posted 29 Jun 2001 in Volume 4 Issue 10
Knowledge asset management
Strategy, processes and systems for leveraging corporate knowledge
Traditional approaches to knowledge management have centred around two distinct perspectives: that of knowledge as a product and knowledge as a process. Ron Young and Gregoris N. Mentzas believe that for a KM initiative to be truly effective, a fusion of the two approaches should be adopted. To this end, they describe the Knowledger project, one of the world’s first truly holistic and integrated knowledge management solutions.
Motivation for a knowledge asset-centric approach in KM
The first phase in the emergence of knowledge management in the private sector is now drawing to an end (Ovum, 1999). This phase has been characterised by considerable hype and confusion.
In this first phase, early adopters followed different approaches to knowledge management with varying emphasis on technology, cultural, organisational and managerial issues.
Nevertheless, if one looks into the research landscape, as well as into the business world, it is clear that two main strategies for knowledge management have been employed by early adopters of the discipline (see also Hansen et al, 1999). Let’s call them the ‘product’ and the ‘process’ approaches.
Knowledge as a ‘product’
The ‘product’ approach implies that knowledge is a thing that can be located and manipulated as an independent object. Proponents of this approach claim that it is possible to capture, distribute, measure and manage knowledge. This approach mainly focuses on products and artefacts containing and representing knowledge; usually, this means managing documents, their creation, storage, and re-use in computer-based corporate memories. Examples include: best-practice databases and lessons-learned archives; case-bases that preserve older business-case experiences; knowledge taxonomies and formal knowledge structures; and so on. This approach is also referred to as a ‘content-centred’ or ‘codification’ approach.
Adopting the knowledge as a product approach means treating knowledge as an entity separate from the people who create and use it. The typical goal is to take documents with explicit knowledge embedded in them – memos, reports, presentations, articles, etc. – and store them in a repository where they can be easily retrieved.
Examples of companies that aim at a continual enhancement of their knowledge base – the collection of best practices, methods and reusable work products – include General Motors, Glaxo Wellcome and DaimlerChrysler.
Knowledge as a ‘process’
The ‘process’ approach puts emphasis on ways to promote, motivate, encourage, nurture or guide the process of knowing, and abolishes the idea of trying to capture and distribute knowledge. This view mainly understands KM as a social communication process, which can be improved by collaboration and co-operation support tools. In this approach, knowledge is closely tied to the person who developed it and is shared mainly through person-to-person contacts. The main purpose of information technology in this instance is to help people communicate knowledge, not store it. IT tools in this case comprise, for example, e-mail, real-time chat and web awareness tools, video-conferencing, workflow management systems, systems for the distributed authoring of hypertext documents, group-decision support systems, and so on.
This approach has also been referred to as the ‘collaboration’ or ‘personalisation’ approach. Treating knowledge as a process usually considers enabling the development and flourishing of communities as a key solution for knowledge leverage.
The knowledge asset-centric view
Although the proliferation of intangible knowledge points to the adoption of the knowledge as a process approach, there are some crucial knowledge-leveraging elements (like rapidly capturing and sharing learning and ideas, developing best practices and ‘best knowledge’) that need a knowledge as a product view. So there is a real need for a balanced fusion of the two KM views. It should be stressed that this need has been identified by research firms like Gartner Group (for example, see their 2000 report on the KM market).
The motivation of this article is to present Knowledger, an innovative, holistic and integrated KM solution comprising a framework, method and technologies for KM that explicitly provide for such a fusion. Knowledger versions 1.0 and 2.0, were developed in the period 1995-1998, and significantly enhanced by a e2m knowledge management project called Know-Net (50 per cent funded by the European Commission) during the period 1998-2000. Throughout this article we refer to research and development key findings from the EC Know-Net project (www.know-net.org). In April 2001, the integration of Know-Net into an enhanced Knowledger v.3.0 was completed, as one of the first truly holistic and integrated knowledge management solutions in the world today.
In developing the conceptual, methodological and technical architecture that fuses the two approaches, we are building on the resource-based view of the firm (see for example Wernerfelt, 1984) as it has been expanded to treat knowledge as a strategic asset (see Grant, 1997).
We claim that both the process and product-based approaches aim to support the identification, managing and leveraging of knowledge, through better management of the organisation’s knowledge assets. Knowledge assets are the resources that organisations wish to cultivate. Although knowledge per se cannot be measured, knowledge assets certainly can be. Knowledge asset accounting is now becoming a reality.
Knowledge assets can be human, such as a person or a network of people; structural assets, such as business process; or market assets, such as the brand name of a product. Naturally, the product approach is more concerned with accessing and organising knowledge assets, while the process approach makes direct connections between organisational knowledge assets – both explicit and tacit. Both approaches, however, are using some form of knowledge representation as a means of packaging and rapidly transferring knowledge either from a person to a system and vice versa, or between people.
We define ‘knowledge objects’ as the means of representing knowledge assets. The following statement outlines the relationship between knowledge assets and knowledge objects: “A knowledge asset creates, modifies, stores and/or disseminates knowledge objects.” For example, a person is a knowledge asset that can create new ideas, learnings, and proposals (knowledge objects); a community of interest is a knowledge asset that can create new ideas and best practices (knowledge objects); a process is a knowledge asset that can create and/or store and disseminate best practices, company standards, and R&D material (knowledge objects).
A knowledge object represents, in varying degrees of richness, the information required to be processed by humans and transformed into knowledge. Knowledge derives from information through knowledge-creating activities that take place within and between humans. Typical knowledge-creating activities include (Davenport & Prusak, 1998):
- Comparison: how does information about this situation compare to other situations known?
- Consequences: what implications does the information have for decisions and actions?
- Connections: how does this bit of knowledge relate to others?
- Conversation: what do other people think about this information?
The knowledge objects aim to facilitate and leverage such knowledge-creating activities by providing to humans the information needed. A knowledge object has the following characteristics:
- It acts as a catalyst, enabling the fusion of knowledge flows between people, with knowledge content discovery and retrieval, through technology. That is to say, a knowledge object acts, among other things, as the primary connecting node for all key components in a KM system (strategy, people, process, content, technology) – the KM ‘glue’;
- It facilitates the accelerated knowledge transfer from person to person, or from information to person;
- A knowledge object is created and maintained by a KM process;
- A knowledge object is used to search, organise and disseminate knowledge content.
Therefore, we conclude that the knowledge object is the common unifier and lowest common denominator of a holistic KM solution incorporating and integrating process and content, and we have used it as the ‘resultant manifestation’ in the design of the Knowledger solution that fuses the process-centric approach with the product-centric approach.
The idea of the knowledge object being the common unifier for integrating the process and product approaches not only underpins all three of the constituents of the Knowledger approach (framework, method, and tool), but also links them together into one holistic solution, as described in detail in the following sections.
The knowledge asset-centric framework
In the centre of the framework are the knowledge assets. As defined previously, knowledge assets create/use/disseminate knowledge objects that are the representations of knowledge (both explicit and tacit). The knowledge asset-centric framework also represents:
- The knowledge strategy, processes, structure and systems a company develops in order to facilitate knowledge creation and leveraging among and between them;
- The knowledge interaction networks at the individual, team, organisational and inter-organisational levels.
In fact, all these elements can be considered to be critical and generic knowledge assets for every type of organisation.
A process, for example, can be a knowledge asset, if for instance it creates best practices, company standards, R&D material, and so on. Having them as discrete entities linked to the knowledge assets, aims primarily to indicate that they are or should be the constituents of the knowledge management infrastructure (KMI) that should be established within a company in order to facilitate knowledge leveraging initiatives.
The different levels of knowledge networking, represented in the outer section of the framework, correspond to what Nonaka calls the “ontological dimension” in his model of organisations as knowledge creating mechanisms. This ontological dimension refers to the social interactions that begin at the individual level and then, by communication between organisational boundaries, let knowledge expand and grow up.
According to Nonaka, if new knowledge is relevant to the needs of the organisation, it is likely to permeate through groups and divisions and thereby extend the community of interaction dealing with that knowledge. New knowledge that has a potential to support more advantageous ways of doing things is likely to be retained as a subject for further debate within the network and may also lead to an extension of the community of interaction.
Within the knowledge asset-centric framework, we distinguish between four levels of knowledge networking – individual, team, organisation, and inter-organisation:
- The individual level refers to the capabilities, experience, competencies and personal development issues treated at the individual level of the knowledge worker;
- The team and organisational levels include the internal company networks, ie. the informal, self-organising, or the formal networks of work teams and communities of ‘knowers’ with common interests, the communities of practice involved in similar activities, the engagement teams, and so on that are built within an organisation.
- The level of inter-organisational networks refers to inter-enterprise relationships; value networks where each focuses on core competencies, as well as on the accessibility to external, developed capabilities. Hence networks with customers, competitors, subcontractors, strategic partners and so on are included in this level.
The Knowledger method
A basic tenet of knowledge management is that it is not primarily a technical issue. Knowledge management addresses basic cultural and organisational issues of how knowledge is shared, distributed and created, and how these processes relate to key business goals. This emphasis on the business as well as human element of knowledge management implies that for a KM initiative to be successful, significant education, communication and consulting is required in parallel to technology implementations.
To support these activities, we have developed a methodology with the following distinguishing characteristics:
- It exploits the theoretical approach of integrating the process and product views using knowledge assets and objects as the unifying elements;
- It is complete because it covers the design, development, implementation and measurement of the initiative, and holistic in the sense that it addresses all components of knowledge management (strategy, people, processes, technology, content).
