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Enterprise knowledge–manageable?

The Knowledge Management oxymoron continued: a smart VP to the rescue.

The knowledge was in the building. It wasn’t in any document, online or offline. It wasn’t in a database. It wasn’t in an e-mail or on a Web site. It was in Herb’s head. Herb, a VP of Finance, was no expert in the product we were trying to save; but he knew something about it. In fact he knew the key pieces of information–he knew that the person who headed the division that built the product was creating a fiefdom.

This had two effects on the manufacture of the product; the personnel overhead was out of proportion to the cost of goods and it meant that a lot of people responsible for working on the quality of the product where actually doing the boss’ other work. Consequently, given the overhead, the product cost too much to manufacture and its quality was marginal. This was knowledge that Herb gleaned, in part, from looking at the data from that division. Having previously worked in the division, he also knew the people.

How would a company manage this knowledge? Yet this kind of “dirty knowledge” is often the most important thing for managers to get their hands on. Can this kind of personal opinion ever be codified or put into semipublic information systems? Doubtful. In fact, in this particular company the information had been provided by Herb at a closed-door committee meeting. The committee was charged with deciding if the product should be dropped from the line. It did nothing with Herb’s knowledge. (Subsequently the company president did something about both the product and the division head.)

The issue wasn’t what Herb said or even how he said it. The issue wasn’t Herb at all, but how others did or didn’t listen to him. Why don’t people listen? A classic question usually without simple answers; try: Inattention, distraction, personal bias, egotism, ignorance, lack of comprehension, stupidity, denial, self preservation (I’ll watch your back if you watch mine)–and so forth. What makes us think that a knowledge management system is going to overcome these things?

So there are limits to knowledge management; that does not mean it should be discarded as an idea or a goal. However, through most of the conversations I have with people involved with KM there’s a running thread–knowledge management must be more than better ways of storing and retrieving data and documents. It has to involve people who have expert opinion, who can turn data into knowledge.

That makes a KM system more of a communications system and less of the data mining and raw information processing system. If you subscribe to the approach that people are necessary to filter, qualify, and present the knowledge, then that has to be built into the system. Knowledge management becomes less about the hardware and software than about the framework it provides to allow employees to find, digest, and amplify knowledge. The knowledge and information needs to be shared. It has to be heard and understood–something that a common framework can help with.

Sometimes a knowledge management framework, which will largely carry more or less public information, needs to provide the basis–and perhaps the communication channels–for the less public information. The “unsanitized” knowledge is usually left out of official documents and can only be inferred from sources such as financial data; but it has to be a part of the knowledge management scene or people won’t find the system useful.

I know this is difficult to accomplish. The mix of data, information, and knowledge–and correspondingly the mix of computer and person-to-person communications–is going to vary from company to company. You won’t be able to go to a textbook or somebody’s blueprint and make it work per se. Every knowledge management system is a custom job, which makes it expensive. You have to work really hard to make it worth it. You have to ask if it will really be an improvement, or just an expensive IT exercise.

Nelson King is editor at large for ComputerUser.com and ComputerUser magazine. Also read his Pursuits column monthly in ComputerUser magazine.

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