posted 23 Jan 2003 in Volume 6 Issue 5
Your Say: KM in research and development
The core role of the research-and-development function in the modern organisation suggests an affinity with the principles and practices that relate to knowledge management, yet thus far KM seems to have made only limited inroads into the R&D community. Simon Lelic talks to representatives from Arup, Convera, Entovation, Pfizer and Unilever and explores how KM can add value to the R&D function.
The long-term survival of any company is dependent on its ability to generate and exploit innovative ideas, bringing to market those products or services that differentiate it from its rivals. While most companies may dismiss this statement as something of a truism, only a few take proactive measures to ensure that every employee has both the means and the will to help the organisation realise its potential (see, for example, ‘Ideas for innovation’ beginning on page 16). In many industries, it is frequently the research-and-development department that shoulders the weight of this responsibility. As Debra Amidon, founder and CEO of Entovation, says, “Over the years, research and development was perceived as the catalyst for the growth of an enterprise and the sustainability of its success. That role has not really changed, but rather has intensified in the knowledge economy.” And while information and knowledge, and the way these assets are managed, are important factors in the success of any organisational function, they are critical to the continued ability of R&D to fulfil its primary purpose.
It is surprising then that knowledge management has not made more of an impact in the research-and-development community, particularly given the strength of the association between KM and innovation. “We see innovation as successfully exploiting new ideas and KM as a process that ensures the right knowledge is applied at the right place and time,” says Tony Sheehan, group knowledge manager at Arup. “Given our mission, the two are pretty much one and the same thing.” Indeed, as Amidon says, innovation is an idea realised, operationalised and producing results – it is, as she puts it, knowledge in action. It is also, according to Sam Marshall, a KM specialist at Unilever R&D, about combining existing knowledge to make new products and services. “For instance,” he says, “Unilever was the first company to make a moisturising lipstick, because a cosmetics manager was inspired by an internal presentation on margarine showing how it structures fats to contain water. KM brings clarity on how such combinations might be encouraged.”
It is difficult to make generalisations about the research-and-development community when R&D spend fluctuates so hugely across industrial sectors (contrast, for instance, the amount of money poured into the function in the pharmaceutical industry with the level of resources it is afforded by most construction firms). There is, though, a general consensus that knowledge management is yet to have a substantial effect on the way most R&D departments operate. Perhaps, as Marshall says, this is because R&D managers have always understood the value of knowledge and are therefore not easily convinced by arguments for the implementation of KM-based working practices. Victor Newman, chief learning officer for Pfizer Global R&D, believes take-up has been hampered by a general tendency to sell KM as a set of technologies rather than as a distinct and overt way of thinking about how we work with knowledge to deliver new outcomes. “The world of R&D doesn’t need more reverse-Pareto KM implementations where 80 per cent of the potential value wasn’t realised because less than 20 per cent of the key population was involved in visualising the potential value outcomes,” he says.
Whatever the reasons, the limited progress of the discipline in R&D is all the more baffling when one considers its potential in the sector. Amidon, for instance, describes the possible impact of KM as “immense”. “The knowledge focus expands the traditional view and practice of linear, technology-driven R&D,” she continues. “It places an emphasis on the entire system of interactions with real-time learning as the modus operandi. It emphasises the intangible, hidden value of the firm and seeks performance measures that are redefining knowledge economies and knowledge accounting.” On a purely practical level, and according to Graham Charlesworth, VP and general manager of international operations at Convera, KM can help shorten the time needed to evaluate new ideas and research, in turn reducing overall time to market and saving money and resources. Sheehan echoes this idea, listing reduced duplication, increased innovation and the ability to map skills to seed the growth of new communities as further incentives for R&D professionals to experiment with knowledge management.
The potential value of knowledge management to the R&D function is neatly summarised by Newman, who describes three ‘knowledge imperatives’ for research and development that he feels KM could help deliver: how to manage what we already know that’s worth knowing; how to learn faster than the competition and build that new knowledge into work processes; and, how to create new forms of competitive knowledge that deliver new market values. There is even an argument to suggest that the principles and practices of knowledge management may take less time to embed in an environment that already places such value on knowledge and ideas. “KM probably has greater freedom within research and development,” says Sheehan. “The opportunity for the KM-related discovery of new ideas is curious, interesting and valuable in R&D, whereas in other parts of the business it can almost be a distraction.”
On the other hand, the majority of contemporary KM projects tend to focus primarily on efficiency issues such as knowledge re-use and best practice. As Marshall says, this is less of an issue in a research-and-development environment. “Knowledge creation is what matters,” he says. “So what if you re-invent the wheel? You might get a great new idea along the way.” Funding is another factor that could further hamper KM implementation. As Marshall points out, R&D departments are already seen as overheads in many firms, so KM initiatives within the research-and-development function are likely to be well down the list of priorities. A great deal also depends on how knowledge management is perceived by those it is likely to affect, and in turn how it is sold to them. Sheehan, for instance, believes overly process or technology-centred approaches to the discipline are destined to fail in an R&D environment, while Amidon highlights the danger of KM being seen as yet another management ‘flavour of the month’ – just one more thing for employees to worry about rather than a value-adding process in itself.
Yet these barriers are variations of those faced by companies of all types, regardless of the sector in which they operate. The difference with the research-and-development function, as alluded to already, is that those working in such an innovation-driven culture are more likely to embrace the values that KM propagates. “The knowledge focus is a terrific cornerstone upon which to build a solid innovation strategy,” says Amidon. “Knowledge is the only thing that makes an enterprise unique. Others will replicate your products; they will replicate your services. They will even reverse engineer your business strategies. However, no-one can replicate your knowledge-base, how you define it and how you harness it. KM professionals need to help those in R&D envision their role in that process.”
And while a technological approach to knowledge management has its limitations, KM-focused technologies can have a valuable role to play, particularly where they help limit the needless duplication of research or help connect people who would otherwise not be able to meet. Charlesworth points to several examples where the implementation of a specific solution has helped the company’s R&D department function more effectively. “For example,” he says, “a major health-products company in the US has developed a research portal that makes access to all of the journals, reports and other forms of professional literature from both internal and external sources fast and easy to use. The core of this portal is an intelligent search engine that has the linguistic ability to prove highly accurate and complete results.” The key, he maintains, is that any solution employed is able to grow in step with the changing needs of the enterprise as a whole, at the same time as being both efficient and cost effective.
Even the most economical of technical solutions require an initial investment of some kind, though, and while the economy continues to falter, it is possible that KM may remain stranded at the bottom of the wish list for many firms. Conversely, as Charlesworth says, it is precisely this economic condition that requires companies to be more efficient in all aspects of their operations, and research and development is no exception. While Marshall believes the number of R&D departments that start to experiment with KM will be offset by those projects that get canned due to budget cuts, both Newman and Sheehan are confident that the number of R&D departments implementing knowledge management will rise in the near future. And as Amidon says, “As the R&D agenda becomes more one of innovation and knowledge strategy is seen as an integral component of the business, a shared language and common purpose will emerge. All of the evidence on the innovation radar screen suggests this is happening already – and rapidly.”
Debra Amidon can be contacted at email@example.com
Graham Charlesworth can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Sam Marshall can be contacted at email@example.com
Victor Newman can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Tony Sheehan can be contacted at email@example.com