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KM The Right Way

KM The Right Way

A step-by-step approach that will ensure that your expensive KM system actually gets used.

Reader ROI

  • Learn how to judge whether your organisation is ready for KM
  • Learn what you need to evaluate before you jump into KM
  • Understand why technology is only a small part of the KM equation.

When Tom Rossi, director of the Innovation Lab at the US Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, began a knowledge management initiative in 1999, he thought he knew everything. Rossi and his team were charged with creating a futuristic environment for computerised war games. The games, held annually for more than 20 years, have about 500 senior military and civilian players who need to share real-time information about troop deployments, battle readiness and the battlefield environment. Prior to Rossi's KM project, the gamer commanders had to gather information via phone calls, memos, e-mails and game books - none of which encouraged the kind of instantaneous decision-making necessary in combat situations.

Rossi and his team put together a KM system that integrated a collaborative software suite, a naval war games software tool and Microsoft Exchange's Conferencing Server for Internet video and chat capabilities. In the year between games, Rossi worked with engineers and a metrics team to fine-tune the system. They tailored the command and control databases so that various commanders had access to the same information; as one group of officers plotted troop positions and battle tactics, other participants lower down the chain of command could see the plans as they formed and anticipate what their own tasks would be.

In theory, Rossi's project sounded great. But by 2001, the technology bogged down. "We had gadgets and tools, but when we brought the gamers together, it became clear that we'd given them too much IT," Rossi says. "By the time we brought them up to speed on the new tools, the game was well under way and they got frustrated fast."

As a result, the 2002 war games were cancelled.

Rossi's misstep is a common one. While KM is a sound field with real benefits such as reduced training time for new employees, improved decision making and better operational efficiency, it's difficult to get it right. "The biggest misconception that IT leaders make is that knowledge management is about technology," says Shir Nir, managing partner at Knowledge Transformation Partners (KTP), a KM consultancy based in New York City. "Usually people begin a KM project by focusing on the technology needs, whether they want a database or a portal. But the key is people and process."

It's natural for CIOs to focus on technology, and many vendors are happy to oblige them by marketing so-called off-the-shelf KM systems. Yet as Rossi and countless others have learned, there's no cookie-cutter approach to adopting knowledge management. Every organisation and company has its own definition of knowledge and how it should be gathered, categorised and made available to employees. What works for one company won't work for another because organisational knowledge is so subjective.

The one-size-fits-all mentality, coupled with the tendency to focus on technology rather than people and process, has obscured the real benefits that KM can bring, according to Nir. It doesn't help that knowledge management means different things - and often involves different kinds of technologies - at different organisations.

In terms of technology, KM often covers some of the same territory as CRM and sales-force automation, each of which gather information in an effort to increase efficiency and quality of service. Because KM usually requires changes in work patterns, there is also some crossover with change management and HR. The sticking point for many KM initiatives: knowledge deemed valuable to the organisation is often tied to individual experiences, attitudes and behaviours. For example, what makes one salesman better than another may be his individual contact lists. But as most salespeople are loath to share any of their inside customer information, an organisation must provide motivation for them to do so, such as offering them compensation or encouraging them to close sales collaboratively rather than individually. That is why paying attention to people and process is so important.

Defined broadly, knowledge management is the process through which organisations extract value from their intellectual assets. To get KM initiatives off to a good start, executives must evaluate whether their organisation has a strategic need for knowledge management in the first place. Then it's necessary to decide whether the current process of dealing with corporate knowledge is effective and if the culture is ready for procedural changes. Once executives have resolved those issues, the CIO can evaluate the existing technology infrastructure to determine whether it's adequate for KM or whether new systems are needed.

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