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Articles: Starting Out

A Short Course in Knowledge Management
Author: Jerry Ash

Understanding Knowledge
Auditing Knowledge
Restructuring for Knowledge
Changing the work culture
Building Knowledge Networks
Utilising Computer Technology
Getting Started


When the chief executive of a state association left his post to assume the responsibilities of President and CEO of a national organization, he told his fellow state execs he expected "continued disrespect."

He got it.

By "disrespect," the chief executive meant he wanted to continue the free and open dialogue he had enjoyed with his colleagues at the grassroots level.

His emphasis on communication soon generated an avalanche of faxes, sharing the association's political events and day-to-day policy development with constituencies across the country. In the spirit of "disrespect," his colleagues responded bluntly: "Stop the fax machine!"

At the time it was just a good-natured test of a new association executive's management style. But in another part of the business world, significant events were taking place that mirrored the association exec's dilemma. Fortune 500 companies had spent billions of dollars installing information technology and developing communication networks that would meet the challenge of the Information Age. They too were disappointed in the outcome. Computers and file cabinets became choked with unused data and information which were rarely accessed by workers who were uncertain about their roles and overwhelmed by the enormity of it all.

It was not news in the association world that information and the need for networked intelligence is at the centre of what an association does. But when the industrial world awoke to the fact that the worth of their companies depended largely on what they knew in an exploding new knowledge-based economy, the earth moved.

Managing knowledge and information suddenly became as important as managing financial capital or physical plant. As industry urgently searched for ways of managing the knowledge asset, it became clear that the old military command-and-control model of the industrial past would not work in the knowledge era. And the knowledge asset, for the most part, wasn't exactly corporate property stored somewhere in the company warehouse. It was to be found in the heads of its knowledge workers. Although not yet expressed in financial statements, employees became assets, not liabilities - they held the knowledge.

Because the knowledge asset has been elevated in the business world, associations no longer have a captive market. Paul S. Forbes, founder of The Forbes Group, Fairfax, Virginia, a strategic management consultancy for associations, observes that historically the principal product of associations has been information. "But with the explosion of the World Wide Web, associations' lock on information has been pried open and their constituents increasingly demand net-time knowledge that won't wait for snail mail or the next convention."

The challenge to associations runs even deeper than technology. Big Six accountancies, executive management consultancies and countless communication specialty groups recognize the stakes and have jumped on the bandwagon.

Add to this phenomenon an accelerating demand for speed in the processing of knowledge. Ken Derr, chairman and CEO of Chevron, said: "Every day that a better idea goes unused is a lost opportunity. We have to share more, and we have to share faster." A report in January, 1998, by the U.S. Labor Department reveals that the race for knowledge also impacts the nature of the work itself. A two-year study shows that up to 70 percent of workplace learning is accomplished on-the-fly, calling into question the value of formal training programs that are presented in their own good time and costing as much as $50 billion annually.

This is the environment in which associations now work. It is full of threat: that members in search of knowledge may find the association less relevant after they turn to another knowledge resource. And, it is full of opportunity: that members may discover renewed and increased value in an association that becomes an effective partner in the knowledge chase. Whether an association is a winner or victim depends on whether it is quick to understand and respond to the new environment. Clearly, an association must learn how to do more, better -- organize, manage and deliver the right stuff on time, at the right time.

Associations will have to adapt quickly. They will need to rethink what they're doing, how they're doing it and why. They'll need to tear down barriers and antiquated processes; replace them with a systematic approach to knowledge-sharing based on the dynamics of a changing knowledge market.

From lessons learned by early adopters of knowledge management, we know we need to understand what knowledge is, find out who has it, reorganize operations to nourish and manage it, change the work culture to support it and build knowledge networks around it.

Understanding Knowledge >>

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