Heating up the KM cauldron

Heating up the KM cauldron

Knowledge management is a difficult notion to grasp, but the industry told Paul Montgomery they all agree on its strategic importance.

The law of the business jungle says that huge corporations change slowly, because the vast complexity of departmental and regional divisions means that it is impossible to find out what needs to be altered. The current IT boom has injected new life into the struggle. Data capture, imaging and document management can provide a much more detailed and up-to-date snapshot of where a business is going than ever before. But what to do with all of this information?

This is the question to which knowledge management (KM) is supposed to be the answer. Intellectual property is the most valuable corporate asset these days, the evangelists declare, and managing knowledge has to be part of any company's core business. Cynics might be excused for wondering whether KM is the 1990's version of that 1980's fad, total quality management. Rather than being a certificate on the lobby wall, proponents say KM has the potential to reach much deeper into corporate structure. The main problem, however, is defining what KM is in the first place.

"Knowledge has become the real capital of any organisation," said John Frost, MD of Tower Technologies. "Successful organisations recognise that the knowledge and intellectual capital of a company and its staff needs to be captured in some format. To be effective, the process of capturing that knowledge needs to be through appropriate business processes and the economic use of information systems."

As can be seen from that quote, trying to define knowledge management (see break-out) is daunting enough. Confusion also stems from the variety of definitions of KM from both consultants and software vendors, each trying to push their implementation model as the template for what could become a lucrative market. To help better understand the thinking of the industry, various vendors and consultants can be positioned on a scale which is labelled "process" at one end, and "technology" at the other. Delphi might be described as at the far end of the process side.

Jeff Sussman, CEO of Delphi Consulting Group Australasia, defines KM as "leveraging collective wisdom to increase responsiveness and innovation" - a statement which lacks any mention of technology. "KM is not something you buy, it's something you do. Technology is certainly the enabler of KM, [but] it is a cultural and strategic issue," Sussman added.

Delphi has run seminars and conferences on the issue and has published reports on the local user community, including Image & Data Manager readers (see "Knowledge management all in the head", May/June IDM). It might be expected that Delphi would be aggressive in its efforts to sell its consulting services, but Sussman stated what becomes a common thread: vendors and consultants should take a back seat to internal strategic planners.

"It's more of something that an organisation has to do itself. Certainly, consultants can help guide people, and help them to think of it as a strategic issue, but I don't believe any consultancy can go in and make an organisation into a knowledge-creating organisation. It has to come from within," Sussman said.

A little further along the scale towards technology, Educom is asserting itself as an integrator of disparate technologies. Dr Colin Metz, vice president for knowledge management at Educom, said that the current state of KM at the vast majority of corporations is a collection of "point solutions" - where components of the overall architecture are partly or wholly isolated from the others. Educom's "Knowledge Management Architecture" is one example of KM being the catch-all for a wide variety of established technologies: COLD, imaging, near-line storage, data warehousing, records management systems, electronic document management (EDM), workflow, business intelligence software, and data mining.

"The only time that software vendors should be involved in an implementation is when they can say 'what can we offer to you?'" said Educom's Colin Metz.

Somewhere in the middle of the scale, vendors and consultants are forming alliances to provide both elements of a KM solution. Nigel Penny is director of Renaissance Technomic Asia, which implements a methodology called the Balanced Scorecard in partnership with Gentia's business intelligence software. He said that modern companies are being forced to implement strategy in months, rather than years, making the task of communication between the board-level decision makers and the business operators all the more important.

"The idea of KM is that we recognise that there is a huge amount of experience which is not codified, not shared. If we could codify and share all these assets, how much better would we be?" Mr Penny said.

Further towards the technology end, some of the vendors of the technologies which are integrated into KM solutions are better enabling their products to fit into a knowledge-based infrastructure. Robyn Bradbury, director of marketing at FileNET, said that the company was teaming up with consultants to sell integrated solutions, although the partner would be chosen on an industry-by-industry basis to gain better specialised expertise.

Ms Bradbury said that KM, by definition, handles processes that fall outside the scope of technology.

"The knowledge management movement encompasses a lot of technologies, procedures and concepts, and we haven't had a concept that has brought all of these things together before," Ms Bradbury said.

Ms Bradbury said EDM systems like those of FileNET are at the "heart" of KM, but many vendors had been "misusing" the concept as a marketing buzzword to tie to their products.

"We're providing the infrastructure to sit below it, but we're not providing the whole solution," Ms Bradbury said.

Finally, at the edge of the technology side of the scale, some developers are building "knowledge servers" to sit at the top of a KM architecture (see break-out below). Sandra Clark, general manager of Insight Technologies, is about to launch the Insight Knowledge Management Server (KMS), which complements the company's EDM, imaging, storage and Internet access servers (see break-out).

The forthcoming KMS will deliver "relevant information", a phrase which is not quite equivalent to knowledge, but is accessible to employees at all levels, according to Ms Clark.

None of these approaches are set in stone, and each vendor will probably move up or down the scale to suit individual customers, but at the extremes, there are definitive differences of opinion on the core beliefs underlying KM. Ms Clark said that technology is the driver behind KM, disagreeing with the notion of consultants helping to formulate policy, and technology only being thought of afterwards.

"I see an explosion going on. The number of organisations which require very sophisticated KM applications is increasing almost daily - now that there are tools out there that [allow them to] get at the information they need, instead of the awful, painful way they've had to go about it in the past," said Ms Clark.

Delphi's Jeff Sussman argues that technology is becoming "commoditised" for companies, and that the only way to get a jump on the crowd is to use them in a more efficient way through better management.

"You will not get competitive advantage from implementing KM technologies, because that will be the assumed way of working within the industry. Where before, maybe two or three years ago, technology was the differentiator, nowadays it's just going to be the entry level," he said.

"I don't think that way at all," said Ms Clark. "I think the wonderful breakthrough of the latest technology in KM tools is that you don't need a cast of thousands, lengthy implementation or complex consulting exercises to define how you go about this. The whole point is, these things can be used by any user, at the end of the day."

Business Solution: