Knowledge management – A glimpse of the future

There is no doubt that, as predicted, knowledge management has become the management buzzword of the late ’90s, and possibly beyond. However, it is a buzzword that is being handled with kid gloves: the trajectory of the business process reengineering boom is still fresh in the corporate memory. That bandwagon virtually collapsed under the weight of opportunistic jumpers-on.

A great deal of the blame for this fiasco can be laid at the door of the IT industry, which was only too eager to use BPR as an excuse to get customers to recomputerise, rather than reengineer their organisations.

“Reengineering” in this context often meant little more than chopping and changing your company to fit the Procrustean bed of an inflexible software package.

It is unsurprising therefore, that a lot of discussion about knowledge management begins with careful (and lengthy) definitions, and often contains quite explicit distancing fromtechnology.

In my view this is unfortunate: by definition knowledge management, if successful, will provoke often violent collisions between previously separate disciplines and functions. These collisions between epistemologically distanced individuals are only made possible by relatively recent developments in IT and communications.

So when speculating about the future of knowledge management, it is probably to the technological aspects that we should look: the people issues are unlikely to change as radically or as fast.

Mark Neil, managing director of Verity, makes the point that, if knowledge management is about creating corporate memory, then in many ways its future will be its past: knowledge management systems of the future will have to deal with the consequences of what we are doing today.

“Many organisations don’t have the means of capturing the wide variety of sources of information that they own,” he says. “This could be generated by groupware, structured databases, unstructured data, document management applications, e-mail, workflow or even process applications such as SAP.”

Islands in the storm

Superficially, the problem resembles the “islands of technology” that grew up in corporations in the ’80s: disconnected workgroups or departments using incompatible hardware with no means of transferring data. But where the technical “fix” was previously seen as the introduction of standards, open systems and protocols, knowledge management is not about reducing the richness of sources of information. Nor is there any realistic prospect that it could.

“File formats are not going to harmonise over time,” says Neil. “New formats are being created all the time.” He has identified over 200 file formats that are still in use.

“For many years to come there will be these legacy systems,” he says, pointing out that in many ways this is the crux of knowledge management as a technical discipline: “If the knowledge was in current files there wouldn’t be a problem.”

For Neil, the solution is not harmonisation but access. “Interconnecting all of these sources of information is the context of a search,” he says.

“You can’t duplicate all of the systems on an intranet, you need to be able to render all that information on a browser.”

Experience of the Net suggests that browser technology is still in its infancy: “death by success” searches that return millions of results, or total failure are almost as common as success.

“The task of a knowledge management system is to produce a much smaller result because it understands the context,” says Neil. “Its value is what it throws away.”

The future of search technology lies in what Neil calls “brokers”. “You need to be able to draw in information and categorise it as it comes in,” says Neil. “If you try to put it all in a big box, sooner or later you’ll hit a wall. With 100,000 users you’ll soon get steam coming out. The long-term solution is a distributed search: knowledge base modules that go out to a variety of servers from a broker, which could be going to intranet servers, but could equally be looking at websites.”

Begin the search

At the moment knowledge bases are at the beginning of their development, but already the technology is moving far beyond searches by keyword.

Automatic document summarisers will crunch through pages of text remotely, and deliver the results matched against the known interests of the user.

This ability of software to understand context also makes possible genuinely useful automatic translation. These technologies are here already, albeit in crude form. Microsoft’s Word 7 contains a fairly basic document summariser, and there are several test translation sites available on the Net. An amusing way of testing these is to take a corporate memo, translate it into a foreign language and then back into English.

Already the ability of software to show intelligent characteristics is approaching the uncanny. The nature of machine “intelligence” is always going to be confidential but intelligent agents, “wizards” and other software helpers will soon get to the stage where they will be able to attempt the Turing test.

Is knowledge management, then, a threat to the knowledge worker as much as automation was to the manual worker? Quite the contrary, according to Geoffrey Kitt, director of new virtual venture the QBS Group. Kitt sees the next step as “the securitisation of knowledge”.

“Rather than investing money in companies for income streams, you’ll put money into a person,,” he says. “For example, when you leave an employer, that employer might want to make an investment in your future income streams.”

