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Articles: knowledge management

Use Your Mind Not Your Wallet!
Author: Jerry Ash, Chief Executive
, Association of Knowledgework

Before you spend your first technology dollar on knowledge management, make sure you know what it is, and isn't.

The idea that knowledge management requires a heavy investment in technology is inhibiting association executives from stepping boldly into the "Knowledge Age" at a time when commercial competitors are suddenly eager to provide soft services that associations have offered by default.

Unfortunately, these association execs are intimidated by a false idea.

Knowledge management isn't information management; it's much less about technology than it is about changing the way we work in order to leverage our existing wealth-our human resources.

Tom Stewart, a business writer who's become one of the icons of the knowledge management movement, tells a wonderful story in the September 2000 issue of Fortune magazine. A company installed expert-systems software to help employees tell customers how to fix copier problems-jams and such-by matching the complaints against an electronic "knowledge base" of known solutions. Problem was, no one was using it.

So the company held a contest, offering cash each time an employee solved a customer problem. Employees could solve the problem by whatever means, but the company assumed the contest would prompt them to use the database.

The winner by a landslide was an eight-year veteran named Carlos, who was considered by management to be a "cowboy" because he almost never used the software. The runner-up was a new employee who didn't even have the software on her machine.

Her secret? She sat right across from Carlos! She overheard him when he talked, asked him questions, and had him show her the insides of the copiers over lunch breaks.

You see, knowledge management isn't about hardware and software. It's about the "wetware," the gray matter, the human resource, the content-not the technology. It's about organizing, adding to, and sharing the knowledge we already possess. Associations are rich in this most valuable component of knowledge management, but they continue to be befuddled by the technology salespeople.

A recent e-mail to the association executives and staff Community of Practice of the Association of Knowledgework started a revealing dialogue about the association executive's concept of the "high-tech cost of knowledge management." Denham Grey, a knowledge management consultant and CEO of GreyMatter Inc., posted this question to the AOK listserver: "Why are associations slow to take advantage of the new channels, to apply collaborative filtering, to allow and support virtual community? Are associations and societies asleep!?"

The jab unleashed a barrage of defensive comebacks.

A marketing manager for a healthcare association was first: "Associations aren't asleep. We're nonprofit! We don't have venture capitalists backing all this expensive Web technology. We can't afford to hire technical staff at today's high-tech salaries. We're slow because we're always trying to come up with resources."

"I concur," said an executive of a financial industry association. It is "especially true for small- to mid-sized associations and those that operate on extremely tight budgets."

The VP of a national insurance industry association blamed it on a technologically challenged membership: "We don't have the benefit of having to meet the needs of users who have already bought into a virtual world. Transition is much more complicated in such an environment. We aren't asleep, we just can't afford to make too many mistakes."

Eventually the tide turned.

Christine McEntee, executive vice president of the American College of Cardiology, wrote: "I see great opportunities for associations. Recent surveys of Internet users increasingly show that users are getting so bombarded with information that they're looking for trusted sources. Associations are that. Still, even with what many associations are doing, I see the biggest threat as the association's style of thinking-we're loath to discontinue old ways . . . ."

Anne Dees, knowledge group director for the American Industrial Hygiene Association, demonstrated how knowledge management could actually save money. She wrote, "The issue isn't venture capital as much as it is planning. Associations need to ascertain their needs (for) . . . electronic products . . . and their usefulness. Yes, most associations can't afford to make a big leap all at one time, but they can afford to make methodical leaps.

"We didn't put our research journal online and stop all print, but we did put our journal online and change the print schedule from monthly to bimonthly, saving approximately $150,000 the year of the change. By doing this over a four-year schedule, we've prepared our members and reduced expenses in one area in order to apply the dollars to electronic development."

Larry Rosenthal, executive vice president and COO of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, observed that the dialogue proved "we're not asleep . . . but I'm concerned for those who appear to be wringing their hands about the fact that associations are nonprofit and therefore do things in a different way. This, I believe, is a great strategy for being irrelevant in the near future.

"We need to face the fact that the environment in which associations operate now and in the future has and is changing. The Internet we're now using is making it so. The value sets of our new and young members are different and will drive this change or they will drive somewhere else."

Bruce Butterfield, president and CEO of the Forbes Group, counselors to senior association management, weighed in: "The responses . . . are telling. Their focus seems to be on knowledge management technology, its cost, and the lack of resources. But knowledge management is about relationships more than technology and . . . databases. If associations get wrapped around the axle about the infrastructure instead of the substance of knowledge management, they'll wander even farther from their promise.

"Knowledge management is about convening conversation and connection to yield participant-generated knowledge. Inexpensive and self-funding tools exist to make this happen."

Consultant, David Skyrme, principal of Entovation International, agreed: "I used to belong to several professional associations, but gradually gave them up one by one because they haven't moved with the times. I believe there's no excuse in this day and age for a professional or trade association not to take knowledge management seriously, do a knowledge audit to find what knowledge it has, and then quickly commercialise the best to bring benefits to its members."

Pat Nichols of Transition Leadership International suggested that "the lack of capital or scarcity of resources is more an excuse than a fundamental problem. Everyone (nearly everyone, anyway) has scarce resources. It seems to me that associations and other nonprofits have trouble making tough resource allocation decisions; thus, they distribute finite resources over less productive enterprises."

Finally, a director of information technology, Troy Pomroy of International Life Sciences Institute, summed it up in most un-tech-like language: "Knowledge management isn't an expensive technology. Knowledge management is a methodology that leads to improving a process that may involve new technology tools. Expensive mistakes are what happen when people don't use knowledge management principles to make smart business decisions. It's a more efficient way of working. Knowledge management is not a genre of expensive Web sites, databases, software, or servers. Denham (Grey's) comments are right on if you think knowledge management is expensive. It comes from your mind, not your wallet."

From these and many other contributions by association executives and their advisers come these conclusions:

  • Knowledge management isn't information management.
  • Technology is an enabler but not the driver.
  • People are the holders of an association's intellectual assets.
  • Mining the human asset (staff and members) is the name of the game.
  • Creating an environment for a knowledge-sharing culture is key.
  • Knowledge technology needn't be expensive.
  • Associations with limited resources can afford a knowledge management initiative.
  • Knowledge management involves changing the way we do business.
  • It's a long-term strategy.
  • It begins with a strategic assessment.

The lesson learned: Forget the high cost of knowledge management technology.

Don't let wrong-headed ideas about knowledge management intimidate you. Begin on the low-cost, low-tech end. Get smart about what knowledge management is and isn't. Examine what your association knows and doesn't know; who does and doesn't know it. Learn what your members want to know and (not necessarily the same) need to know. Observe your current methods of gathering, creating, organizing, processing, and distributing knowledge. Determine whether it's knowledge or just information. Discover whether you're leveraging your most valuable intellectual assets. Consider whether yours is a knowledge-sharing environment, both internally and externally. Decide what steps you need to take to get your association ready for an investment in knowledge management technology.

Do all that quickly, and do it before you spend your first technology dollar on knowledge management.


Jerry Ash is Senior Counsellor, The Forbes Group and
Chief Executive, Association of Knowledgework
Article used with permission