Manage the fizz

Although
knowledge management is a key issue for organisations, it means different
things in different parts of the world. Which will win out- the IT-led US
approach or the more human European model? By Deborah Swallow

Everyone
seems to agree that today’s organisational wealth lies in the value of the
knowledge that resides in people’s heads, and that knowledge creation should be
the core competence of any organisation.

Yet
the US and Europe are poles apart when grappling with the challenge of managing
knowledge because there is no common consensus on the definition.

In
America, much of the knowledge management debate has been centred around
technology. The US approach has been to consider knowledge as an “information
value chain”. According to Yogesh Malhotra, a leading researcher into knowledge
management, “The information value chain considers technological systems as key
components guiding the organisation’s business processes, while treating humans
as relatively passive processors that implement‚ best practices archived in
information databases.”

Indeed,
the technology thrust has been so strong that most English-speaking people
believe that knowledge management is only about information systems and
databases.

Hijacked

A
recent electronic survey with 5,000 respondents, conducted by Professor Peter
Woolliams from Anglia University in the UK, showed that the overwhelming
majority thought of knowledge management in terms of data capture, storage and
retrieval systems. “Clearly, the IT world has hijacked the phrase,” he says.

The
results of an extensive new study conducted by International Data Corps suggest
that worldwide spending on knowledge management services, including consulting,
implementation, software, support, outsourcing and training, will grow from
$776m in 1998 to more than $8bn by 2003.

Interestingly,
the same survey highlights the need to relate KM programs to the organisation’s
people and culture. The findings suggest the main barriers to implementation
are the absence of an organisational culture that promotes sharing and
employees’ lack of knowledge management understanding.

According
to Peter Woolliams, evidence suggests that IT programs have only attracted
marginal success in spite of the billions of dollars invested in them.
Woolliams believes that the major reason for this failure is that managers
overlook the fact that knowledge is a people issue and that knowledge creation
occurs during social interaction. “There hasn’t yet been a business problem
discovered, that isn’t somehow a people problem,” he comments.

Value
chain

Europeans,
on the other hand, have approached knowledge management from the perspective of
people in a “knowledge value chain”.

The
knowledge value chain treats people systems as key components that engage in
continuous assessment of information archived in the technical systems.

“It
is all about respect for the individual,” says Lynn Rutter, HR communications
director for Finnish telecommunications company Nokia.

“People
readily ask for help and extend it to those whom they know and trust.”

When
technology is the focus of the knowledge programme some workers see only a
suction process. They suspect that the point of the KM program is to suck out
what they know and then discard them. Job security becomes a key issue and
resistance and opposition set in.

“Our
knowledge management system is there to reflect our core values such as respect
for the individual,” explains Rutter. “But this doesn’t mean they can do what
they like. It means an obligation to act responsibly and with care.”

Research
into knowledge sharing shows that workers find it difficult to adopt practices
and suggestions from co-workers with whom they do not have any personal
contact.

Clusters

Many
firms have opted to begin knowledge management programmes by creating knowledge
initiatives in small clusters of the organisation. These can be marketing
departments or a research group, but most commonly the priority lies with
knowledge sharing of the sales team.

IBM
has successfully implemented its Relationship Management Tool (RMT), sharing
knowledge of customer relationships. Yellow Pages has begun a similar programme
of building a customer knowledge warehouse. Although employees on the
front-line may initially be averse to sharing their experiences, they do have a
good understanding of what it means to have the right data at the right time
and support for these projects comes through when the benefits begin to roll
out.

Shell
Oil has established knowledge communities of employees sharing common
interests. One group of engineers shares information on best practice via the
company intranet and occasional face-to-face meetings. Coming from 11
refineries across the US, they have found that working in a small targeted
group has helped them create a pool of knowledge that they are all eager to use
and add to. They know and trust their colleagues.

Bottom-up

The
danger of this bottom-up approach to KM is that it could fragment the company’s
knowledge assets and unnecessarily duplicate infrastructure and resources.

Shell
Oil overcomes this problem by allowing its business units to devise their own
KM systems, but the 27 different managers of the initiatives meet every six
weeks to discuss issues related to KM and shared interests.

Just
as television is more than a radio with pictures, knowledge management is more
than a collection of databases and knowledge sharing. Knowledge management
solutions must take a leap beyond documentation, applied learning, new software
and collecting information from various domain experts.

Competitive
edge

Technology
alone cannot guarantee success in the knowledge economy. Even the best
technologies will not necessarily ensure the creativity and innovation which is
necessary for organisations to develop a competitive edge.

Unless
people meet, trust decays. So knowledge managers should focus their efforts on
the natural way that knowledge is managed in communities of practice.

Dr
Leenamaija Otala, a KM guru from Finland who has advised organisations such as
the World Bank, Nokia, and the US Army, believes organisations should approach
the subject with creativity. “Knowledge management is an attitude not a
process,” she says.

The
time has come for HR managers to embrace the concept of knowledge management in
its broadest sense. It cannot be a separate function characterised by a
separate KM department or a KM process. It has more to do with anthropology
than technology. It is the coming together of people, systems and processes
which creates the fizz and the bubbles, the innovation and the added-value in
an organisation. It is enhanced by technology but subservient to culture.

Knowledge
management is about managing the fizz and ensuring the bubbles don’t evaporate.
Now is the time for “people knowledge management” to come of age.

As
Peter Woolliams warns, “Unless we begin to scream that knowledge management
must have soul there is a danger that KM will drown in technology.”

Promoting
creativity

How
European firms encourage creativity and knowledge sharing:


British Airways has created indoor “street cafes” within its new Waterside
complex.


A London advertising agency has bought an indoor lawn complete with swing and
positioned these in the middle of the office.


A Finnish software house has built a fireplace in the office with cosy chairs
around it.


A Swedish furniture manufacturer holds product think tanks in the sauna.

Case
Study
Integrating knowledge management and corporate values

“We
don’t want contented employees. We want them to challenge us,” says Nokia’s HR
communications director Lynn Rutter.

“We
want them to acquire new knowledge and ask us what we are doing about it. We
want them networking, listening and thinking outside of their box; which they
won’t do if they feel they are a unit of production. This is why Nokia is so
successful. It’s all about the values.”

Nokia
views knowledge management as an important HR issue. It is the embracing of
Nokia’s core values which makes successful knowledge management possible, not
only in Finland but all over the world. So, the values and the KM go hand in
hand:

Core
competencies

Nokia
must have mastery of certain technologies, judged to be company-level core
competencies.


What core skills are needed currently to support these competencies?


For the future?


What have we actually got?


Where is it?


What do we need to train?


Who, when, how? 


Job profiles are created and specific skills that people need are identified.


What is sustainable in the company?

Values

Respect
for the individual. An obligation to act responsibly and with care. Encourage
people to acquire new knowledge for their own self-esteem and for the good of
the company. The act of knowledge sharing is part of everybody’s job.
Continuous process of learning and unlearning.

Career
maps and development path to skills sets

Empowering
people to upskill and move around the company. Employees are able to see what
skills and qualifications are required for which jobs, and to compare with
themselves. They know what they need to achieve and where/how they can get
training to advance themselves, sponsored by the company.

Social
interaction

Networking,
story telling and socialising  are part
of the culture.

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