posted 12 Jun 2002 in Volume 5 Issue 9
Knowledge as standard
Towards a common approach to KM in Europe – Part I
Driven by a desire to instil greater transparency and co-operation in the field, the European Knowledge Management Forum is working towards the development of a set of open standards for knowledge management. In the first of a two-part article exploring the forum’s work towards this end, Frithjof Weber, Michael Wunram, Jeroen Kemp, Marc Pudlatz and Bernd Bredehorst outline the industrial and academic needs that are driving the standardisation process, and assess how far preious industry initiatives have come.
Advances in knowledge management research and the application of KM in an industrial context require the further exploration of numerous themes, for instance KM scenarios, human and organisational issues, communities of practice, KM technologies, inter-organisational KM and so on. Depending on where the focal point lies in a given context, experts from different disciplines – including information science, business management, linguistics, engineering, organisational psychology and law – are involved. Thus, KM is a truly multidisciplinary domain that can only be advanced if the various experts co-operate and bring their knowledge together in a synergistic way in order to create innovative and more reliable solutions. However, feedback from researchers and practitioners indicates that existing results often remain hidden from interested parties, primarily due to a lack of structured representation and public availability.
This is the main motivation behind the activities of the European Knowledge Management Forum, which aims to build up a KM community in Europe and support a commonality in KM terminology, application and implementation. In particular, the European KM Forum intends to bring together a critical mass of KM experts in order to share the latest developments in the KM domain and stimulate the definition of open standards and common approaches for the discipline.
This article, the second part of which appears in next month’s magazine, will present results from investigations, consultations and workshops from the European KM Forum that have been carried out within the last year and that aimed to determine the direction for a standardisation initiative. (In co-operation with organisations such as the European Commission and the British Standards Institute, a formal workshop aimed at developing a ‘European Guide to Good Practice’ is scheduled to take place later this month. For further information, visit www.knowledgeboard.com). Part one will outline the industrial and academic needs that make the standardisation process so important, as well as presenting an overview and a map of existing and emerging standards and standardisation initiatives. Part two will explore the degree to which standardisation in KM should be pursued, as well as identifying the most relevant areas for standardisation and proposing the development of a KM framework.
The need for common approaches and standards for KM in Europe
The standardisation of knowledge management should not be pursued for its own sake, but should be based on real and tangible needs. The overall aim is to facilitate the international exchange of goods and services, and to develop co-operation in the spheres of intellectual, scientific, technological and economic activity. The following sections will outline the industrial and academic needs for common approaches towards KM in Europe.
A study performed by the International Institute for Learning Organization and Innovation (ILOI) identified that among leading companies in Austria, Germany, and Switzerland, nearly 80 per cent identified knowledge as their main source of added value. Market research institution Ovum anticipated an increase in the value of the KM market from $1.8bn in 1998 to $11.6bn in 2002.
Yet in certain areas the promise of KM is not being fulfilled. Many organisations are looking to implement a solution that allows employee knowledge to be extracted and then stored in some form of knowledge base. This kind of solution would preferably be a large database that could be accessed via an intranet, extranet or the internet, and that could also offer intelligent reasoning mechanisms. However, there is a growing acceptance that such databases will not necessarily meet expectations, and many organisations often underestimate the effort involved in feeding and maintaining such repositories. As such, one of the major trends in leading companies that are applying KM is to focus on “grouping[s] of people who share common context, stories and passion, around a subject”, rather than focusing on the individual, the enterprise or the technology. Other areas currently generating a great deal of interest include:
- The integration of customer knowledge;
- Ubiquitous, remote access to knowledge through various devices;
- The global aspects and handicaps of knowledge services (includes the consideration of factors such as language, time zones, cultural differences, etc);
- Appropriate ways of recording valuable daily experiences and successful trouble shooting processes;
- Integration of new approaches or software solutions into existing applications and technological standards;
- Interactive communication systems for communities.
