posted 1 Oct 2003 in Volume 7 Issue 2
Your say: KM in North America
Scores of KM practices and methodologies have been developed in North America since the discipline emerged in the mid-1990s. Sandra Higgison talks to KM practitioners, commentators and experts, and offers a collection of snapshots of the journey so far.
Can such a short article do justice to knowledge management’s evolution within North America? For a region that is recognised for its great entrepreneurial spirit and is home to so many of the discipline’s leading thinkers, the answer is, frankly, no. But what we can do is provide some snapshots of the journey so far as provided by a selection of commentators that are playing their part in shaping KM as we see it today and its evolution in the future.
The first rumblings of the various pieces that today make up knowledge management in the US were felt in the early to mid-1990s. Douglas Weidner, CKO and executive director at the KMPro Learning Center, recalls that many people at this time were undertaking the early work related to KM: business-process re-engineering (BPR), total-quality management, strategic planning and change management. "I recall arguing with my associates that proper BPR needed to give attention to the knowledge aspect of IT systems," he says. "But that wasn't a popular or accepted opinion in the mid-90s." Bobby Yazdani, chairman and CEO at Saba, a human-capital development company, links early KM to the late 1980s when organisations were investing in technology, networks, infrastructure, information repositories, databases and other content servers, for example. "People began to realise that with a more connected organisation there would be more opportunities to collect and store information and 'knowledge assets'," he says. The advent of the web expanded these concepts and capabilities, and Yazdani suggests that network-based technologies were one of KM’s drivers.
Around this time, some of the first articles to present knowledge aspects within the workplace appeared in publications such as Fortune, Harvard Business Review and Sloan Management Review. Conference agendas also began to discuss KM topics. The first events were organised by some of the large consulting firms and then, in 1995, Arthur Andersen partnered with APQC to produce one of the largest. While it is tempting not to name the early thinkers for fear of accidentally missing anybody out, certain names crop up time and again: Tom Davenport, Steve Denning, Dorothy Leonard, Ikujiro Nonaka, Larry Prusak, Peter Senge, Tom Stewart, Karl-Erik Sveiby and Karl Wiig offer a sample of individuals that influenced KM in this region.
By the mid-90s, companies were investing in technologies to aid knowledge-related initiatives and vendors were selling solutions such as intranets, portals and search engines, so the scene was set for KM to take off. "I think there was a groundswell that came out of the thought leadership being developed and the willingness of early adopters to spend considerable amounts of resources on fairly pervasive KM systems," says Dan Holtshouse, director of corporate strategy at Xerox. Also, as Patti Anklam, an independent KM consultant, points out, "The principles of knowledge management gained a lot of weight as people came to their senses about the downsizing of the early 1990s. This sociological factor and the rapid growth of technologies were key factors." Companies were beginning to tap into people's dynamic and tacit knowledge, and make the connection between KM and human-capital development, a term that links KM to learning and performance. "Prior to this time, KM, at best, was a well run organisational library," he says. "But there was a realisation that knowledge was not easily captured and documented so effort was put into learning processes and developing communities of practice." These trends have helped bring knowledge management to the attention of companies that are today leaders in the field.
Even though there are now few industries untouched by KM, at the outset it was the
professional-services, manufacturing and engineering, technology, and financial-services sectors that were leading the way. Weidner identifies Ford's dedication to process improvement as an example. "What they did at their assembly plants in transferring best practices is milestone work, even though it was probably not called KM." Holtshouse and Weidner both praise the World Bank's vision in 1996 to create the 'knowledge bank'. "It remains in my mind as one of the most dramatic examples of KM leadership I have seen," says Weidner. Holtshouse also highlights work at Skandia, Ernst & Young, Buckman Laboratories, Monsanto and HP. Anklam believes that companies worthy of note include AMS, Chrysler and the greenfield KM systems developed by internet-consulting start ups, Viant and Scient.
Another area where knowledge management has made an impact is within the US government. "Although KM is not as pervasive here as it is in other countries," says Debra Amidon, founder and CEO of Entovation, "the Armed Forces have been the most progressive with its work on lessons learnt." Indeed the military has produced methods such as after-action reviews and a communities-of-practice toolkit that are today widely used across industries. Yazdani, however, sees a mixed story in the government's use of KM. "On the one hand it is amazing how well some sectors can mobilise and deploy people equipped with knowledge, training and support," he says. "However, there have also been some shortfalls here. The events of 11 September 2001 offer a tragic example." But it isn't just the US that has embraced KM within its private and public sectors.
Although KM has had an impact in Canada, some say that its reception here has been cooler than in the US. Touraj Nasseri is president of TechnoVantage, a KM consultancy, and teaches a knowledge-management course at the University of Alberta, he recalls early movers implementing intranets for document sharing in the late 1990s. Among his list of pioneers here he includes Canada Health, a federal government organisation, Encana, an energy company, and Clarica, a financial-services firm. Elisabeth Richard, associate director of government partnerships within the E-Government Sector at the Public Works and Government Services, refers to research by Statistics Canada that illustrates the levels of KM acceptance over recent years. In Are We Managing Our Knowledge?: Results from the Pilot Knowledge Management Practices Survey 2001, 90 per cent of firms surveyed used at least one of the 23 business practices related to KM," she says. "These involve any systematic activity related to the capture and sharing of knowledge by the organisation."1 However, Nasseri argues that Canadian business still has a long way to go.
