posted 1 Jun 1998 in Volume 1 Issue 6
Many companies like to think that they share information, that they are ‘democratic’, but if one examines the information that is ‘shared’ we find that so much of it is irrelevant, too specialised, or just plain impenetrable dross. Neil Svensen , Rufus Leonard, examines how to go about becoming a real information revolutionary, a beneficiary of the huge changes in the way we can communicate and share knowledge rather than someone who is left out in the cold?
A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, or so we are told. Ironically, we now live in an age when too much knowledge can also be dangerous - that is, if it is not controlled in the right way. It is now commonplace for large organizations to bombard individuals with up to 100 email messages a day. But what does this jungle telegraph bring to the individual - is it true knowledge or dull facts? A friend who works for an American multi-national computer company receives at least this number of email messages from all parts of the globe at all times of the day - while he’s having dinner with friends they pour into his laptop, while he’s asleep they keep coming, over breakfast, while he’s driving to work - the end result? He selects an appropriate time of the day and bins at least 75% of them! He knows, like many of us, that email can be the modern form of Organizational junk mail. It is not true information sharing.
What my friend’s company is suffering from is information overload, a common enough symptom in a modern, forward looking organisation where the tools of sophisticated communication have been put in the hands of people who have no special training to use them properly. What the company truly needs is an information champion, someone who knows that knowledge is the key, someone who is not scared of technology, who is a “hunter gatherer” of information, a decision maker, and most of all, a good communicator. Such information supremos - and they are all too rare - are at the forefront of the knowledge revolution and are most needed in organizations such as this where there has been a call for global flexibility, where the company is running full throttle ‘24 - 7 - 365’ and is responding to the fact that there are now ‘no boundaries’.
In my experience, many companies like to think that they share information, that they are ‘democratic’, but if one examines the information that is ‘shared’ we find that so much of it is irrelevant, too specialised, or just plain impenetrable dross. So how do you go about becoming a real information revolutionary, a beneficiary of the huge changes in the way we can communicate and share knowledge rather than someone who is left out in the cold? The good news is that the basis for joining the revolution is good old common sense. To begin with every organisation needs to ask itself some simple but challenging questions:
1. Do we understand what we mean by information management?
2. Is it a commodity that can be controlled and tied down?
3. Do we manage it, or does it manage us?
4. Do we as an organisation need a new philosophy for the information age?
5. How can we turn information into knowledge and wisdom?
Understanding information calls for a little historical perspective.
Knowledge has traditionally been locked up in what can best be described as an institutional chastity belt - the privilege of a ruling elite - the old adage ‘knowledge is power’ has related more to what it can do for individuals, and their careers, rather than for the future of the organisation as a whole. Knowledge sharing systems pick the lock of the chastity belt and create an information democracy releasing the power from the hands of the ‘information elite’ and empowering the workforce.
Within multi-national companies roadblocks to knowledge sharing have been commonplace, and within a multi-national company there have existed frontiers and boundaries as great as The Berlin Wall, the Iron Curtain and the Great Wall of China! In the older style company information has been handed down, or cascaded, through a pyramidal structure, on a purely ‘need to know’ basis, and the consequence is that one usually finds out what one needs to know - but far too late. Obviously, I am not advocating the broadcasting throughout an organisation of sensitive mergers and acquisitions plans etc., but what is recognised to be entirely right for an organisation is unlimited access to other peoples’ experience and ideas.
Creating a system for knowledge sharing can be complex, but it’s not brain surgery. Given the budget and commitment, any company can reach a serviceable result. However, what is more challenging than the setting up and managing of the knowledge infrastructure is creating the cultural revolution within a company that will allow knowledge sharing to happen.
Some companies are already there, and one well-known management consultancy actually appraises its employees on how much they have contributed to the knowledge bank each year. This company obviously understands that having knowledge locked up inside one consultant’s head does not necessarily benefit the company as a whole - it has also successfully been able to tackle an all important personal issue, convincing the individual that his or her share price will not be devalued because they have ‘unburdened’ themselves. If anything, this way of working encourages the brightest individuals to continually learn, develop and then ‘download’. A company such as this becomes a business university, where all are students, and all are teachers.
The essential step to knowledge sharing is the creation and marketing of a system that all employees can recognise, understand and own. The system needs to be branded and marketed, just like the company would brand and market any of its products. Also, recognising that knowledge sharing is cultural change, the activity needs significant support through internal communications. Employees need to know why they are being asked to share, and they need to be taught how to share. Sharing needs to become second nature, as easy as walking to the coffee machine. Initially, this may require the use of a wide range of communication formats from printed documents to workshops and seminars, or even the setting up of a ‘knowledge cafe’, however, in time this commitment to communication can be eased away when we reach the point at which employees say, “Knowledge sharing? Well, that’s the way we’ve always done it!”