Overview of the Knowledger method
The Knowledger method proposes the following phased approach to enable both creative and structured thinking and planning for a knowledge management project:
- Awareness – about the benefits of knowledge management and its relationships to strategic as well as operational and day-to-day issues in the corporate environment;
- Stage I: plan – refers to the knowledge management strategic planning phase;
- Stage II: develop – is the phase in which an organisation transforms itself into a knowledge intensive company, based on the company-specific KM value proposition derived in stage I;
- Stage III: operate – is the phase in which an organisation rolls-out a company-wide implementation plan with a holistic approach to KM;
- Measurement – of the level of leveraging of knowledge assets with a KM effort;
- Training – of both the knowledge workers to the new processes and technologies as well as of the staff to take up new knowledge-related roles (for example, CKOs, knowledge analysts, etc.).
The method is designed to be modular so that an organisation can choose to start at different levels depending on its readiness, needs and requirements.
In stage I – strategic planning for knowledge management – an organisation determines:
- The vision and readiness for a knowledge management initiative;
- The scope and feasibility of the project.
In stage II – developing the knowledge organisation – the structure and the design of an holistic solution (which covers processes, people, technology and content) are iteratively developed, tested and reviewed. Stage III is the company-wide implementation of the KM initiative, while the measurement part of the method aims to provide consistent support for measuring the creation, sharing and use of knowledge assets within the company.
The case studies
The Knowledger framework and methodology comprises an innovative approach for leveraging corporate knowledge, built around a knowledge asset-centric approach, and offering a unique fusion of the knowledge as a product (content) and knowledge as a process (context) perspectives of knowledge management. The EC Know-Net consortium research and development has been, or is currently applied, in the following organisations:
- The management consultancy company Planet (now Planet Ernst & Young);
- The knowledge management consultancy, Knowledge Associates;
- The global bank, UBS (see Sonnenberger, 1999);
- The chartered surveyors firm, NAI Gooch Webster (see Manders and Topintzi, 2000).
Following the successful review of the Know-Net Research & Development project by the European Commission in May 2000, a further EC-funded validation and customisation project called LEVER (www.kmlever.com) started in November 2000 and will be completed in October 2001, specifically for knowledge intensive software organisations to implement the Knowledger KM solution. These include:
- The IT services company, Singular;
- The software development company, MDA;
- The training and software customisation company, Debus;
- The CRM applications development company, Alphanova.
The framework and method have helped these companies in:
- The development of knowledge-oriented strategic directions;
- The knowledge analysis of existing situation;
- The identification and leveraging of knowledge assets;
- The development of a KM business case;
- Leveraging knowledge to radically improve the development of competencies at three levels (individual level, consulting engagement level and organisation-wide level);
- Leveraging of subject matter knowledge within people networks;
- The development of knowledge asset schemata;
- The integration of all the above in a consistent KM architecture;
- The development of metrics and the continuous measurement of knowledge-asset related indices within the companies.
Knowledger v.3.0 has been further developed, beyond Know-Net and LEVER, to provide customised knowledge portals and project team spaces, linked directly to critical knowledge assets, for:
- The leading telecommunications company, PCCW-Hong Kong Telecomms;
- The international DOOR Training subsidiary of Raytheon Training Systems.
In conclusion, we would submit that Knowledger, based on extensive EC-funded research and development through the Know-Net consortium, is an innovative knowledge asset-centric approach to knowledge management, which is holistic and critically fuses the flow and codification of knowledge. The Knowledger method ensures the formulation of the strategic link between knowledge assets and the achievement of business objectives. It ensures proper attention is given to ‘the politics of knowledge sharing’, change readiness and cultural transformation to a knowledge-driven organisation. It recognises the need for building the case for knowledge management for both the organisation and the individual knowledge worker. Furthermore, the knowledge object is the common unifier and lowest common denominator of a holistic KM solution incorporating and integrating the facilitation of knowledge creation processes and content.
The knowledge asset-centric approach enables realistic knowledge asset measurement and reporting – the critical new tools for the 21st century for developing high performance knowledge-driven and knowledge intensive organisations.
1. Ovum, Knowledge Management: Building the Collaborative Enterprise (1999)
2. Hansen, M. T., Nohria, N., & Tierney, T., ‘What’s your strategy for managing knowledge?’ in Harvard Business Review (March-April 1999, pp.107-116)
3. Wernerfelt, B., ‘A resource-based view of the firm’ in Strategic Management Journal (September-October 1984)
4. Grant, R.M., ‘The knowledge-based view of the firm: Implications for management practice’ in Long Range Planning (Vol. 30, No. 3, 1997, pp. 450-454)
5. Sonnenberger, G., ‘Knowledge management: Some experiences in a real bank project’, paper presented at the ‘Information systems at the turn of the century’, Swiss Computer Science Conference SCSC/99 (Lausanne, Switzerland, 6-7 October 1999)
6. Manders, C. & Topintzi, E., ‘NAI Gooch Webster, icebergs, pubs and the wheel world’ in Knowledge Management (Vol. 3, Iss. 5, February 2000)
© Knowledge Associates 2001, PLANET Ernst & Young 2001, Know-Net Consortium 2000
Ron Young is CEO and CKO of Knowledge Associates.
Gregoris N. Mentzas is associate professor of management at the National Technical University of Athens and senior manager at Planet Ernst & Young.