This view, positive for the nurture and development of internal knowledge capital, can lead to underestimating the benefits of external knowledge capital. Internal knowledge capital is valuable knowledge which has originated in the organisation. External knowledge capital is everything else - outside experts, online databases, the Internet, etc. From the Finance Director's point of view, the difference between internal and external resources is clearly that the organisation does not have to pay for internal knowledge while every byte of external information costs extra one way or another. In this situation, a very important responsibility of the knowledge manager is to create an awareness of the role of external information, help identify relevant sources of external information for the organisation and make it available.
Example (2). The R&D department of a company has recently, as the first department in the firm, acquired Internet access for all its members. Management realised that not the IT department, but the fast-growing knowledge management team of the firm ought to market the Net as an important channel of external information to the employees. Instead of excluding the non-technical members of staff, the knowledge managers did an excellent marketing job for this new service by emphasising the human side of the Internet, the communities of interest, as well as the importance of the Net as a cheap self-service information resource.
The situation is further complicated by the fact that the customer is usually not concerned whether information is of an internal or external nature. He/she often comes to the knowledge manager with a problem, not with a request for a particular information resource. Anything that brings the customer closer to resolving that problem is welcome. This of course will not do for an information professional - for him/her the distinction between internal and external knowledge is very important - and not only because of copyrights.
Capture Knowledge Capital
Capturing means to increase the amount of knowledge capital contributed by members of the organisation. Decide how the knowledge of your organisation will be structured and made available to all. This task area includes:
4. Contribute to the creation of a managed vocabulary.
5. Collect knowledge capital and act as experts in the structuring of stored knowledge.
6. Create new applications to capture and access knowledge.
Capturing means designing processes in which the customers themselves leave their position as information consumers and become proactive creators of knowledge capital themselves. Especially in the start-up phase of a knowledge management program, capturing knowledge capital may involve going out there and working side by side with the customer - information service at the cradle of knowledge creation, so to speak.
The development of a controlled knowledge vocabulary is an important prerequisite to capturing knowledge capital. The vocabulary is a set of well-defined keywords which reflect the business of the organisation. Its content must flow from the completion of determining the relevant knowledge capital of the organisation (see above). The terminology hitherto used by the organisation to store relevant information may not fit the new categories which have emerged in the knowledge audit. To be effective during capture and later, during dissemination, the knowledge vocabulary must fit the business like a well-made glove.
Example (3). After one year of an intense knowledge management program, the employees of an advertising company operating in several European countries, are now sharing their knowledge across the board. Beside the informal knowledge exchange on an internal network, they are used to having frequent access to a team of highly skilled knowledge managers who make contributing to the knowledge pool easy: these knowledge managers accompany new hires from their very first days through a dedicated KM module in the induction program; they contact project teams in regular intervals; through frequent contact to the schedulers, the knowledge managers know when project teams are starting their work and need research support, and when they are about to close a project. After a project has been closed, the project manager is obliged to get in touch with the knowledge manager who will help him to summarise lessons learnt on the project. The company's knowledge management dictionary, developed by knowledge managers, is used by the project manager to prepare the material from the project for the meeting with the dedicated knowledge manager. Project team members can use the dictionary later to look their work up on the knowledge sharing and storing network. Since the knowledge capturing process takes chargeable time, the company makes participation in the program more attractive with a series of Knowledge Management Awards which are given to managers at different levels. The awards are used as direct input for the manager's annual performance assessment and bonus calculation .
Knowledge managers are experts in how to best structure knowledge so that it can later be accessed easily by the customer. When capture processes are designed, they need to bring this expertise to fruit and work with business experts on these processes to make them efficient and user-friendly. This means that the knowledge ought to be comprehensive and of the highest quality, and that it is easy for the user to serve him/herself, with minimal guidance by the knowledge manager.
Especially when working with a knowledge sharing system, an intranet or some groupware-based vendor-net, there is a niche for knowledge managers to develop new applications which improve access, overview and data structure. Examples for this kind of applications are community home pages as part of an internal web, knowledge maps (see below) or agent technology applications. These applets require varying degrees of technical expertise.
Example (4). In a company with an internal knowledge sharing network using moderately sophisticated groupware, the knowledge management team changed the working environment of every single member in the firm through the roll-out of knowledge maps. These maps are an extensive collection of bookmarks to memorable places on the internal web. Upon joining the firm, employees are handed a rudimentary knowledge map which contains links to the central yellow pages on the web, as well as a collection of community pages. As they grow in their professional roles, these knowledge maps are added to, both by the knowledge management professionals and by the employees themselves. Over time, the knowledge map becomes a personalised agent tool which reflects the knowledge of its owner and the company's knowledge management.
