posted 17 Dec 2009 in Volume 13 Issue 4
Technology the enabler
Caroline Poynton charts the development and use of technology as information and knowledge management processes and roles continue to evolve.
There is no doubt that technology and knowledge management (KM) have long been bedfellows. While it has often been easy to criticise KM practice as too technology driven, the need to manage information flow has generally ensured a place for KM practice, with technology not far behind. That need to get a handle on information has also only grown as e-communication and the internet have given employees access to often unmanageable quantities of information.
Research of the
All the sectors surveyed had trouble searching more ‘sophisticated’ external sources;
All sectors struggled with finding information based on specific projects;
While 94 per cent of healthcare organisations provide staff with the capability to search e-mail, their workers spent the most time searching;
Just 63 per cent of workers in other public sector organisations can search their e-mail; and,
Staff at 19 per cent of public sector organisations and 18 per cent of financial organisations spend half a day or more searching for the information they need to perform their jobs.
Conducting a similar calculation to the US study, the research found that a company of 1,000 employees, each spending more than half a day searching, would equate to around £50,000 of lost time each week.
KM continues to play an essential role in tackling the above challenges, but recession adds another dimension – in many ways, a potentially positive one. Nick Milton, a KM consultant at Knoco, posted a blog early in 2009, expressing his thoughts on why KM could “help you through recession”.3 He argued four key points for the role of KM in this environment:
Recession is a time of change and disruption, in which companies need to quickly adapt, often implementing new business models. “‘Surviving recession’ now becomes Critical Knowledge Topic #1,” says
In a time of low financial assets, companies need to realise the value of other assets – for example, existing knowledge.
With less work around, companies have more time and resources to release existing value. “You can direct people towards identifying crucial knowledge, developing current best practice, and using the know-how of the organisation to rework and improve processes, procedures and business models, so that when the upturn comes, you hit the ground running.”
In a recession, knowledge may be leaving the building. Companies need to employ KM strategies to retain as much knowledge as possible.
The theme is not only making the most of what you’ve got, but reviewing existing assets and, in some cases, completely overhauling them. The conclusion points to a recession actually being a crucial time in which companies can take stock and review otherwise insoluble problems, such as information overload and the whole way in which employees access and use information or share knowledge.
Beyond information management
Technology is becoming more than the sum of its parts. Just as knowledge management is far more than information search and retrieval, so has technology developed to support far more than just information or document management. A prime example of this is in the growth of the use of intranets, and particularly the addition of Web 2.0 tools within intranets. This evolution combines the use of technology to share internal information, as well as improve communication and internal collaboration. Even more impressive, in terms of the current environment, is that using collaboration tools via an intranet may also be an extremely cost-effective way to maximise KM, where budgets are tight. As Bonnie Cheuk, global head of knowledge and information at Enterprise Resources Management (ERM), wrote in Inside Knowledge earlier this year: “When cost reduction is a reality in times of economic recession, Web 2.0 technologies – if executed correctly – can assist greatly in communicating key messages to a global organisation. They can also help to improve staff engagement. The possibilities are limitless – the clue is to adopt simple, user-friendly, low-cost Web 2.0 technologies.”4
ERM provides a particularly good example of how far intranet and Web 2.0 technology can support broader KM and business objectives. The company provides environmental consulting services on a global scale, with 3,000 employees located in over 120 offices in 40 countries, including the US, Europe, Asia, Australia and Latin America. The company launched its intranet back in 2007, but its alignment to business strategies and objectives has not only meant that it has been phenomenally successful, but Cheuk’s team continues to expand its capabilities – with a strategic project ongoing now.
The intranet, called Minerva, was initially designed on the basis of in-depth research, which aimed to identify the issues that ERM employees were facing in accessing information and expertise. Over 1,000 ‘narratives’ were gathered from employees in all locations, which were used as the foundations for building Minerva.
Right from the start the Minerva project team realised the potential of Web 2.0 to enable the intranet to be more collaborative and improve internal communications. So the intranet, when launched in 2007, included numerous Web 2.0 features including MySite for profile information, instant messaging capabilities, a CoP site for practitioners to share resources and news, ERM wikiwiki, and a CEO’s blog.
