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Best Practices in Knowledge Management

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The rationale for using knowledge management techniques is still being debated and is just now becoming a widely recognized "next step" for many management teams. In this excerpt from Publishing Intellectual Capital James Cortada looks at the value of and the best practices for managing knowledge.

Although activities in the general subject area of knowledge management have been going on for many decades, only since the mid-1980s did managers consciously start thinking of the topic as a branch of management practices, and only since the mid-1990s as growing in importance. One byproduct of that new awareness is research on what are the best practices in knowledge management. To be sure, the subject is expanding, its practices are being tested and documented, and we have much yet to learn. But insights of sufficient quality are beginning to come in, so that one can plan with confidence how best to use them.

Larry Prusak, who wrote the foreword to this book, studied some 100 knowledge projects during the 1990s. In the process he learned why managers launch such projects. The reasons boiled down to three:

  • To make knowledge and information both visible and available through a variety of tools, such as on-line yellow pages, applied hypertext, and knowledge maps

  • To create a corporate culture that exploited knowledge through such behaviors as sharing of information u and knowledge, and seeking and collecting additional useful insights

  • To develop an infrastructure that supported knowledge, such as technical infrastructures, connections among employees, collaborations, and availability of a variety of tools and techniques

Prusak observed that the most effective managers paid close attention to the combination of human, organizational, technical, and strategic issues and factors that influenced how knowledge was used in an organization. Hoarding creates enormous problems; understanding why and how to use knowledge was of great value to the firm.

There is a huge debate underway among experts on the interrelationships of types of knowledge and their use. The experts are concerned about the role of context and dependencies. Some see communities of workers sharing knowledge as crucial and, therefore, want to understand how we can foster that behavior. Others think of knowledge as a product with markets within and outside of the firm, in which people acquire, use, dispense, and sell knowledge and insights. Whether the flow of knowledge is described as a pseudomarket or as communities of sharing, from a tactical perspective the issue boils down to making knowledge available across the enterprise in a timely and useful way. We will come back to the role of publishing as a vehicle for packaging and disseminating information and knowledge.

We are beginning to the catalog the types of knowledge activities that companies find useful. Rudy Ruggles, who has studied knowledge management in practice, identified eight types of activities (Knowledge Management Tools, 1997):

  • Creating new knowledge

  • Accessing useful knowledge from outside the firm

  • Applying knowledge in decision-making

  • Embedding knowledge in the activities and products of the firm

  • Demonstrating and communicating knowledge in documents, electronic files, and software

  • Encouraging collection and use of knowledge within a corporation by building a culture that values it

  • Moving knowledge around the enterprise to make it useful to as many employees as possible

  • Assessing its value with measures of knowledge assets and impact on management

Much of this activity begins with technological infrastructure and process management, but then people discover higher orders of use and recognize that knowledge applied to the firm's daily activities provides as much value as technological applications.

What inhibits or stops the use of knowledge management in firms today? The key surveys all tend to point out the same issues. The foremost issue continues to be corporate cultures that do not value knowledge or facilitate its use in daily activities. Not far behind is the failure of top management to give knowledge management importance, the same finding noted by many scholars in the 1980s and early 1990s with the failure/success of quality management practices—senior management failed to back the initiative. Third on most experts' lists is the lack of any shared ap-preciation or understanding of a business strategy that incorporates the use of these tools. Interestingly, most lists place in fourth or fifth place organization, yet organization invariably is one of the quickest ways by which management seeks to cause change. A CEO simply appoints a Chief Information Officer and says, "There, I have started the process." All the usual reasons of failure for any business initiative fall much lower in surveys (e.g., staff turnover, poor technical infrastructure, incentives).

Normally, listing best practices as a list of "don'ts" or negatives is not an effective way to communicate what to do that works. However, Liam Fahey and Larry Prusak teamed up to combine their research on best practices in knowledge management in the late 1990s to create a short list worth remembering. Viewed as a collection of errors, here is their list:

  1. Not developing a working definition of knowledge

  2. Emphasizing knowledge stock to the detriment of knowledge flow

  3. Viewing knowledge as existing predominantly outside the heads of individuals

  4. Not understanding that a fundamental intermediate purpose of managing knowledge is to create shared context

  5. Paying little heed to the role and importance of tacit knowledge

  6. Disentangling knowledge from its uses

  7. Downplaying thinking and reasoning

  8. Focusing on the past and the present and not the future

  9. Failing to recognize the importance of experimentation

  10. Substituting technological contact for human interface

  11. Seeking to develop direct measures of knowledge

Fahey and Prusak's prescription for success reflects the findings of other researchers and practitioners. They argue for sharing an organization's knowledge with employees at multiple levels of the enterprise. However, their research strongly suggests that knowledge is always localized, e.g., in the heads of individuals or in small groups of employees often in close physical proximity to each other (e.g., in the same department or floor). They find the most useful applications of knowledge occur when employees are given many opportunities to discuss and debate the definition and use of knowledge, not just simply the business issues of the firm. Increasingly, they find employees need help to identify what should be, or are, their roles as creators and users of knowledge. Management also must ask em-ployees to articulate the implications for the group's behavior and processes in applying knowledge. Just as process owners discovered with operational processes in industry in the 1980s and 1990s, knowledge management processes can be improved upon, both in content and application. The caution here is not to focus strictly on information or facts, but also on what people think they know as they make decisions on behalf of the firm.

The rationale for using knowledge management techniques is still being debated and is just now becoming a widely recognized "next step" for many management teams. The situation we find with knowledge management is not so dissimilar to that faced by managers in North America and in Western Europe in the mid-1980s with quality management practices, particularly process management. The parallels are remarkably similar, the prescriptions and best practices almost identical. That is good news—we can borrow from the best practices of the last major addition to management practices to implement knowledge management effectively and more rapidly. The critical task will be to develop a culture that values knowledge and a series of processes that create, share, and apply knowledge. What those processes are and how they work continue to remain a cathedral under construction. The experts know, however, that the processes include creation, movement, and leverage of knowledge, along with their organization into useful forms and their dissemination. It is in the last step that publishing can play a crucial—although not definitive—role.

Researchers are constantly refining their understanding of how best to apply knowledge management. Key research interests at the end of the 1990s centered around:

  • Exchange of tacit knowledge

  • Flow of information

  • Making knowledge assets visible

But although one can make a short, general list, the tough questions don't lend themselves to cataloging. For example, much attention is being paid to the evolving role of knowledge in organizations, not just in business, but in all types of institutions. Other people are interested in identifying strategic-level barriers to the use of knowledge (where the debate arises about knowledge as a new form of capital or competitive advantage). An extensive debate is underway on what and how to measure knowledge. Then, there is the large issue of identifying operational barriers to the collection, organization, use, and improvement of knowledge. The intangible quality of knowledge and its anthropomorphic value (because it resides in our heads) lead many managers to struggle with a definition. But, it often is that lack of precision and its impalpability that gives knowledge a quality that makes it inaccessible to competitors. There is competitive advantage here!

Yet one's impulse is to the visible, to the tangible, to the accessible. Publications play a key role in these arenas. That is why there is a strong link between publishing and knowledge management, why we must understand their relationship. When well linked, the two support the business objectives of the enterprise.

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