What makes it particularly difficult for companies is the sheer number of approaches and different understandings of the subject. These heterogeneous views often serve to impede the effective and efficient implementation of KM processes.
Finally, standardisation can help address the criticism so often levelled at KM that dismisses the discipline as being just a passing fad.
The discussion about what knowledge actually is has been going on for years, and opinions as to an exact definition still vary greatly. Furthermore, the uncertainty surrounding the definition of the term ‘knowledge’ automatically implies an uncertainty about the term ‘knowledge management’. In response to this problem, numerous definitions have emerged that have provided a basis from which academic research can begin.
However, over the last 10-20 years, as knowledge management began to attract increased attention, in particular since the 1990s when the term was actually coined, the discipline began to establish itself in various academic domains. According to Roehl, these can be divided into three main areas:
- Social science (knowledge sociology, systemic organisational consultancy, new systems theory, etc);
- Engineering/computer science (retrieval technology, artificial intelligence, expert systems, network design, etc);
- Economics (organisational development, organisational learning, human resource management, intellectual capital, etc).
Scientists or researchers who approach knowledge management from any of these perspectives may very well achieve results relevant to that field, yet they are in danger of missing the broader issues surrounding KM, in particular the quest to identify the optimal blend of human resources, organisational structures, and information and communication technologies.
Many institutions have already introduced academic courses and masters programmes revolving around KM, and we are convinced that knowledge management in the academic arena has now reached the point at which it has become crucial to institutionalise fundamental aspects of KM. This will help avoid any element of mistrust or confusion among practitioners, and may also help to foster the acceptance of knowledge management as a serious discipline.
The relevance of standardisation – pros and cons
Any attempt at standardisation in any area is a complex venture. Discussions surrounding the idea tend to be intense, and inevitably give rise to a number of arguments both for and against the process. In areas such as information technology and the automotive industry, it is clear that method or process standardisation has lead to large benefits from all kinds of perspectives (eg, organisation, financial, production, and so on). In comparison, though, KM consists largely of ‘soft’ topic areas that need to be considered in a holistic way. In fact, the relevance of standardisation to KM, which is a relatively young discipline, can be considered from a number of perspectives. Arguments against the process generally follow along the lines of:
- A sound process of standardisation takes a long time. Primarily this is because a significant level of compromise is required if any sort of consensus is to be reached. Only if a broad agreement between all the bodies involved (the most important of whom are the discipline’s users and stakeholders) is reached can any standardisation process hope to be successful;
- Because the standardisation process can take so long, standards are always in danger of lagging behind the requirements of everyday practice;
- Furthermore, one of the most critical points concerning standardisation is how far to go with the process. What is a sensible degree of standardisation when considering a soft subject like knowledge management?
- Last but not least, standards are often seen as a barrier for human development in terms of creativity and flexibility. People usually regard standards as a framework that does not allow for the creation or development of innovative approaches beyond what has already been laid down.
Conversely, there is a diverse range of arguments in favour of standardisation:
- The activity itself will lead to greater transparency, bringing all involved institutions and bodies together and thereby achieving a common understanding and common terminology;
- Standardised aspects of KM (such as common approaches to KM processes, knowledge technologies, knowledge-based human resources, KM strategies, etc) will bring the benefits of KM development to a broader circle of users;
- Moreover, from a KM expert point of view, standardised KM approaches will allow for the use of a validated European-wide (or even world-wide) common terminology. This in turn will allow for more direct and straightforward communication in the field;
- If some of the main components of KM are standardised, this will leave more energy and space for creativity in the case of (customised) specifications for dedicated and individual solutions;
- And finally, standardised KM elements like a common KM framework will be used in further research and education environments. A KM framework will allow future work in the KM domain to begin from a higher level.
In summary, it is clear that most of the arguments that are brought against the standardisation of KM can be regarded as general concerns about the standardisation process, and are not specific or exclusive to KM.
