posted 2 Jul 2002 in Volume 5 Issue 10
The road ahead
The evolution of knowledge management
Knowledge management has always had its share of detractors, but the continued development of the theories and practices surrounding the discipline has ensured it remains as relevant and important to businesses as ever before. Simon Lelic talks to representatives from Azione, the Hong Kong Knowledge Management Society, Meta4, Nanyang Technological University and Sun Microsystems, and considers how far KM has come and, more importantly, what is next for the discipline.
Knowledge management has long thrown off its image of being a passing fad. As Dave Snowden says in his article beginning on page 11, if KM were indeed nothing more than a transient management fashion, by now it would have either faded or become an embedded part of standard organisational process. That neither has happened suggests the discipline still has some way to go, both in evolutionary terms and in the sense that many organisations are only just beginning to realise the impact KM implementation can have on productivity and operational efficiency. We have reached a point now, however, that many practitioners regard as something of a crossroads. If knowledge management is to remain a source of competitive advantage in this somewhat capricious economic climate, the discipline must itself also evolve. Quite how will be governed by both the factors that have influence its development so far, and the future needs of the organisations it serves.
Like a family tree, the roots of KM extend back almost indefinitely, yet the discipline first established itself as a distinct area of management science in the early to mid-1990s. Suliman Hawamdeh, associate professor at Nanyang Technological University and president of iKMS, attributes its emergence to the increased emphasis on knowledge as a competitive factor, together with a growing convergence between various disciplines such as IT, management, communication and library science. Jela Webb, a consultant at Azione, believes the economic downturn of the period also played an important role, in that many companies were forced to downsize and de-layer, a process that brought the resultant loss of corporate memory into sharp relief. “Organisations that went through major redundancy programmes found with the benefit of hindsight that the huge loss of staff also meant a significant loss of experience, skills and knowledge,” she says. “Long-standing and knowledgeable employees had literally been permitted to walk out of the door and take with them a key organisational resource.”
More recently, as Waltraut Ritter, chairperson of the Hong Kong Knowledge Management Society, says, rapid advances in technology have afforded companies the ability to build an infrastructure that provides connectivity, access to and exchange of knowledge. This in turn relates to the growing problems workers are experiencing with being inundated with huge volumes of information, as Melissa Risteff, group manager (Global Knowledge Engineering) for Sun Microsystems, says, an issue that has only served to further emphasise the importance of effective knowledge management. Such difficulties are compounded by the effects of globalisation and increasing levels of competition, not only in market terms, but also, as Hawamdeh says, among firms fighting to attract and retain the most prized knowledge workers. It is hardly surprising that so many organisations have placed such faith in KM as a source of salvation.
As the discipline has developed, however, more companies have come to realise that there are no hard and fast rules with knowledge management. As Ritter says: “Companies need to develop practices appropriate to their business needs, situation and environment.” While it is possible to identify a handful of clear leaders in the field – Webb points to the likes of Buckman Labs, BP and the World Bank, for example – it is equally true that those organisations that have had the most success in implementing KM have been those that continue to struggle with the principles and practices that surround the discipline. As Webb herself says, the rhetoric about what some organisations are doing with knowledge management often differs greatly from the reality of the situation. “I consulted for a large multi-national last year that was quite highly placed in the MAKE [Most Admired Knowledge Enterprise] awards,” she explains. “When I sought employees’ reactions to this, I found that they were very surprised that their organisation had performed so well.”
In a sense, this perhaps helps to explain why knowledge management is still very much alive and kicking. Because KM is not simply a ‘plug in and play’ solution, but rather more of an iterative journey, incorporating all the dead-ends, wrong turns and potholes you might expect, its value continues to build the more it is understood. For example, and as Ritter says, there was a prevailing attitude in the 1990s that knowledge should be treated as an object, resulting in a strong focus on capturing, storing and re-using information. This resulted in an IT-centric approach to KM, which has since been largely dismissed by the majority of today’s practitioners as being too simplistic. It is only relatively recently, as Hawamdeh points out, that organisations have begun to accept that KM is a multi-disciplinary subject, encompassing IT, communications, information science and so on. “The changes [we have seen] in KM come mainly from the realisation that it is a new discipline that requires the participation of all parties,” he says.
Webb, for one, is eager to see this level of involvement grow over the next few years. “I would like to see the HR community playing a greater role in KM,” she says. “I do feel that to a large extent they have been sitting on the sidelines. KM is so much about people and who is better than the HR experts to harness the potential here?” Certainly KM practitioners will need all the help they can get, for they will continue to face a number of significant challenges. Webb believes information overload will continue to be one of the biggest of these, in turn emphasising the importance of effective information structuring techniques and taxonomy. Risteff, meanwhile, points to standardisation and interoperability as being among the most pressing concerns, together with change acceptance. “It will be necessary to focus on the institutionalisation of a knowledge sharing culture,” she says. “KM programmes will not be successful without focusing on human behaviours and motivations. These issues have historically hindered real business impact.” Finally, perhaps the most daunting challenge of all lies in avoiding any sense of complacency. As Ritter says: “It is quite a challenge for KM practitioners to ensure people in the organisation don’t get too used to the existing knowledge applications, infrastructure and behaviour.”
As for the industry that has been built up around knowledge management, Hawamdeh believes the majority of vendors have begun to accept that KM is more than just an IT project. “In the past, many of the IT companies were quick to jump on the bandwagon and re-name their existing information products as KM solutions,” he says. “This did not last, however, as many people were taken aback by that, and started to doubt the whole notion of knowledge management.” Indeed, as Mark Badoe, VP marketing and alliances at Meta4, says: “Knowledge management as a discipline has been outsold, and its benefits too easily promoted. KM as a term is, in some markets, being dropped, and in its place we are seeing initiatives being branded as vertical market solutions.” Badoe feels that the lack of visible success stories associated with what were dubbed ‘knowledge management projects’ by many vendors has actually tarnished the term’s reputation in the software industry. In fact, Ritter feels the KM industry remains fragmented. “It is still a very scattered market, with little common sense about what knowledge means in an organisational context,” he says. “There is a wide range of products and services available for nearly every aspect of information management, and a much smaller choice for knowledge-related products.”
Whether this will change in the coming years is open to debate. Hawamdeh for one is confident that vendors will continue to develop an improved understanding of the communications and organisational aspects of KM. Risteff predicts an increase in the number of industry partnerships, with vendors each focusing on their core competencies, while Ritter expects the knowledge management sector to remain a niche market, offering a wide range of specialised products and services. In broader terms, Webb believes the number of individual consultants will increase, as people who have first gained practical experience in an organisational setting turn their talents elsewhere, a development she feels will benefit SMEs in particular, many of which have so far ignored – and been ignored by – KM. The number of conferences, events and professional educational services relating to KM is also likely to rise, she says.
One thing this month’s participants all agree on is that KM is here to stay. The terminology surrounding the discipline will no doubt change, and the continued evolution of what KM means in an organisational context is inevitable – even imperative. Nevertheless, as Badoe says, fostering innovation and creativity is, above all, a human proposition. The very nature of work, and of how workers interact, combined with the relentless proliferation and accessibility of knowledge and information, the repercussions of globalisation and the increasing mobility of employees will together ensure that effective knowledge management remains a fundamental requirement for any organisation looking to maintain its competitive edge. In Ritter’s words: “Creating, using, organising and sharing knowledge is the very foundation of any form of organisation, and it has kept researchers and practitioners busy for hundreds of years. It will continue to be like this as long as there is organised work.”
This month’s participants:
Mark Badoe is VP marketing and alliances at Meta4. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Suliman Hawamdeh is associate professor at Nanyang Technological University and president of iKMS. He can be contacted at: email@example.com
Melissa Risteff is group manager (Global Knowledge Engineering) at Sun Microsystems. She can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Waltraut Ritter is chairperson of the Hong Kong Knowledge Management Society. He can be contacted at: email@example.com
Jela Webb is proprietor and consultant for Azione. She can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org