Retrieve Knowledge Capital
Retrieval support means assisting users in the proper use of information technology to access the available knowledge. Exemplary tasks covered in this area of responsibility are:
7. Become an expert on your internal knowledge sharing network.
8. Train users to navigate the knowledge base more skilfully.
9. Provide knowledge as information researchers.
Capture is key to populating the knowledge base with internal knowledge capital as well as pointers to external knowledge capital. Once the knowledge base contains useful knowledge, the organisation is ready for the next step which is focusing on retrieval. Here, the knowledge manager primarily assists customers in the use of 'enable' information technology.
The question of which information technology to use is often asked far too early in the KM planning process. At later stages however, after or in parallel with crucial culture and practice changes required from employees, important decisions on which technology to use have to be made. Here, the knowledge manager ought to advise the IT department on these decisions from the point of view of usability.
The introduction of a network structure for knowledge sharing is a step which profoundly changes the corporate culture. Many IT systems, especially intranet technology and groupware products, have the scope to be used as a system tools to help integrate KM in the workflow process. In most cases, the system however does not provide more than a carrier. Content and content-rich interfaces which are attractive to the user still have to be added. They are important for that part of the user community (often a majority) which needs to be convinced to spend time sharing and contributing knowledge routinely. Already the smallest of these networks do not only require IT experts for maintenance but knowledge managers to develop policies and guide users who are discovering the new medium.
Just how many technological skills a knowledge manager should possess cannot be said with certainty. What can be said is that you can never know enough about how technology works and which technology works best. Beyond that, the knowledge manager should be conscious that he/she is not an IT expert. Which technology skills you need to acquire and to what degree depends critically on the way the knowledge is managed in your organisation. What people who complain about a lack of technology and equipment often really mean is that they do not know how to use available technology creatively in order to achieve the greatest benefit and pleasure from their work. The creative use of knowledge that largely already exists, is the knowledge manager's mission - and not to merely provide the human embedding of sophisticated information technology.
Navigation on the internal network requires skills which most users do not possess, at least initially. They can often be learnt by playing with the new medium which is however not very cost-effective. The less navigational skills the users possess, the longer is the time they must spend searching for information. Frustrating search experiences are a backlash for capturing since users turn away from a medium in which they cannot find anything worthwhile in reasonable amounts of time. The same is true for other end-user services (e.g. CD-ROM), not only the ones introduced for internal knowledge sharing. The knowledge manager who has trained the users to competently navigate the system themselves, will not need to spend time merely finding and delivering documents but can use his/her time to add value in different, and more interesting ways. Navigation skills training ought to transcend the knowledge required to know which button of a system causes the desired effect - it should teach solid knowledge vocabulary/keywords used for knowledge management, and of the content and organisation of the knowledge bases.
Example (5). The information service of a big pharmaceutical company pioneered the new relationship between knowledge management and user by piloting a 'Knowledge Broker' program. In the course of this program, selected users spend up to three months in the information centre to get more comfortable with the resources available and initiate knowledge management programs for their communities. After they have gone back into the field, these individuals are true knowledge champions who do not only know their industry, but also have a firm grasp of how to best capture, organise and disseminate the knowledge of their peers. Originally fed by more experienced volunteers, the program has considerably raised the profile of being a knowledge broker and junior team members are now queuing to get on the list of candidates for this job which has a very high visibility to senior management.
No matter how good the internal knowledge base and how skilful the users, the traditional role of responding to research requests efficiently and accurately remains equally important to the knowledge manager. However, in principle more value can be added to an organisation whose employees manage their knowledge better since some of the job of researching has been given back to them.
Utilize Knowledge Capital
Utilisation support means assisting managers to use the available knowledge creatively. This is a major cultural change. In its course, the knowledge manager needs to:
10. Act as a catalyst for the necessary culture change.
11. Train people to manage their own knowledge better.
12. Facilitate knowledge champion networking.
In actual fact, few organizations today support knowledge sharing or knowledge management through their culture. In a culture where individual knowledge ownership is kept in higher esteem than collective knowledge ownership, unproductive, unmanaged pockets of owned knowledge can 'survive' the introduction of knowledge sharing systems and habits. This climate is not conducive to knowledge management. Consulting firms are positive examples of knowledge sharing companies - knowledge capital for their clients is their main product and to more quickly turn knowledge around and make it useable across the globe is a goal directly linked to their growth. Equally good at sharing are the R&D departments of most companies - here, knowledge sharing is the heritage of the academic culture of their peers.
