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8/15/2003
12:49 PM
Tony Kontzer
Tony Kontzer
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The Need To Know

Knowledge management has gone from pie-in-the-sky promises to more-realistic applications

This just in from the knowledge-management front: Whatever your company is doing in this area, and it probably should be doing something, don't call it knowledge management.

Many people take a rather dim view of that term. OK, let's not mince words: Knowledge management might as well have promised to wash the dishes and mow the lawn for all the hard business benefits many companies believe they've gotten from it. Yet even as they ditch the baggage-laden nomenclature, companies are moving ahead with IT-enabled initiatives to better gather and share the expertise and data that lives within their organizations. Half of companies in InformationWeek Research's second-quarter Priorities survey list knowledge management as a top technology priority. What they're doing is toning down the pie-in-the-sky initiatives of yesteryear into simpler, more-focused business strategies, enabled by less-obtrusive technologies that leverage, above all, search and collaboration.

"A lot of knowledge-management disasters occurred because someone with a grand initiative tried to get their arms around the whole enterprise," says Art Murray, managing director of the George Washington University Institute for Knowledge Management. "Often such things collapse under their own weight."

Companies often fell short of their goal to enable employees to make quicker, better business decisions, because of expensive and time-consuming software deployments, overly ambitious data collection, and complex social-network theories. Too often, companies bought technology to capture knowledge in all of its forms, creating huge repositories that lacked the context needed to make the information useful, says Kent Greenes, senior VP and chief knowledge officer at consulting firm Scientific Applications International.

Knowledge practitioners today are focused on deploying simpler tools, creating processes for how they'll be used, then doing everything possible to feed a culture of knowledge sharing. "Just because you can capture what people know doesn't mean it's going to make a damn bit of difference," says Greenes, who built a knowledge-management program when he worked at oil conglomerate BP plc. "If you're not capturing it for reuse, then why bother?"

Raytheon Co. is an example of a company tackling a classic knowledge-management problem with an emphasis on using information, not just collecting it. The defense contractor wants to change a culture that has valued creating and inventing far more than sharing and reusing what people in the company already know. Technology plays a key role in the effort, but so does a 6-year-old Six Sigma program that already was central to how Raytheon does business. "We've embedded it into the Six Sigma process without calling it knowledge management," says Bill Baker, corporate knowledge-management and benchmarking champion.

Raytheon Six Sigma, as it's called, is designed to make the reuse and sharing of knowledge the first and last steps in any process. To ensure that there are leaders evangelizing that approach, the company designated business-unit "knowledge champions" and created standard- ized steps that leave little doubt how information gets stored and shared. To access the knowledge, the company built a portal using Oracle software that can search multiple databases, including documents in a project-portfolio-management application called Power Steering.

Raytheon is also encouraging "communities of practice" built around technical or functional specialties. Earlier this year, Baker and the other knowledge-management champions decided they needed a better IT infra- structure for the communities but worried about creating just another database. They turned to a smaller defense company, Rockwell Collins Inc., for ideas. A team visited Rockwell's headquarters to study its infrastructure, which combines community-specific Web pages with systematic senior-management involvement. Raytheon then focused on its missile-systems unit, where the first communities of practice had emerged, to start formal development of these communities with support from the unit's senior management. Now the company is developing communities for the supply-chain and Six Sigma staffs to exchange knowledge, and it's close to consolidating on a collaboration software tool that will provide the IT platform for the communities.

Changing technology is affecting how companies approach knowledge management, particularly collaboration and search tools. Improving search technology makes it easier for companies to sort through the data they collect. As collaboration tools such as online workspaces, messaging, and Web conferencing are available to more employees and become easier to use, it becomes practical to connect people with common interests. Expertise-location tools can link people working on related projects, even if those people aren't looking for each other. Intelligent-search technologies can match a query with an employee who has the desired expertise. And the emerging technology of presence awareness tells if a document author, message-board contributor, or subject-matter expert found in a search is free to expound on an idea, by tapping into an engine that detects that person's online availability.

But the central goal remains helping employees sift through "the stuff" to find what's relevant. The stuff might be research data, collected best practices or other tacit knowledge, or access to expertise, but the measure of practical success is relevance.

Shell International Exploration and Production discovered the importance of practicality in its approach to knowledge management long before most. The 30,000-person unit of Royal Dutch/Shell launched a knowledge-management initiative six years ago, but after a year it ditched the "knowledge management" label and called the initiative simply "new ways of working," says Arjan van Unnik, founding member of the New Ways of Working team.

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