Knowledge Management Software – Search me

The principle behind knowledge management is devastatingly obvious -s Guy Matthews. why not deploy information that is useful to one area of an organisation so that it becomes useful to all? But the problem has always been moving from a position of interest to a workable implementation.

KM solutions have too often been deployed at great cost, then abandoned for want of usability, scalability or plain user acceptance.

But the more information-rich organisations are now waking up to the fact that KM is really not as problematical as its reputation suggests.

Little wonder that consultancy practices themselves are leading lights in KM use. How, though, to get clients to buy in to what many see as yet another IT white elephant?

The systems needed to underpin KM are, ironically, the least of the problem.

Satisfactorily scalable software and hardware can now link even the most distributed enterprise, enabling all users to share data in real time via powerful back office engines.

The consultant naturally has a role in integrating the systems elements.

But the real challenge is bringing the human element on board. If people are not inclined to make KM part of their working day as they do e-mail or the Internet, then there is no hope for it.

A common reason for this lack of user buy-in is information overload.

The right data needs to be available immediately, in usable format, and not sifted out of a mass of chaff. A consultant who can deliver this has a client for life.

John Hunt: manager, Deloitte Consulting

Based on client feedback, Hunt sees a big future for the young but vigorously growing market for knowledge management solutions. “There is an acceptance that managing knowledge is going to make the difference in many cases between companies that succeed and those who just about survive or die.”

Step one, says Hunt, is learning to recognise knowledge as an asset in the same way as a building or a car fleet. Step two is to ensure that where knowledge exists, it is available to all within an organisation in order that the reinvention of the wheel does not happen. “Too many organisations believe that knowledge management is all about installing the right database. But to make a knowledge management system work, you must get users to buy into it, use it, update it, to treat it as an everyday tool as they would e-mail or word processing.”

Hunt finds himself recommending ways to get employee “buy in” to the knowledge management process. One is to bring usage of it into employee performance reviews. “You need to be able to find out when people last used it, and to find ways of getting people to take responsibility for managing it.”

Ironically, Hunt believes that more harm is done by over-zealous application of KM solutions than by under-use. There is, he says, a danger of information overload if every bit of data is put onto a system. “People will use it once, not find what they what they were after, and never return.”

A major challenge in setting up a KM infrastructure is often integrating information spread over many disparate systems. “Time and money spent integrating these is a priority.”

Another consideration is ease of access. “In our firm, for example, consultants need to access information from virtually anywhere – a client office, on the road, abroad. Like integration, this can pose a problem. At least under today’s intranet model, you can use a browser as your main interface to the data.”

If any vertical industries can be said to lead the field in KM implementation, then Hunt cites financial services and the law. “In the latter case, the large volumes of data many law firms still hold on paper means that they can achieve measurable benefits quickly with KM.”

He also says that many retailers have used KM with technologies like data warehousing and data mining to extract meaningful patterns from a mass of otherwise meaningless data.

In a horizontal sense, Hunt says, large corporations with a multinational spread are probably prime beneficiaries at present. “In a small company, knowledge can travel more easily. In a large organisation, somebody might have a idea in San Francisco that could be useful in Wokingham, but you need systems to connect the two. Lots of organistions are waking up to how KM allows them to be truly international.”

John Kay: head of strategy delivery, PA Consulting

“Client reaction at the moment,” says Kay “is not ‘is knowledge management a good thing?’, but ‘how do we get moving on this?’.

“It’s just as it was with groupware a few years ago. The potential of the idea is widely understood, but people can’t necessarily relate the idea to their own organisation. Too much IT strategy is all about telling you what to do rather than how to do it.”

To help resolve the issue of relating the principle of KM to real-life, PA Consulting has launched a series of Insight Seminars where attendees are invited to fill out a worksheet from which plans for concrete action can be drawn. “It’s a concept that has gone down well,” says Kay.

He believes that KM has been at or near the top of many corporate agendas for a while, and that more initiatives like PA’s will break the log jam.

A few companies, he says, like BP, are leading the way.

“The technology to facilitate knowledge management is getting better all the time,” he adds. “Lotus Notes has improved no end, and Microsoft Exchange is not bad either. Both are well integrated down to the desktop. And lots of Web-based technologies are gaining ground.”

Kay says he has seen a lot of pharmaceuticals and manufacturing companies make great strides in KM. Manufacturers in particular, he says, have surprised themselves with a very quick return on investment. He says: “You need to be able to measure results tangibly. If you can’t see the effect on the bottom line after a certain period, you might as well not have bothered.”

He says that while leading the way on KM, too many consultancies have sought to graft their own experiences into clients regardless of the fit.

You need to give it much more thought to bring the necessary components together.”

Janice Reid: manager UK & Ireland, resource management group, Andersen Consulting

Andersen Consulting is arguably the initiator of the whole KM industry.

In the late ’80s, it saw businesses begin to tap into the potential of the information highway as a way of revolutionising the way they worked.

This led to the creation of Andersen’s Knowledge Xchange knowledge management system in 1992. Says Reid: “The system provides the firm’s professionals with universal access to organisation-wide knowledge and experience, best industry practices, methods and leading-edge technology.” The firm’s clients, says Reid, benefit from consultants’ ability to access collective knowledge, join electronic discussions to trade ideas and solve problems, search external newsfeeds and industry analyses and identify consultants with special skills.

Not all KM benefits are strictly material. She says: “Less tangibly, it fosters a sense of community that can be a challenge to achieve in a widely dispersed organisation.” Reinvention, she says, is now minimised, allowing teams to focus on crafting custom solutions.

The Knowledge Xchange architecture is based on standardised hardware and software – including desktop and portable PCs, software for e-mail and groupware – with custom-developed applications and tools.

Andersen Consulting has now created a global, internetworked Lotus Notes environment made up of a network of LANs providing users in 47 countries with real-time access to servers around the world, used with its voice network and videoconferencing systems.

Reid says that the best KM system is an evolving organism. “Like other types of capital, knowledge capital depreciates over time. It loses its usefulness if not kept up to date. Automating the dissemination of information resources results in their increased use and integration into business processes worldwide.”

She says that for Andersen and others, a KM system is a necessary step toward the “virtual office”. “With Knowledge Xchange, our professionals need only a computer, a modem and bandwidth to access the resources they need to do their jobs. Teleworking is now feasible.”

She says KM can deliver efficiencies in training. Classroom instruction can be supplemented with automated, multimedia courses, available over a network.

By leading through example, Reid claims that many Andersen clients are starting to make use of KM. Once their competitors see what they are achieving, she believes that the whole market will mushroom and KM may soon be the rule and not the exception.

Guy Matthews is a freelance journalist

Next month: ERP/manufacturing.

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