The issues of cultural changes which are necessary to create a knowledge managing culture is far-reaching and we cannot even begin to explore it properly in this article. However, at the end of this change we see a customer of the information service who him/herself has responsibility. While this change is being made, the knowledge manager acts as a catalyst. To do that he must be much more a part of, and understand a business which, as an information manager, he used to only serve from the back office.
The ultimate goal of knowledge management is not to create an impermeable, infallible central knowledge service, but to give the working individual the capability, and the will, to develop his or her professional knowledge on an ongoing basis. The practice of KM focuses on the individual, not on the organisation. The benefits of good KM are shared between the individual and the organisation. A useful parallel, which everybody understands, is time management: the individual gets to be a more organised, generally happier person who feels more in control of his/her workload, while the organisation gets more value from the more effective worker. Likewise knowledge management where both the individual and the organisation maximise their return on what tends to take the longest and is the most difficult part of every job: learning and skill development.
Thus, to get people in the organisation to manage their knowledge better is a prime responsibility of every organisation that wants to be a learning organisation, and to keep its competitive advantage and improve business performance. The knowledge manager can contribute a lot to this mission as a KM coach to professionals. The coaching should be planned as a cascading process by which best KM practice is communicated throughout the organisation, from the leaders downward as well as upward from the individual user.
Example (6). Information professionals are frequently exposed to the knowledge that counts. At a global consulting firm, knowledge managers routinely assist junior consultants in structuring their proposals - as a result of having been exposed to, and seen many more proposals in many more different subjects, than even many senior consultants themselves. In some divisions of this consulting firm, this assistance has been formalised and consultants and managers are now obliged to call information professionals into initial meetings where the client job is shaped, necessary resources are screened, etc. The role of the knowledge manager includes different kinds of 'knowledge allocations': dedicated research support during the project; briefing on relevant credentials which are available on the firm's internal knowledge sharing network, etc. The knowledge manager is included at this early stage of the project because 'knowledge allocations' are appreciated as vital, integrated components of the business success. The impact on the quality of the work delivered by the knowledge managers is impressive. The knowledge management team has repeatedly been awarded quality awards and career and remuneration prospects within the team are excellent.
Coach to cascade knowledge management up and down the Organizational hierarchy creates a new brand of manager: the knowledge champion. This role is usually assumed de facto by more experienced personnel - in fact, no organisation could survive without its knowledge champions. Without a knowledge management program, their role and importance however may remain obscured. It is the knowledge manager's task to nurture and support a network of knowledge champions. As the organisation will re-organise itself according to knowledge management principles the knowledge champions are becoming the leaders of dynamic communities of knowledge across the organisation. These communities, too, are becoming customers of the knowledge manager. Their success catalyses the formation of other knowledge-based communities.
I have described a few big task areas in which the knowledge manager can support the journey of his/her organisation towards a knowledge-based and knowledge managing organisation. These areas will initially have to be carried out in sequence - first audit, then populate, then retrieve, then use. As the organisation's culture changes, more of these tasks will have to be executed simultaneously. The tasks will change in character and level of demand, too. As an example: the audit of knowledge assets will need to be repeated regularly as a knowledge quality assurance procedure. Its course will be defined and checked by the knowledge management team.
An often asked question in this context is 'how do we get started if senior management has not seen the importance of KM yet?' The answer to this question is a step which was implied here all along: knowledge managers must continually successfully market their own services in very close alignment with the demands and changes of the business around themselves. The single most important key to the success of this journey, as far as knowledge management as we understand it today is concerned, is to proactively seek involvement in the business process, and make knowledge creation and management an integrated part of the business process. In this way, yesterday's successful information manager will become tomorrow's most wanted knowledge manager.
Dr Marcus Speh is Senior Advisor for Corporate Information Technology at Shell International, where he is co-ordinating knowledge management for the Shell Group. Before that, he was Director of Knowledge Management at Andersen Consulting. He came to Andersen Consulting after an academic career in theoretical physics and some involvement in the early development of the World-Wide Web. He is also a member of the KM editorial Board. He can be contacted at:
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