posted 1 Jun 2000 in Volume 3 Issue 9
WEB ONLY ARTICLE: Finding your way with KM
In the second article to appear in this column, Andrew Fellows offers a personal opinion on how to best approach the task of implementing a knowledge management programme in an organisation. Although technological issues should naturally be addressed, any KM approach should take into account a company's business strategy and objectives.
Most articles, publications and studies recommending best practice in knowledge management inevitably start with a discussion of database management, data warehousing, utilisation of intelligence from within and without, and, ultimately, the creation of knowledge management intranets. But these issues are only subsets of the greater question of defining and implementing a knowledge management strategy within an organisation, with the aim of increasing its sales and its effectiveness, and strengthening the knowledge networks within the company.
Essentially, there are four areas of activity which need to be addressed:
Defining a knowledge management strategy that fits to the business strategy and objectives of the company
Defining a knowledge management strategy cannot be undertaken in isolation from the remainder of the organisation and its business strategy. Knowledge can be divided into various areas, such as knowledge on customers (hitherto called customer data); knowledge on markets (market intelligence); knowledge on competitors (competitive intelligence); knowledge on the demographics of the customers you are attempting to target; knowledge on the economic activity in the field in which the company operates and on the political guidelines that determine how one is allowed to operate; knowledge on infrastructures; knowledge on technologies in the given field and knowledge on general socio-economic factors. This very accurately resembles the DEPICTS model developed in the marketing faculty of Liverpool John Moores University, to which I give full credit; I couldn't survive without this.
Additionally, gaining access to the knowledge of the people in the organisation is a key factor. Their knowledge (learning, experience and documented intelligence is my definition of this word) is something which is absolutely essential for the organisation to obtain and make use of. It forms the backbone, or should, of every decision taken by the board, on the company's future and on each operational decision. What also must be made clear is that a mixture of the tacit and explicit knowledge is necessary to create a 'knowledge picture', and that the variation between these two types of knowledge will be constantly shifting on a continuum, depending on the knowledge requirement. Being an absolute realist, it is clear to me that the systems, information flows, networks and correct people must be in place in order for such a knowledge strategy to work and for it to be of real use to the company concerned. Quite often, knowledge management and the associated intranet and IT systems are implemented without reference to the strategy of the company but simply because KM is a trend and we need to do it too! This is not only wrong, but a waste of investment funds.
Defining KM intelligence requirements and the required technology
Going on from the need to develop a KM strategy and then fitting this to the company's objectives, it is important to set intelligence gathering objectives. What type of KM do I need for what purposes, how do I go about collecting, evaluating, sorting and transforming the collected intelligence into knowledge by combining this with the companies and its workers' experiences and to what use do I put this? How does knowledge fit into what I offer my customer and how can I help him to improve/establish his knowledge management practices so it adds value to his business and allows me to collect further intelligence and serve him better? All of these questions are relevant, but also extremely poignant is the question of knowledge relevance - how do I decide where to draw the line and how to gather knowledge from intelligence, intelligence from data and to sort the wheat from the chaff?
These issues bring us very nicely to the technical solution. Quite often, systems such as Lotus Notes or technical platforms for Internet use are taken without consideration of what is required - my own company uses Lotus for certain purposes and it is excellent, but it may not be suitable for all needs. What needs to be done is to rank needs and, for the most important knowledge requirements, to draft out how that information can be fed to the population that requires it to promote sales and serve the customer. Only when the needs are clearly defined and ring-fenced, can one start to design the hardware and software; 'the look and feel' of what is required. It is no good to say: 'This is our IT system and this is what we will use.' Knowledge management and the associated systems must be seen purely as a means to an end - improving the internal organisation and teamwork, and serving the customer to the optimal degree. This is the way to sustained streams of revenue.
Empowering the people (the knowledge workers) and changing culture
Knowledge is all about people. The organisation is operating in a global, web-enabled economy where responding faster and more accurately to customer and market needs, and offering products and services beyond the wildest dreams of the consumer are the only routes to survival. The people in the organisation, what they know and what they have experienced, are, therefore, at the heart of what goes on. Even in Internet selling, it is clear that what makes a site attractive and what makes people purchase online is not simply an attractive site, but giving customers what they need, making them happy. Only by having all of the knowledge mentioned in this article already, can one serve the end consumer to an optimum level and ensure loyalty and future purchases. The Internet, extranets and intranets serve to enable the exchange process between seller and buyer, but the people in the organisation are those who define the requirements, set up the customer offering, know the market, buy, sell, develop, etc, etc., and their knowledge, or intellectual capital, is the most valuable asset a company can have.
The only remaining question, then, is how to get this knowledge out of their heads and put it to good use. In traditional, silo-driven organisations (most companies), power politics, personal interests, payment and bonus systems based purely on individual performance and sheer bloody-mindedness contribute to diluting knowledge capturing, sharing, effective dissemination and usage to such an extent that the systems and processes in place might as well be scrapped. A change needs to be made, and this is possible in the age of the network economy, where speed and customer service are critical, from being a functional organisation to a process-based, customer-oriented service company. The only way for the organisation to learn is through its people; the learning organisation means the maximum use of intellectual capital to facilitate the optimum transfer of explicit and tacit knowledge for the improvement of the individual and the organisation.
A car company, for example, will be a provider of mobility packages to consumers (transportation services and products, as well as other services) in the future. Such a company must operate on the basis of processes and customer care, and the time is past when production and marketing departments fight with one-another over who is to blame for the late introduction of a new model; in my view, someone will be responsible at a car company for the 'build-to-delivery' process in a few years and the only goals will be profit and customer satisfaction and retention. Cultural change is hard and needs top management support; indeed, someone on the board should have responsibility for knowledge management strategy. The people's development, pay and prospects at such a car company would then depend on teamwork, leadership, results and sharing best practice, and a combination of these will determine the leaders of the future. Indeed, these people will become qualified, knowledge workers who, without really thinking about it, disseminate, share, use and reshape knowledge as part of their normal activities. Knowledge practices will become as normal as brushing your teeth in the morning or taking the dog for a walk. Of course, systems for rewarding these new practices must be put in place to replace the antiquated ones.
This is not a hypothesis, it is a question of survival in the knowledge-based network economy. Cultural change must be forced through - get on the bus or stay in the bus station!
Serving the end customer to the optimum level
The ultimately aim of a business is to make money. If we want to do this better, more quickly, with greater success and more profitably, then what better way than to have a structured overview of the end customer, the entire playing field in which one operates, the team with which one works (including suppliers and distributors), the technology and methods one employs (Internet and outsourcing) and the development of the company? Only people have this and the intellectual capital within the firm, and not how many machines it owns, is priceless. Knowledge is, put quite simply, the key to the door to doing things better and in a customer-oriented, efficient way. What a pity that companies have not realised the full potential of knowledge in the information society and the network economy. Knowledge is the future; grasp it and exploit it. Let the organisation learn from its people and the people learn from the organisation.
Andrew Fellows is a senior consultant at Gemini Consulting. He can be contacted at:firstname.lastname@example.org