posted 10 May 2011 in Volume 14 Issue 6
Zach Wahl discusses the death and life of KM, with insight into the three drivers that will influence its future
The concepts and practices of knowledge management (KM) have been in existence much longer than the term itself. Indeed, one might argue that KM has been happening since our ancient ancestors started drawing on cave walls. The more recent history, however, has been shaded with a number of struggles. Over the past two decades in particular, KM work has acquired something of a bad reputation. I attribute this to a couple of related issues. First, there has been too much talk and too little action. KM has been treated largely as an academic pursuit, with scads of research and discussion but very little practice. Many of these ‘ivory tower KMers’ still haunt organisations around the world. High-minded concepts have been introduced as initiatives, but have often lacking measurable results and the requisite end user involvement.
During the 1990’s and early 2000’s, KM had developed such a bad reputation that colleagues advised me to change my title (at the time it was KM principle). However, I was working to rehabilitate the reputation and practice of KM. Assessing today’s business environment, I feel strongly that this time has now come. Many organisations have matured to the point where they are successfully leveraging KM principles in their business or are at least moving in that direction. In my view, there are three primary drivers for this second life of KM.
1. Practical KM
First, organisations have realised what KM is and should be. KM is not an individual project, nor a discrete functional office. In order to be truly successful, KM must be integrated in the day-to-day operations of an organisation. The most successful efforts with which I’ve been involved have all shared the same characteristics: support and understanding from management; clearly stated and commonly understood business value and goals; defined analytics to measure results; iterative approaches and governance to demonstrate progress and allow for adjustments; and, wide involvement by end users and other stakeholders. I summarise all of these successful KM characteristics under the banner of ‘practical KM’. First and foremost, practical KM starts to happen naturally, when you give your users a voice.
2. Too much content
The second major driver for the revitalisation of KM is, simply, need. In today’s information age, the amount of content generated has moved from arithmetic to exponential growth.
Only a decade ago, a relatively small set of business users were generating online content and even fewer were responsible for managing that content. With the democratisation of content management and, more recently, the ever-expanding social computing trends, anyone is a potential content publisher or manager. As a result, organisations are buckling under the weight of their own content. As more content is generated, it dilutes that which is truly critical to the business ? creating issues with findability, and in turn yielding problems with worker productivity and user satisfaction. At the same time, as the baby boomers begin to retire, they are taking their tacit knowledge with them. This too results in a pressing need for KM, in order to capture that knowledge and ensure it remains with the organisation that needs it.
3. Technology catching up
The third driver is technology - specifically, the fact that many of today’s technologies have caught up with the information management theory that has influenced their development. For instance, SharePoint has matured from a rather thin collaboration tool to a framework to enable user-centric collaboration, document management and sharing, social computing, and much more. Taxonomy management and content tagging tools have also made significant leaps forward, opening up the possibilities for all content within an enterprise to be consistently tagged, categorised and surfaced through navigation and search. Social computing tools, from Facebook to Jive, have created natural and intuitive ways for users to create, manage, and share a myriad of information, naturally converting tacit knowledge to explicit knowledge. Broadly stated, technologies are becoming easier to manage and integrate, meaning that an enterprise has both a greater need and a greater ability to manage its knowledge in a cohesive fashion. It should be noted, however, that technology was the last of the three drivers I listed. This was purposeful, as successful KM efforts will not be driven by technology, but instead will use it as a support or enabler.
As KM has experienced its ebbs and flows, it has also struggled with a lack of clear or consistent definitions. In summary, I offer my own definition as ?leveraging technologies in a practical manner to connect the right people to the information they need’. I have seen first hand that when organisations actively adopt this definition and leverage the concepts of practical KM, they will flourish, as will the health and dynamism of the information they need in order to be successful.
Zach Wahl is the global director of information management at Project Performance Corporation (PPC), with oversight for all taxonomy and metadata, knowledge management, portal, content management, collaboration, and social computing efforts. He can be contacted at email@example.com