By 2008, Minerva was successfully established within the firm, with Cheuk reporting benefits including increased staff satisfaction, improved staff engagement, potential increase in market share, external recognition and brand building, and CEO satisfaction. “The quality of response has been rated as excellent and resulted in ERM winning proposals, demonstrating our capabilities and satisfying our key clients. We have won two big proposals as a result of global collaboration which would not be possible in pre-Minerva launch times,” wrote Cheuk in late 2007.5
As success breeds at the very least enthusiasm, the intranet project did not stop there. In 2009, Minerva was being used to further improve two-way communication strategies. A particular example, as described by Bonnie Cheuk in an update article published in Inside Knowledge in May 2009, was with the safety intranet site. The environmental health and safety (EHS) director was struggling to engage with employees at a time when he increasingly needed to communicate with employees across dispersed geographic locations. In early 2008, the firm therefore decided to leverage the intranet, complementing the safety intranet site with a range of Web 2.0 features including multimedia channels to deliver regular podcasts and videocasts. This not only enabled top-down communication from the EHS director, but also the ability for staff to provide feedback and share news. The site also included tools such as really simple syndication (RSS) feeds to ensure staff could receive all the latest news and information related to health and safety.
In all of these efforts, Cheuk’s advice has been to adopt “simple, user-friendly, low-cost Web 2.0 technologies” to meet business goals. For KM managers who are currently facing severe budgetary limitations that are likely to curb technology investment for some time to come, such experiences provide a good guide for demonstrating the ongoing value of KM, with technology that has proven success, without having to incur prohibitive costs.
At the time, Cheuk also provided the following practical advice for managers introducing Web 2.0 technologies:
“Web 2.0 requires ‘leadership 2.0’ – companies have reaped the benefits of Web 2.0 only when there has been a willingness to establish a genuine two-way dialogue with all staff;
“Collaborate with your IT team – find out what has already been invested in Web 2.0 technologies. Some tools may be available, but people may not know how to use them to address specific business needs;
“Collaborate with your internal communications or corporate affairs team – use all the internal communications channels available to deliver a consistent message to staff. Leverage any ‘traditional’ and interactive communication tools to broaden the communication span beyond your own geographical location;
“Set clear communication objectives – while Web 2.0 tools can open up new possibilities to engage with staff, they must be properly integrated with, and supplemented by, other internal communication channels;
“Web 2.0 performs best when there is a genuine need to promote two-way dialogue with an aim to build a common understanding;
“Proactively nurture a global community of practice – an online collaborative space to enable the sharing of ideas, experience, resources and mistakes taken from the rollout of the programme.”
Senior management in many organisations are still reviewing the potential benefits of Web 2.0 tools. Indeed, if Fulbright & Jaworski’s ‘6th Annual Litigation Trends Survey Report’6 is anything to go by, most corporates are more wary of social networking than they are eager to grab the opportunities of implementing the technology themselves. For example, the survey indicates that 46 per cent of US respondents restrict access to sites such as Facebook, MySpace, Bebo, LinkedIn, Plaxo, Twitter and YouTube, while 52 per cent of
Having said that, while popular social networking sites might still raise concerns in the workplace – not least in terms of potentially crippling productivity – many firms are at least beginning to consider the business possibilities of Web 2.0 tools. In the research for this report, many KM practitioners mentioned that they were looking into implementing social software, including blogs or wikis to increase collaboration. Many also seemed keenly aware that such an avenue might be a particularly cost-effective strategy to increase collaborative efforts in these more cash-strapped times. These findings correlate with other external studies too. According to a recent Nielsen Norman Group Report ‘Enterprise 2.0: Social Software on Intranets’, there is an increasing expectation, particularly among the younger generation, that social networking tools should be available in the workplace. However, a main finding from the study’s interviews was that most companies are not very far along in a wholesale adoption of Web 2.0 technologies, beyond thinking about social software.
While companies may be slow to drive through social networking programmes, the research found that enterprise social networking is only likely to increase in future months and years, particularly driven by the younger generation. Surprising findings, for instance, point to the fact that senior managers (often of an older generation), who may not use such tools themselves in their personal lives, are less likely to drive through their use in the workplace. But younger workers who are used to personal social media networking will increasingly expect such tools to be integrated into their working lives and may, in fact, start informal social networking regardless of senior management buy-in. This has led to surprising success in some of the research case studies from companies that have turned underground efforts at social networking driven by frontline workers, into mainstream ‘sanctioned’ operations. With social networking success coming up from the grass roots, the research also suggested that Web 2.0 technologies represent more than just a new technology, but actually a paradigm shift in enterprise communication – requiring organisations to cede control over some of their internal and external corporate messaging.
The findings also revealed that the organisations that are most successful with social media technologies are those that use the tools to solve an ‘identified business need’. In the context of this report, it seems that such business-driven strategies will be the post-recession order of the day. For KM practitioners, in particular, such research has profound implications, potentially overhauling their roles to put social networking tools at the centre of their communications and collaboration strategies, with business objectives at the forefront.
KM and technology have long been partners. The initial aim – and one that remains crucial – was to enable businesses to better manage the masses of information threatening to overwhelm employees. Getting the right information to the right people at the right time remains one of the most important goals of the knowledge manager, and requires not only the propitious use of technology, but a strategic eye for marrying information management with business objectives. Almost working in parallel to that was the people-oriented aspect of KM, centred on collaborative strategies and building a culture of knowledge sharing.
But a shift has been happening in recent times that may well have been further propelled by recession. Web 2.0 technologies, incorporating social networking tools, have opened up a whole new dimension of online communication that is likely to sweep the corporate world just as much as it has many people’s personal lives. The very meaning of collaboration – as understood by KM practitioners just a few months and years ago – is likely to change as people communicate in far more open and informal ways. For the first time, this shift will also be driven by the workforce itself, rather than senior management – as the latter increasingly sees the business opportunities brought about by employees who are already communicating via social media. No doubt, some will embrace social media from a more negative standpoint: finding themselves increasingly unable to ‘beat’ such communication they will instead ‘join them’, so to speak.
Some KM professionals are already seeing the huge potential in this. As we have seen, some are already implementing Web 2.0 tools to increase internal community participation and collaboration, often across global offices. Many others are thinking about it, particularly as the cost restraints of the recession force them to consider innovative ways to cost-effectively add value to their organisations. In this respect, relatively cheap – or sometimes even free – social networking software may seem increasingly tempting paths for development. The only danger in this trend may be that KM practitioners allow the seeming opportunity of this new technology to drive business strategy, rather than the other way around. However, with the recession seeming to push knowledge managers more towards demonstrating business value – and, with that, making particular efforts to align KM to business goals – this seems unlikely. In fact, the recession may have created a two-pronged outcome for KM teams: the escalation of enterprise social networking within a distinctly commercial and business-focused agenda.
While companies are still exploring the potential of Web 2.0 technologies, the long-term impact of their use on KM practice remains uncertain. At the moment, it may be that it raises more questions than answers. In a social networking workplace, will the whole meaning of collaboration and communities of practice, and indeed knowledge sharing generally, change? In its most far-reaching sense, could the KM role even be overtaken by internal communication shifts, propelled by collaborative technologies? Where it seems that the KM role is more blurred than ever, as it crosses over into other disciplines, including learning and training, business development, and communications, the long-term survival of KM as we know it, may well be in question. For the KM professionals at the forefront of using such technology, however, there is little doubt that they are bringing greater value to their business operations. If KM as a discipline does begin to disappear, it is likely that such forward-thinking and business-minded professionals will remain at the forefront of their knowledge enterprises; it just may be their ‘KM’ titles that change, or rather evolve to embrace an altogether more sophisticated type of collaborative enterprise.
This article is adapted from an excerpt of Ark Conferences’ Delivering Business Critical Knowledge Management report, written by Caroline Poynton. For more information contact Robyn Macè a firstname.lastname@example.org
1. ‘Relief for Government Workers: Easing Information Overload Will Uncover Cost Savings, Relieve Stress’, published by Reuters, February 2009.
2. ‘Fruitless search affecting UK Businesses’, Inside Knowledge, April 2009.
3. Milton, N., ‘Four reasons why KM can help you through recession’. Available at http://www.nickmilton.com/2009/01/4-reasons-why-km-can-help-you-through.html.
4. Cheuk, B., ‘Bringing health and safety to life’, Inside Knowledge, volume 12, issue 9, June 2009.
5. Cheuk, B., ‘Enterprise 2.0 in action’, Inside Knowledge, volume 11, issue 2, October 2007.
6. Full details of the report can be downloaded at http://www.fulbright.com/litigationtrends06.