Overview on existing and emerging standards and standardisation activities
Another important indicator of the relevance of standardisation in the area of KM is the number of independent initiatives that have been started in the area. Some of them have already resulted in concrete results, while others are in progress or are just getting underway. There are standards that have been developed in other areas that are also relevant, as these can offer valuable lessons learnt about some of the broader issues surrounding standardisation that could be applied to KM. The following section will offer a broad overview of the various activities currently underway.
It is possible to distinguish between three different levels in KM standards: First-level standards are developed from a particular KM perspective, focusing on the overall concept of KM. Second-level standards aim to go into greater depth about specific elements relating to KM, for instance topic maps or KM certificates. Third-level standards are those that have not been developed from a particular KM perspective, but that can be applied to support a particular element of knowledge management, for example certain enterprise models or XML standards.
Figure 1: map of standards and standardisation initiatives
Frameworks and terminology
On a national and an international level, several generic KM standardisation activities are already underway. Standards Australia International (SAI), for example, has released a handbook entitled Knowledge Management – A Framework for Succeeding in the Knowledge Era. The framework is designed to reduce confusion about KM, instil confidence in the value of the field and to assist organisations in its implementation. It provides a good, easy to understand introduction to the domain. The handbook is proposed as the base document for the development of a more comprehensive Australian standard.
In the UK, the British Standards Institution (BSI) has formed a committee for the development of KM standards. In co-operation with PricewaterhouseCoopers and a panel of KM experts, the BSI has also published a good practice study, which aims to consolidate existing KM good practice and to precipitate a public discussion on KM standardisation.
In the US, the Global Knowledge Economics Council (GKEC) has initiated an international knowledge economics standardisation programme. It has received accreditation from the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) for the development of KM standards, and aims to begin an ISO standard development. It has also published a proposal for candidate terms and definitions for a knowledge management vocabulary based on definitions from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development . The GKEC has set up standards committees for KM terminology for KM science and technology, KM metrics, knowledge quality management/ISO 9000, and KM technology, and is planning to establish several other such committees.
In Germany, a special committee of the Deutsches Institut für Normung (DIN) has listed KM as a subject to be investigated for its relevance to RTD-driven standardisation. In addition, the VDI (Verein Deutscher Ingenieure – Association of Engineers) has established a competence field relating to KM. A close collaboration between the VDI and EKMF is envisioned, especially in setting up guidelines for interpreting European or international standards in KM at a national level.
Significant standardisation work is also going on in the area of taxonomies, ontologies, classifications, representations, and so on. The objective of ISO/IEC 13250:2000 Topic Maps is to provide a unified model for representing knowledge and linking it with the information resources in which it is embodied [ISO13250]. Topic maps can be regarded as the standard for codification that is the necessary prerequisite for the development of tools that assist in the generation and transfer of knowledge.
The IEEE Standard Upper Ontology (SUO) study group aims to develop a standard that will specify the semantics of a general purpose, upper-level ontology. It will enable computers to utilise it for applications such as data interoperability, information search and retrieval, automated inferencing, and natural language processing. An ontology consists of a set of concepts, axioms, and relationships that describe a domain of interest. An upper ontology is limited to concepts that are meta, generic, abstract and philosophical, and therefore are general enough to address (at a high level) a broad range of domain areas.
Enterprise and organisation modelling
A number of existing enterprise modelling standards may also be relevant to KM. Some examples are:
- (ISO 14258) Concepts and rules for enterprise models – aims to guide and constrain other standards or implementations that do or will exist. It defines the elements to use when producing an enterprise model, concepts for life-cycle phases, and how these models describe hierarchy, structure and behaviour. It provides guidelines and constraints for enterprise models to anyone attempting to model an enterprise or to model processes;
- (ISO 15704) Requirements for enterprise reference architectures and methodologies – aims to place the concepts used in methodologies and reference architectures such as ARIS, CIMOSA, GRAI/GIM, IEM, PERA and ENV 40003 within an encompassing conceptual framework that allows the coverage and completeness of any such approach to be assessed. The conceptual framework is textual and relatively informal;
- (ENV 40003) CIM-systems architecture: framework for modelling – aims to provide a common, conceptual, high-level framework within which key concepts of the (distributed, extended, virtual, etc) enterprise can be identified, documented and shared with partners in that enterprise.