Uncapturable knowledge

Kitt is sceptical about the power of technology to leverage the really vital pieces of knowledge. “You can have corporate intranets, or document management systems which allow you to dump everything off on a CD and then lose it,” he says. “But the really important knowledge is never formally recorded. A consultant might have many contacts, but only he will know which three or four are really important.”

Kitt finds some developments disturbing, such as the news that some UK universities are moving towards automated marking of student texts. There is also an Orwellian dimension to the ability of software agents to monitor and analyse traffic on phone and fax lines. At the moment the volume of traffic is growing faster than the ability of monitoring systems to sort through it, but will this always be the case?

“Processor speeds are doubling yearly, the cost of memory is dropping through the floor,” says Kitt. “The means of communication are converging: the PC is becoming more and more of a communications tool. Voice recognition is the key.”

Will advanced knowledge management lead to dumbing-down? Already the availability of pocketable palmtops and mobile phones have eroded some of the advantage that methodical people have over the rest of us. The “knowledge” stored in a mobile phone amounts to little more than a list of frequently-used numbers, but its potential as a knowledge tool is vast.

For example, when shopping for PC equipment, I can eliminate the need for personal research and knowledge by using it to call my favourite technical expert (i.e. my brother). In a sense, knowledge management offers a marvellous opportunity not to learn, to avoid painful learning curves and concentrate on getting better at what you’re good at – while using technology to dip into other people’s expertise.

This interface between enabling technologies and the individuals, rather than the databases they connect you to could be the key to knowledge management.

Ron Young of Knowledge Associates says: “All the knowledge management conferences I’ve been to are generally split between those in HR and those in IT. For me, it’s a fusion of the two: on the one hand we have the development of the learning organisation, we understand learning and teamwork much better; on the other hand there’s groupware and the Web, and collaborative technologies like Lotus Notes: the whole of it has fused.”

This requires a special kind of management. Up until now the two camps have operated independently, HR developing the people, IT creating corporate knowledge systems. Now the two are suddenly thrown into coexistence, as technologies like the mobile phone connect people in new ways.

“You need directors of knowledge management who can take the holistic view, as much aware of the organic knowledge base as of IT, but more into the interaction between the two,” says Young.

A technology Young believes will have a big impact in the future is videoconferencing, which he admits has been slow to catch on.

“I’m still stubbornly of a mind it will take off,” he says. “Obviously the way we communicate by e-mail would be enhanced by colours, pictures, sounds etcetera. At the end of the day it’s humans that have to interpret this stuff: if it’s rich we can turn it into knowledge.”

He points to the way companies like BP use video technologies to get “virtual experts” like doctors into the middle of situations on distant oil rigs.

Young sees differences in the approach to knowledge management between the States, Japan and Europe.

“This is an oversimplification, but in the US they are very much more technological and process-oriented, with a due regard to people, but definitely technology-led and into things such as search engines and ways of getting to information,” says Young. “In Japan they are not that interested in technology, but know a lot about how highly interactive teams of people integrate and create new knowledge.”

European balance

Europe has a chance to strike a happy medium: “There’s more of a balance between people, process and technology,” he says. “To know who is the best and then connect them.”

This has important consequences for individuals: “The best way to use knowledge is to specialise,” says Young.

He uses the analogy of a symphony orchestra whose members, although highly skilled could not be expected to heal the sick or even play each other’s instruments very well. “The key is the score and the conductor,” he says.

“The more you specialise, the more you need a process and someone to co-ordinate it all.”

In a world of specialisation the position of the chief knowledge officer becomes more and more equivocal, required to have a foot in two or more camps, a hybrid manager.

Young believes that the fusion between human resources and IT may become less and less metaphorical: “I firmly believe in technology,” he says.

“In the future you will wear your PC.”

While Knowledge Management may not be primarily a technological issue this graph from Boston-based Delphi Group shows how adoption of knowledge management will shift (US) spending on information systems.

The graph predicts that technologies such as search, workflow and document management will be overtaken by more all-embracing knowledge products.

Standalone search products will drop away particularly rapidly as manufacturers enhance their products and reposition them as KM solutions. Document management and workflow will however remain significant as knowledge management integrates them more directly into the business.

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