For knowledge management to prove its worth it needs to become a critical, strategic issue. Nasseri does not believe the discipline has taken off in this way in Canada. "There is a lack of interest from senior executives and confusion, as they believe that KM is technology related and will therefore be managed by the IT department," he says. These obstacles must be overcome if Canadian businesses are going to succeed against additional challenges. "Not only are our most mature brains due to leave the workforce, we are also losing our most creative and dynamic workers as they head south of the border following the lure of higher salaries," says Richard. She also highlights the need for companies to manage process and culture together with IT so knowledge nuggets can be retained.
Within the Canadian government, KM is a method of encouraging innovation and developing a better understanding of what the country knows. Richard sees the government's commitment to nurturing and boosting internet connectivity as a way of accelerating KM within communities. "Centres of expertise for the integration of information and communication technologies are thriving in many small towns," she says. "Knowledge creation and dissemination processes are spreading and collective intelligence is growing. For example, networks of SMEs now contribute to policy development on crucial issues for innovation, such as international standards."
Regardless of country or sector, KM in North America is still evolving and its focus is changing. In line with many other countries, the drivers of KM in this region are shifting away from IT towards processes and people. In fact, according to Anklam, some parts of KM – which includes most technologies – have been so broadly adopted that they are no longer thought of as pure KM. "Portals, for example, started out positioned as knowledge-management tools," she says, "but they are now part of the fabric of any corporate infrastructure alongside e-mail, repositories, community groupware and search engines. IT departments just know that they have to provide these." Technology has become an enabler rather than the trigger. KM is now about working contextually within a company, which, Anklam says, involves understanding working practices, and the social networks and environment of the knowledge worker.
As to the future, there are many paths for KM to follow. "I believe that once traditional KM opportunities are mastered, such as enriching existing communities, attention will focus on relentless innovation," says Weidner. "But innovation is a more complex issue than most traditionalists realise.” Fortunately, says Weidner, this is an evolving field of practice that is gaining popularity. Amidon also sees innovation as the future for KM. She believes that the movement started by focusing on innovation. "It veered off track in some fragmented implementations," she says. "But I believe it will redirect to where it should have been all along: building sustainable enterprises, nations and societies."
Understanding how to help the knowledge worker be more productive at an individual level is another area for the focus. Holtshouse describes how an organisation's processes can shape an individual's output, but companies often fail to support their work and productivity. "The areas of neuroscience and cognitive science should be reapplied to knowledge work to understand how we decide, think and analyse things as individuals," he says. "I've been promoting the idea that the workplace consists of four spaces – the physical, organisational, information and cognitive – rather than the one single lump."
A new academy in San Diego, called Neuroscience for Architecture, is already applying these principles to architectural thinking for educational, business and hospital environments. "These are groundbreaking areas that need to be put back into the way we work," says Holtshouse.
The convergence of knowledge and learning is an additional avenue for KM practitioners to explore. According to Yazdani a need exists for just-in-time learning and user-driven access to information. "Learning content, such as courses, collaboration, simulations, assessments, skills inventories and communities are assets that need to be managed and facilitated for competitive gain," says Yazdani. "As human-intellectual capital is a critical asset to any organisation, it requires systems and processes to support it."
There is still much left to do. It can be said that KM's future in North America thrives on the region’s entrepreneurial spirit; however cultural aspects can also cause problems. "We do have cultural blinders here," says Anklam. "US companies design and build much of the KM software, but not often with attention to multi-lingual and multi-cultural environments. We have a long way to go to bring multiple, diverse viewpoints and worldviews into a room for productive knowledge creation." Yazdani also highlights the challenges set by the current economic climate. "People will not willingly share if the workplace culture does not support learning, co-operation, collaboration and openness, or if it is operating in a downsizing environment," he says. "Companies need to offer the right motivations and rewards to encourage people to share and leverage knowledge." Cultural issues are some of the hardest to overcome but will reap rewards if addressed successfully.
Knowledge management is a well established methodology for many companies across industries in the US and is in the process of taking a firm hold in Canada. For two nations that have developed some of the most ground-breaking technology, innovative thinking and wide-spread connectivity among employees, customers and citizens, it is not difficult to predict that KM’s future is not only secure here, but will also continue to lead the field globally.
1. Are We Managing our Knowledge?: Results from the Pilot Knowledge Management Practices Survey 2001 (Statistics Canada, 2001)
Debra Amidon is founder and CEO of Entovation. She can be contacted at email@example.com
Patti Anklam is an independent knowledge-management consultant. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Dan Holtshouse is director of corporate strategy at Xerox. He can be contacted at
Touraj Nasseri is president of TechnoVantage and teaches a KM course at the University of Alberta, Canada. He can be contacted at email@example.com
Elisabeth Richard works within the E-Government Sector at the Public Works and Government Services. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Douglas Weidner is chief knowledge officer and executive director at the KMPro Learning Center. He can be contacted at email@example.com
Bobby Yazdani is chairman and CEO at Saba. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org