To make an information sharing system work one needs to address four major problems:
1. Information is not available.
2. The information is there but the ways of accessing it are unhelpful.
3. People do not know what information is available.
4. Internal politics: people keep information to themselves.
There are ways to overcome this, which include the carrot and the stick.
The carrots include promotions and bonuses for sharing information. And the stick? Well, ultimately there are always opportunities in the wider world...
A number of well known knowledge sharing models have been put forward over the past few years, for example, Max Boisot’s and Justin Keen’s cultural models. All of these models can be used as a basis for establishing knowledge management system. However, what I have found effective in constructing a knowledge management system is to start the process by looking at what is needed in a very simplistic way and establishing a model that is easy to communicate and understand.
A model such as that illustrated typically includes the following content providers:
Databases. Held independently - many organizations have a range of databases that they use to help run their business.
The press office. This generates information itself to go to the outside world: press releases, faxes, briefing, and the like, but it also receives a vast amount of information.
Management information. This is the kind of information that ends up on both middle and senior managers’ desks. It includes market reports, briefing, treasury documents, and the like.
The marketing department. There could be a relationship database here, plus of course all the material the company send out as part of its marketing drives.
The organisation’s personnel. Probably the most important factor of all - without their support nothing will happen.
A chief information officer and knowledge team
The crucial thing in setting up a knowledge management system is to have someone in place who understands how to handle information, and who will work as a liaison point between departments generating information and those that set up the technology. This key player, who we can refer to as a CIO (or chief information officer), will be able to look at systems and their usage, help people to come to terms with them, and use them for the benefit of the organisation.
Within all organizations there are goldmines of valuable information that need to be mined and ‘broadcast’ to large user groups - there are also rubbish tips of useless or low-grade information that should be ‘narrowcasted’ through an organisation. The CIO can navigate around the information rubbish tips and make sure that only high-grade information is shared.
CIO’s are information superworkers who need all the skills we looked at earlier. It’s important too that they have an understanding of the work of the different departments from which the information is drawn.
As soon as an information system is proposed, a wise organisation will put a team of people in place to make things happen. At the very least, the team needs to include an information technology person, a marketing person, and some stakeholder from senior management. The job of this team is to pull together the material that’s coming from all the content providers, and start to put it into a format that can be used.
In many ways, these people can be seen as ‘gatekeepers’ of the information system. They take in the information that’s available, update it, and process it into a format that can be used further on down the line. They are also responsible for setting standards of information, so people will know how to present information, and what information is actually required in the system. They are certainly far more than glorified librarians. Their job is to seek out information and liase with all the providers. They then synthesise it and go about judging its relevance. They also act as standard bearers for the project.
The knowledge warehouse
An essential part of knowledge sharing is to establish an information warehouse - a powerful database. This database will ultimately include a vast array of information that is regularly updated. It will include text, pictures, brochures, press releases, forms, letters, and the like. It can include videos, sound, and animation - all stored in a format that can’t be hacked into.
The delivery channels
But once you have created your information warehouse what are the delivery systems that you need to get it out to employees and customers? When people talk about knowledge management they automatically talk about intranets, but it is vitally important to remember that there are a number of ways of delivering knowledge which include less high-tech and less glamorous methods, such as good old fashioned print. There is of course a dazzling array of delivery vehicles at your disposal, and the range of options will just go on increasing. The trick is to choose the right for you.
Here are some possibilities:
|Conventional printed material.|
|CD ROM and 3.5" floppies.|
|Workshops and seminars.|
A word about intranets. We all know that they are a really important element in the information age - a key component. The intranet offers employees the opportunity to tap into the information lifeblood of the organisation. The advantage of intranets is that they are immediate, flexible, and fun. They can hold vast amounts of information in an accessible and, of course, up-to-date form. But the intranet needs to be backed up by a culture that encourages sharing, and by intranet structures which allow effective and understandable access to the information contained.
And lastly, some predictions for the future. Things are moving fast in knowledge sharing, and as companies are re-structuring and tailoring their IT systems I think the following will be a reality sooner rather later:
1. Knowledge sharing will become commonplace within most organizations within the next five years.
2. Intranet systems will evolve to the stage where they are the tool by which you work from. They will be used across the working spectrum from initiating projects through to reviewing them
3. Virtual working will become the norm.
4. The human resources required to manage knowledge and information will substantially decrease as IT systems and new ways of working (intranet-based) will allow the capturing of data to be fully automated.
5. The IT interface to information will evolve dramatically and I believe will bear little resemblance to what it offers us now.
Rufus Leonard is the third largest multi-media consultancy in the UK whose clients include: Andersen Consulting, BT, GEC-Marconi, Lloyds TSB, Rhone Poulanc Rorer, Shell and Visa International.
Neil Svensen can be contacted at: