Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Whither Knowledge Management?

I’ve been fortunate enough to be involved in the design and implementation of knowledge management systems for nearly ten years now and it’s been great to see the maturation of thought, systems, and techniques devoted to KM. With that maturation though, comes an obligation to reflect upon what KM has actually provided its supporters. While I can’t say what others have encountered, I can say from my own experience both as an “insider” as well as a consultant that well designed knowledge sharing systems provide value above and beyond other management tools. That is, if you have a process improvement strategy already—say, six sigma, lean, or some other methodology—knowledge management can improve upon it.

While we didn’t know it at the time, years ago General Motors could have benefited greatly from good knowledge management. I spent 19 years there, most as an industrial engineer, so process improvement was definitely in my job responsibility. From machine design, to plant layout, to time studies, and so on, all the traditional improvement techniques were in my toolkit. What wasn’t however, was a systematic way to learn and to share my experience among all the other industrial engineers in the corporation. In fact, with nearly 200 manufacturing plants worldwide at the time, even networking with only one industrial engineer from each location would have been helpful.

So even though I may have gotten better at my craft, any improvements I helped to create were just point solutions—one improvement in one place, at one time—perhaps never to be repeated anywhere else again. Without knowledge management and the sharing of experience, we were all re-inventing good processes over and over again—just in different locations. Now this isn’t to say that we didn’t learn, because we certainly did. We just didn’t do it in a systematic way as knowledge management could provide. What we did do was to re-use old machine designs as a start and improve upon them; referenced similar processes that we tweaked; and, asked around if we thought we could count on the experience of other, more senior engineers.

There is an epilogue to this however, as today General Motors has a knowledge management program. It’s good to know that the company I started my professional career with has learned enough to build in systems that may help it get to the next century. I’d like to know what others have experienced though. What about this business of measuring KM? How do you know it’s got something to give that other methods don’t?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Ron.. an interesting post, which to me reinforces what I've heard frequently over the last few years - KM is just good management. And more recently, in the future KM will just be how we manage.

Measurement in KM is a topic in many conversations, and certainly influenced by what is defined as KM, and also how tightly linked philosophally the participants in the conversation are to Taylorism. Something I read recently in an essay (Returns on Investment from Knowledge Management) by Mark McElroy/KMCI where he states "investments in KM can only have a direct impact on knowledge processing performance, not business performance." Maybe this perspective will help deal with KM ROI challenges.

We're conducting an experimental partnership project with HR to develop an Organizational Capability Planning methodology.

Loosely defined, it's an approach intended to a) ensure the right person is in the right chair at the right time with the right skills and knowledge (succession planning), and once there b) helping to shorten the learning curve / time to productivity by providing the person with access to the quality, relevant information, knowledge, and knowledge holders required to fulfill the role in the organizational context (knowledge continuity).

I don't know of anyorganization taking this type of wholistic approach yet. (In particular one like ours where the issue is as much deep smarts/expert knowledge as it is operational knowledge.) These two perspectives, succession planning and knowledge continuity, are most often dealt with separately.

We have a number of challenges, not the least of which is coming to common understanding, finding common ground and objectives, and reconciling the HR view of "knowledge" and the KM view of the term - among other definitions.

In the APQC Report "Integrating KM and OL", there is a point made: "KM and Organizational Learning each have distinct value propositions driving their implementations in organizations, but they also share a common goal of increasing employee capability. For KM, that means sharing knowledge across the enterprise; for OL, it means improving employee competence individually. Regardless of the approach, the desired end result is an organization capable of nimbleness, flexibility and innovation."

Interesting. But here is the question (more or less) that has come up in conversations, and I've yet to create a succinct, pithy response.

"Given that KM is a management discipline, and by definition is managers' responsibility, and the degree of "growing" extension, if not ownership, of HR in KM related initiatives, what does KM "bring to the party?" I somewhat further qualify this by adding "What is KM uniquely about that necessitates its existence as a organizational entity, an identifiable capability / service offering?"

And of course, how do you measure that in a meaningful way?