- (ENV 12204) Constructs for enterprise modelling – defines 13 constructs to be used in the composition of enterprise models. Each construct is described in terms of its essential nature by using a common template, and relationships between constructs (static and behavioural) are contained implicitly in the descriptions;
- (ENV 13550) Enterprise model execution and integration services – names the standards, services, protocols and interfaces that are necessary for the computer-based development and execution of enterprise models and model components.
These standards are particularly relevant for inter-organisational enterprise modelling, yet all five emerged from a strong manufacturing background. Their direct relevance to KM therefore needs to be carefully considered. In addition to these standards, various comprehensive reference models for business processes and organisation structures exist that also cover other sectors, for instance the ARIS reference models.
Skills, competency assurance, certificates and curricula
While most of the standards tend to focus on technological issues – and in particular IT standards – there is also a branch of activities relating to the development of national skill standards and competency assurance models for the workforce, together with the corresponding certification systems. Examples are the National Skills Standards Board in US and the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority in the UK. However, the focus is on certifying competencies demonstrated in the workplace rather than acquired knowledge. These competencies reflect tasks and activities, with little emphasis on the underlying knowledge that allows a worker to successfully perform these tasks. A start has been made, however, by the KM courses offered by various organisations, such as the George Washington University, Dominican University, the University of Denver, Knowledge Management Consortium International, the University of Birmingham, the German Chamber of Industry and Commerce, the University of Chemnitz and Copenhagen Business School. What remains absent is a common accreditation of these courses, although the KM working group of the Federal Chief Information Officers Council in the US has developed 14 learning objectives for KM as a framework for training and education.
On the technological side, the HR-XML Consortium is working on the development and promotion of standardised XML vocabularies for human resources. It has recently published a standard for a competencies schema, which allows for the capture of competencies within a variety of business contexts.
Best/good practice and benchmarking
As we are aiming not only at the development of hard standards but also at the formation of common approaches to KM, it is worth considering initiatives in the area of defining best/good practice and benchmarking.
In 1997, the European Foundation for Quality Management (EFQM) undertook a benchmarking study in co-operation with the American Productivity and Quality Center (APQC) and the Knowledge Management Network. The project sought to recognise good practice in the area of knowledge management, and led to the formation of a follow-up programme in 2001. A similar study was also published by the BSI (see above), while the APQC has carried out a series of benchmarking studies on KM in the recent years and has developed a ‘road map’ to knowledge management. In Germany, a benchmarking study was carried out by Fraunhofer IPK, which resulted in a reference model for KM, and further studies are planned for this year.
Other relevant domains
The area of e-business and e-commerce is also of interest, for even though it represents a different field, several standards are relevant to KM because the enabling technologies used are very similar. Typical examples are the use of XML for content representation and the application of security technologies for ensuring the safe exchange of confidential knowledge between organisations – an issue that has been identified as a major concern for inter-organisational KM. Within the framework of a CEN/ISSS CWA, a comprehensive overview of frameworks, architectures and models for e-commerce has been prepared.
Similarly, the EFQM aims to support European organisations in implementing total quality management for achieving excellence in customer satisfaction, employee satisfaction, impact on society and business results. It has developed a model called ‘Business Excellence’, which tries to address any area or discipline relevant to the management of an organisation. The EFQM model is particularly interesting as it is a well-accepted model for a common approach in a relatively soft subject.
