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?