• United States



by Laurie M. Orlov

When You Say ‘KM,’ What Do You Mean?

Sep 21, 20045 mins
CSO and CISOData and Information Security

The rubric of knowledge management is as vague and hyped today as business process re-engineering was during the 1990s. Too broad to be meaningful, too encompassing for projects to be successful, and too subject to interpretation by vendors and consultants to be easily purchased, managed, or finished in anything less than a year. Instead of continuing to hold onto the term, firms should step back and examine their requirements with a set of questions that will help them focus on specific business processes and problems, forge actionable strategies, and create projects that have clear objectives and fixed scope.

Doing KM Is Akin to Herding Cats

Knowledge management is a broad term that frames a firms desire to do a better job in the creation, transfer, and codification of what employees, partners, and customers know.1 But when they peer into the knowledge management abyss, IT execs may see an initiative that is long on evangelical fervor but short on specifics that translate into a project plan. Rather than attempting to saturate the organization with knowledge management lingo and practice, firms should ask themselves these six questions that focus their efforts on solving a specific business problem.2 Does your firm need to do a better job of:

  • Sharing solutions to customer problems in a call center? Firms trying to ensure that support center or help desk solutions are saved and reused when the next customer calls should establish a customer service knowledge base, not a generic knowledge management project. Customer services reps may use software products from eService vendors like KANA, Primus Knowledge Solutions, and edocs to capture and retain information on problem resolutions. True, this is about managing knowledge but the solution is quite specific and requires tight coupling with existing eService apps.
  • Helping groups or teams collaborate and share work? Firms often manage decentralized R&D development, lead a geographically dispersed sales force, deliver complex consulting projects to customers, or develop collaboratively authored documents or reports. To manage these activities successfully, organizations need to set up an environment where people can share ideas or lessons learned, provide each other with updates, keep document versions straight, or reuse prior work. IT managers should pursue these efforts, which increasingly involve collaboration platform vendors like IBM and Microsoft, within the context of an enterprise collaboration strategy. True, such projects result in knowledge sharing, but collaboration platform implementations focus on specific work processes.
  • Locate people with specific skills or create communities? Companies, especially large ones, need the capability to locate people in their organization who have specific experiences or specialized expertise to reduce the time spent solving problems, making decisions, taking action, or moving projects forward. People need to meet, share, and collaborate outside a specific project context and/or within their area of subject matter expertise.3 True, these projects seem to be about locating or sharing knowledge, but by narrowing the focus to expertise location when talking to vendors like AskMe or Tacit Knowledge Systems, Web conferencing when talking to vendors like Centra Software or Raindance Communications, or shared workspace with vendors like SiteScape or Groove Networks, firms will bound the scope and cost more effectively.
  • Managing unstructured content repositories? The need for business effciency and revenue enhancement, combined with looming regulations, boosts the priority placed on corralling unstructured content (documents, scanned images, rich media) stored on desktops, shared file systems, and in Lotus Notes. Firms must link workflow with document-related business processes and consolidate documents and Web content into a virtual repository. Once authored, tagged/indexed, and stored in a formal enterprise content management system, documents can be searched or accessed in a portal, or teams can collaborate on newer versions. True, this sounds like creation, transfer, or codification of knowledge. But the vendors like Documentum, IBM, or Interwoven frame these projects as enterprise content management. Their software helps firms get control over unstructured content so that it can be accessed and effectively reused.
  • Providing customized access to existing information? Some firms need to offer broader access to information that already exists otherwise, employees or partners waste time looking for it or recreating it. But to deliver coherent access to existing information, firms need to develop an organizational scheme for that information (its taxonomy), make it accessible with search or information-retrieval technology, and present it to users via a portal. They also need to make sure that any information that should be classified as business records, and therefore have retention policies applied to it, is managed properly. True, the projects goal is to access knowledge, but focusing the scope on taxonomy/search and portal projects enables IT leaders to start the conversation with vendors like Verity or Plumtree; or setting sights on Records Management invites a discussion with Documentum or Open Text.
  • Documenting, modeling and executing business processes? Companies are at risk of corporate memory loss when key employees leave or retire and the firm discovers too late that the business processes these employees managed are not documented. Todays technology for business process management (BPM) enables firms to model and codify processes; link in applications, tasks, and data; and match them to the various steps the process represents. BPM enables firms to institutionalize and therefore share a model for auditable processes like revenue recognition or contract management. True, the project aims to codify process knowledge, but the implementation should document and manage manual or hidden processes to prevent this experience from leaving the organization.


1 Sometimes the discussion of knowledge segments it into two categories: tacit, or what is in employees heads, versus explicit, that which is recorded in files, manuals, or other documents.

2 How is knowledge management different from content management or business process apps like CRM? Firms seeking to better manage and use intellectual capital must focus on specific business processes that dictate information, training, and organizational-change needs.

3 Online communities are also sometimes referred to as communities of practice.