It must be noted that most of the standards developed so far have been influenced by a specific perspective on knowledge management. Traditional KM thinking is divided into two main camps. On the one hand, there is the human-centred approach, which is based on constructivism, cognitive principles and interaction approaches. On the other lies the technology-centred way of thinking, which is mechanistic, productivity-driven and based on systems implementation. It is this latter perspective that has dominated so far, despite the tendency for thought leaders in the field to concentrate on the former. However, it is entirely possible that constructivism and standardisation might be contradictory concepts, which cannot be brought together. This is something we will explore in greater depth in the concluding part of this article, which will appear in the next issue of Knowledge Management.
1. International Organisation for Standardisation: www.iso.ch
2. Knowledge Management – Ein Empirisch Gestützter Leitfaden zum Management des Produktionsfaktors Wissen (ILOI, 1997)
3. Servatius, H.G., ‘Wertsteigerung mit neuen Wissensinfrastrukturen’ in Management Berater (Management Berater Verlag, May 1999)
4. Hildebrand, C., ‘KM gets real’ in CIO (December 1999)
5. Roehl, H., Instrumente der Wissensorganisation (Deutscher Universitätsverlag, 2000)
6. Bullinger, H.J., Wörner, K. & Prieto J., Wissensmanagement – Modelle und Strategien für die Praxis in Bürgel, H.D. (ed), Wissensmanagement: Schritte zum Intelligenten Unternehmen (Springer Verlag, 1998)
7. Knowledge Management – A Framework for Succeeding in the Knowledge Era (SAI, 2001)
8. Kelleher, D. & Levene, S., Knowledge Management – A Guide to Good Practice (British Standardisation Institute, 2001)
9. Knowledge Management Vocabulary – Candidate Terms and Definitions (GKEC, 2001. Available at www.gkec.org)
10. Procedures for the Development and Maintenance of Global Knowledge Economics Council Standards (GKEC, 2001. Available at www.gkec.org)
11. Rath, H.H., Pepper, S., Topic Maps: Introduction and Allegro (1999)
13. Scheer, A.W., Wirtschaftsinformatik: Referenzmodelle für Industrielle Geschäftsprozesse (Springer Verlag, 1997)
14. Skill Standards Systems Around the Globe (National Skills Standards Board, draft 5/1999, updated 8/99. Available at www.nssb.org)
15. Allen, C. (ed), Competencies 1.0 (Measurable Characteristics) (HR-XML Consortium, 2001)
16. Knowledge Management and the Learning Organisation: Best Practice Report (Results of a joint EFQM/APQC/KMN benchmarking study, 1997)
18. Mertins, K., Heisig, P. & Vorbeck, J. (eds), Knowledge Management: Best Practices in Europe (Springer Verlag, 2001)
19. Pawar, K.S., Horton, A.R., Gupta, A., Wunram, M., Barson, R.J. & Weber, F., ‘Inter-organisational knowledge management: focus on human barriers in the telecommunications industry’ in Advances in Concurrent Engineering (Proceedings of the 8th ISPE International Conference on Concurrent Engineering: Research and Applications, 2001)
20. Summaries of Some Frameworks, Architectures and Models for Electronic Commerce (CEN Workshop Agreement, March 2001)
Frithjof Weber is head of the Department of Computer-Aided Design, Planning and Manufacturing at BIBA at the University of Bremen, and co-ordinator of the European KM Forum. He can be contacted at: email@example.com
Michael Wunram is a researcher at the Department of Computer-Aided Design, Planning and Manufacturing at BIBA at the University of Bremen. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Jeroen Kemp is a senior researcher and consultant at the Fraunhofer Institute for Industrial Engineering. He can be contacted at: email@example.com
Marc Pudlatz is a researcher and consultant at the Institute of Human Factors and Technology Management at the University of Stuttgart, as well as at the Fraunhofer Institute for Industrial Engineering. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Bernd Bredehorst is a researcher at the Department of Computer-Aided Design, Planning and Manufacturing at BIBA at the University of Bremen. He can be contacted at: email@example.com