posted 17 May 2002 in Volume 5 Issue 8
Country focus: USA
Simon Lelic talks to Bruce Taylor, senior correspondent (North America) for Knowledge Management
As Knowledge Management’s senior correspondent in North America and the conference chair at Ark Group’s forthcoming Global KM eXchange, Bruce Taylor is better placed than many to comment on the state of the knowledge management industry in the United States. A thirty-year career in print, broadcast and electronic journalism, during which time he became the founding editor and publisher of both Imaging World and KM World, has equipped Taylor with a comprehensive understanding of how the discipline has matured since it first became established in the activities of US businesses.
“What we think of as modern knowledge management in a business context first began to poke its hoary head outside the ivied archways of the academy and the hallways of the research library in the early and mid-1990s,” he says. “Prior to that, KM had been the sinecure of the professional and academic societies of information searchers, documents, records and archive managers, academics, and research and corporate librarians.” It was in the 90s, argues Taylor, that organisations in the US first began to concentrate on grappling with the vast majority of corporate information that was (and still is) largely unstructured. In contrast, the 70s and 80s were largely consumed with managing coded data.
From a technological perspective, Taylor describes the evolution of knowledge management to its current point of development in several stages. The first of these was the advent of optical (laser) disc technology in the 80s. “This was a seminal breakthrough that was the precursor to notions of electronic document, content, work process and knowledge management,” he says.
“Client-server capability, true distributed computing, powerful storage (and storage management capabilities), robust PC networks and miraculous new software led to the next stage of knowledge management,” continues Taylor. Finally, it was the arrival of the internet and the world wide web that has generated what Taylor describes as “remarkable capabilities to manage information, content and knowledge in ways that can transform processes and results, that can slash time-to-market and costs, that can spawn innovation, and that can create enormous value”.
But while rapid improvements in technology over the years may have broadened the possibilities as to what companies can achieve with KM, the sheer speed of the advances made has brought its own specific problems. In particular, Taylor believes technological advancement has outpaced the ability of business managers to absorb the benefits newly developed tools can offer and integrate them with working practices. “This has served to discredit many of the claims made by the technology’s proponents – claims that are probably true if the psychological and sociological behaviours around work could be altered quickly enough to fit the new technologies,” he says.
This problem is compounded by the continuing difficulties associated with securing high-level backing for KM initiatives, which Taylor feels still exist in most organisations, despite the position of so many US firms at the vanguard of the evolution of knowledge management. “Most knowledge systems still enter the enterprise through the side-door, at the level of the specific product, process, project or brand to which the new system is to be applied,” he says. “Unfortunately, even if the CEO becomes the champion, it is slow, painful going for most companies.”
And even in the US, knowledge management rarely receives coverage in anything other than business, trade or, perhaps, academic press. Possibly, as Taylor says, this is because the concepts surrounding the discipline are now broadly understood. Nevertheless, Taylor maintains that KM has yet to achieve a level of broad, enterprise-wide systematic acceptance and use. The danger for US-based firms, of course, is that, should they dally further before embracing KM technologies and principles, those same tools will be used by organisations operating elsewhere across the globe to level the playing field in the single biggest, and largely homogenous, marketplace – that of the US itself.
Taylor seems confident, however, that a shift is underway towards an acceptance of the idea that true value lies in what we know, rather than in what we make. But, as he points out, knowledge management will have to continue to prove itself in a market that is at once large, naïve, messy, turbulent, undisciplined and glorious. “Experimentation and failure are held as foundational values of almost mythic proportions. This is an enormous driver for treating the workplace as a great lab experiment. When something works, it is the hero of the world. When it doesn’t, it’s the Enron-ic villain,” he says. “Are we having fun yet?”
For more information on Global KM eXchange 2002, visit: www.globalkmexchange.com
Bruce Taylor is senior correspondent (North America) for Knowledge Management. He can be contacted at: