…where to begin?

‘Knowledge Management (KM) is the process of capturing, developing, sharing, and effectively using organisational knowledge. It refers to a multi-disciplined approach to achieving organisational objectives by making the best use of knowledge.’

KM, as a term, was first utilised in the 1980’s by the knowledge ‘guru’ Peter Drucker but has been a recognised discipline since the early 1990’s. Some would argue that it has been around for centuries and that the quest for understanding knowledge has always been central to human behaviour. Driven by the need to capture, store and distribute more efficient knowledge, new technologies began to be developed. Each new advance in communication and learning technology expanded the possibilities for knowledge capture and distribution.

KM (as we know it today) only really gathered pace in the mid to late eighties; when far reaching economical, social and technological changes took place globally. Through ‘globalisation’ many companies began to experience new opportunities. This led to increased competition and many organisations responded by ‘downsizing’ (or as it later became known ‘rightsizing’). Reducing the workforce became the norm, whilst looking for ways to boost productivity through computerisation and networking technologies.

It soon became apparent that as people walked ‘out of the door’ their work experience and (more importantly), their ‘knowledge’ went with them. This knowledge would prove difficult to replace and there was a sudden realisation that they were losing, not just people, but their Intellectual Property (IP) – in other words they now ‘no longer knew what they knew’. Organisations began to look for ways of retaining this knowledge within the business and so KM began to be adopted. For the last two decades there have been numerous white papers, thesis and experiments aimed at capturing IP within organisations.

Originally a common practice was to document everything. However, this method quite often failed for numerous reasons:

  • the information documented was not essential information and was often ‘buried’ away in a complex filing structure (making it hard to find),
  • this ‘lost’ information eventually became outdated. The end-user became frustrated with searching for this documentation, which then led to a culture of ‘re-inventing the wheel’ (because it was easier than trying to search for the original documentation),
  • knowledge was locked into ‘knowledge silos’ that were specific to a department or even a group or individual. This knowledge could not be easily shared with other members of the business and duplication of effort was often commonplace,
  • there was strong ‘cultural’ resistance (at an individual level) to giving away knowledge. It was perceived that having knowledge equated to having power – giving a sense of job security.

Many companies began to look for KM solutions and relied entirely on KM technologies. This approach led to limited success and doubts were raised about the future of KM and, for a while, it looked like KM was going to decline in value.

The main issue was that the focus was heavily reliant on technology rather than the business and more importantly its people. Too much hype (from consultants and technology solutions sales teams) led to a perception that these companies were ‘cashing in’ on the latest management fad. Companies spent too much money on these technologies with little or no Return on Investment (RoI).

It was found to be difficult to convert theory about KM into practice. A lot of time (and effort) was needed to access and document the knowledge held within a company.
It was often seen as an ‘overhead’ or ‘new initiative’ which no one had any faith in and there was often insufficient senior executive ‘buy-in’ to the process.

Fortunately companies realised their early mistakes and began to adopt different approaches to KM. Their focus moved from technology driven solutions to people and the way in which they communicated and worked within the business. Much more emphasis is now placed on embedding KM into the culture of an organisation so that ‘sharing of knowledge’ and the ‘creation of new knowledge’ becomes part of a normal day’s work.

Colin McGill
ITS Illustration Supervisor