November 22, 1999
What's behind one of the most-misunderstood IT strategies
By Rick Whiting
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Tapping the knowledge and experience of individuals within an organization, and sharing that expertise across a company, has long been one of the most strategic goals of IT and business managers. But knowledge management is a moving target, surrounded by misconceptions. To really understand it, those myths must be dissected. Here are 10 of the biggest.
Myth No. 1: Knowledge management is something new.
It may have been called by other names in the past, but the concept of knowledge management, as applied to IT, is not new. "Good companies have been doing it for a long time," says Vince Barabba, general manager of corporate strategy, knowledge development, at General Motors Corp. GM engineers around the world have been exchanging data and collaborating on design projects using technology as basic as E-mail since the 1980s.
Another early adopter, Buckman Laboratories International Inc., began implementing knowledge-management systems in the mid-1980s. Early efforts of the Memphis, Tenn., manufacturer of specialty chemicals included the 1987 creation of an electronic file system in which salespeople recorded how they resolved problems at customer sites. That system has evolved into K'Netix, a company intranet that provides Buckman employees with discussion forums, access to engineering and product data, and news services. K'Netix is used to build virtual teams that can quickly respond to problems or business opportunities.
Successful companies long ago developed ways of collecting feedback from customers about products and services and created mechanisms for getting that information back to the company's research and development, marketing, and sales organizations. "It goes back years, decades, eons," says Tom Brailsford, manager of knowledge leadership at Hallmark Cards Inc. in Kansas City, Mo. But the discipline has advanced--and so has the technology that supports it.
Myth No. 2: Knowledge management is a fad.
Remember artificial intelligence? Business-process reengineering? Network computers? All are examples of technology and business trends that served strategic purposes--and still do--but suffer from a surfeit of raised expectations and overexposure. Now it's knowledge-management's turn.
"There are a lot of people out there who are very cynical about knowledge management," says Jim Allen, director of knowledge management at the Dow Chemical Co. in Midland, Mich. One reason: vendors touting older software products as knowledge-management tools (see Myth No. 3). Another, says Allen, is the tendency to dismiss misunderstood new ideas as buzzwords.
But Allen and other knowledge-management practitioners argue that while the term "knowledge management" might fall out of favor, the practices will likely become part of the basic strategy and culture of every successful business.
"Some fads become embedded in the way we work," agrees Larry Prusak, executive director of the Cambridge, Mass., Institute for Knowledge Management, an industry consortium sponsored by IBM and other companies. He cites the quality-improvement efforts of the late 1980s and early 1990s. "You don't hear much about that today, but it's part of how we all work," he says, adding that knowledge management has a good chance of following suit. "Knowing what you know and what you need to know can't be a fad."
Separating reality from rhetoric will keep knowledge management from degenerating into a missed opportunity. "Knowledge management is at a crossroads," Prusak says. "It's in danger of being hijacked by opportunists just out to sell things."
Myth No. 3: Knowledge management is a technology.
This is the greatest misconception about knowledge management, according to IS executives. "The biggest myth is that this is all about technology and that you can 'do' it if you build an electronic repository that everyone can access," says Scott Beaty, knowledge-management officer in group learning and performance operations at Shell Oil Co. "When you start talking about knowledge, it's really about people, relationships, communities, and a new way of working."
continued...page 2, 3, 4, 5
Illustration by Elle
Photo of Barabba by Dwight Cendrowski
Photo of Brailsford by Tim Pott
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