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Articles: Starting Out

Knowledge Management 101
Author: Wally Bock


Knowledge Management is the buzzword of the year. As with many new terms, the definition of knowledge management depends on who you're asking. For a small organization, it is difficult to really know what it means. I thought I'd give you some pointers and definitions in this article.

The Delphi Group Study

For some folks knowledge management is a computer technology or group of technologies. When the Delphi Group did its survey of knowledge management in corporations, they surveyed, "500 professionals with experience and interest in electronic document technologies."

  • 43% of those folks saw knowledge management as, "an opportunity to add value to information inside the organization."
  • 37% saw knowledge management as a, "major new strategic initiative for staying competitive."

Wally's Comment ... Among the folks who see knowledge management as a technology issue is just about everyone who makes software. These days it seems as if every maker of software or computer technology is striving to reposition themselves as a knowledge-management vendor. This is done most often by force-fitting the term "knowledge management" into already existing materials.

Ernst & Young: Executive Perspectives on Knowledge in the Organization

Another study, starting from a different point, got somewhat different responses. Ernst & Young did a survey (431 US and Euro firms) called "Executive Perspectives on Knowledge in the Organization."

  • 87% of their respondents named knowledge as critical to competitiveness.
  • 44% reported that they were poor or very poor at transferring knowledge within their organization.

The respondents saw chief barriers as: top management failure to signal importance (32%), lack of shared understanding of strategy or business model (30%) and organization structure (30%).

Wally's Comment ... I like this better because it starts from the business side of the street. My only quibble would be to add "culture" into the "structure" as a barrier. There are other definitions that are less survey-based and more philosophical.

Other Definitions of Knowledge Management

Peter Novins of Ernst & Young: "Organizing information from disparate sources into a context that reflects the business and the decisions and processes of the business."

Ron Weissman of Verity, Inc.: "What senior managers are trying to do with knowledge management is manage intellectual assets the same way they manage physical assets."

Wally's Comment ...These are good, but lack a couple of key elements. They leave out key elements of the process. And they don't mention how you handle the people part of things.

Wally's Definition of Knowledge Management

To define knowledge management, we have to look at the two parts of that make up the term separately.

A- Knowledge

Knowledge is part of the hierarchy made up of data, information, knowledge and wisdom.

  • Data are raw facts.
  • Information is facts with context and perspective.
  • Knowledge is information with guidance for action.
  • Wisdom is understanding which knowledge to use for what purpose.

B- Management

Management is part of another hierarchy that includes supervision, management and leadership.

  • Supervision is dealing with individual tasks and people. And it works at the operational level of an organization or sub-unit.
  • Management is dealing with groups and priorities at the tactical level.
  • Leadership is dealing with purpose and change at the strategic level.

A good working definition of knowledge management must be true to both concepts.

Knowledge Management

  • Knowledge management is the way that organizations create, capture and reuse knowledge to achieve organizational objectives.
  • Knowledge management can also be defined as a process with four parts that comprise a loop.
  • Knowledge is created. This happens in the heads of people.
  • Knowledge is captured. It is put on paper in a report, entered into a computer system of some kind or simply remembered.
  • Knowledge is classified and modified. The classification can be the addition of keywords; it may be indexing. Modification can add context, background or other things that make it easier to reuse later. The test of this step's success is to determine how easily people in the organization will be able to find and use the knowledge when they need it.
  • Knowledge is shared. When knowledge is shared and used, it's modified by the folks who use it. This takes us back to knowledge creation.

Repositories of Knowledge

There are three types of repositories of knowledge. They are Structured Repositories, Unstructured Repositories, and People and they form a continuum in terms of searchability.

  • Structured Repositories
    Structured repositories are databases, expert systems and the like. They are characterized by their ease of searchability because they have search aids like indexes, keywords, controlled vocabulary and so forth.

  • Unstructured Repositories
    In most organizations these include project reports, sales-call notes and other sources. These are searchable by free text means.The two repositories mentioned above are for explicit knowledge, the knowledge that is out there for all to find, see and use. There's also tacit knowledge.

  • People as Repositories of Knowledge
    Tacit knowledge resides in the heads of people. The tools to get to this knowledge are phone directories, annotated company directories, company-knowledge yellow pages and other people listings.

Technologies Often Included in Knowledge Management

There are a number of technologies commonly thought of when the term "knowledge management" is intoned. Here's a list developed by Dataware Technologies.

  • Intranets
  • Document Management Systems
  • Information Retrieval Engines
  • Relational and Object Databases
  • Electronic Publishing Systems
  • Groupware and Workflow Systems
  • Push Technologies and Agents
  • Help-Desk Applications
  • Brainstorming Applications
  • Data Warehousing and Data Mining Tools

Technologies that should be included in knowledge management:

What I don't like about the Dataware list is that it addresses explicit knowledge almost exclusively and it doesn't address knowledge creation at all. Let me try adding some things to the Dataware list.

I'll use Peter Drucker's definition of technology as, "the application of knowledge to useful work."

Knowledge management should certainly include recruiting and training, as well as human relations and leadership, management and supervision processes that define culture and reward systems.

The biggest barrier to effective knowledge management in most organizations is a culture that consistently rewards information and knowledge hoarding.

You don't get at that with new software, you get at that with leadership, management and supervision.

Where Knowledge Management is Working

There's a lot of hype from vendors about comprehensive knowledge management solutions. There's also a lot of junk about where knowledge management is likely to have the greatest impact. While some of the claims are extravagant, the fact is that we are seeing substantial, powerful results from knowledge-management activities in a couple of areas.

As you read this, remember that sometimes knowledge management goes under another name-such as data mining, or best practices sharing.

There are three areas where knowledge management seems to be paying off -Opportunity Finding, Field Support, and Process Improvement.

Wally's Comment ...Thinking is mandatory, but it is not tough. Let's try to sort out the important stuff and dilute the hype for just a bit. Plan on just about everyone who makes software or computer systems, as well as every general-practice consulting firm, to tout themselves as doing, or aiding and abetting knowledge management.

Beware of the "just push a button" myth. This little darling, which has now metamorphosed into "with the click of a mouse," has the key decision maker envisioning an end product where no thinking will be required and the system will do all the work. Wrong. Thinking at all stages is mandatory.

If you're in a large company, watch out for the all-encompassing solution. This is the one that will fix everything. Most often this is proposed by a large consulting firm, SAP, or the CEO. The big, fancy, do-it-all solutions simply don't work. There are two reasons.

First as the complexity and scope of a project increase, the difficulty increases geometrically. If you're already in a large organization, it's already complex. Second, most complex projects outlast their champions.

If you're in a small company, don't get dazzled by the technology, especially the expensive technology. Instead, think of the concept and seek out tools that you and your people can use.

  • Look at your entire business, not just information systems. Look at all your business processes.
  • Look at the entire process of knowledge management-Creation, Capture, Classification, and Sharing.
  • Make sure all your systems- hiring, training, rewards, everything-support what you want to do.
  • Keep it simple

Remember, there are four phases of knowledge management. There are three repositories of knowledge. That's simple enough. Limit your efforts to those things likely to make a big difference. The first place to look for those is your strategic focus and key business processes. If you can apply knowledge management there it's likely to have the most impact. Then, look at the places where knowledge management seems to be having maximum positive results.

To Support a Field Force

Make a broad array of information and knowledge available to folks in the field. The net is a great tool for this. Give them access to customer records, PowerPoint files, technical manuals-everything they might need. Then, go further. Give them access to each other. Set up listservs or chats where they can share tips and experience. In addition, develop application files that help them apply what's been learned in one place to another situation. Encourage them to collect customer and technical lore and put it in a database where everyone can find it and add to it. Use the net as a way to get new folks up to speed faster.


In order to establish a sound process and expand on your knowledge management system, remember to:

  • Mine your data. You don't necessarily need data mining software to do this. Remember that you want to place different sets of data next to each other to look for surprise correlations. One supermarket found one between the sales of diapers and the sales of beer. The next step-check to see if this is a real connection by trying out different stocking and display options.
  • Look at your data and information in different ways. Try sorting by order size, profitability, date, time, anything you can come up with. Sort by sales of individual products and by different product combinations.
  • Make an inventory of your intellectual capital. Dow did that with patents. The question is, what do we know that's valuable? Then the next question is: Where else can we use this?

To Improve Existing Processes:

  • Trace the information flows that parallel your processes.
  • Look for key knowledge by asking: "What do we lose when key people leave?" or "What do we have to teach every new person?" Then find ways to move some of that technologically.
  • Switch your thinking from "training" to "facilitating learning." Put job aids and learning tools in the hands of folks on the job. Some estimates are that 70% of learning about the job is done on the job. Find ways to make that more effective.
  • Provide data and knowledge bases to help your customer service and tech support folks solve problems quickly. Consider making these available to customers so your support staff can be more effective. Then, loop your learning about new problems and solutions back to the data and knowledge bases so they're available to all.


Copyright   1998 Wally Bock
A Common Sense Approach to the Digital Age
Speaker - Author - Columnist - Consultant
Article used with permission