To paraphase Keynes, we're all knowledge workers now. So why do we still manage people and information "..as if we were in the industrial era"? That quote taken from Hadley Reynolds, research director for the Delphi Group, from an article in the WSJ January 23.
One of the most difficult transitions we've made over the last 20 years or so has been the transition from task management to team management and finally to knowledge management. Of all the management concepts and enterprise applications that have held significant promise, none has failed to deliver more spectacularly than knowledge management.
Why? Several reasons - critical mass, willingness to share information and the difficulty of defining "knowledge". One big challenge is the issue of critical mass. There are lots of different systems and processes to allow individuals to capture their knowledge, but not much motivation to enter the knowledge into a system. A short list of knowledge items leads others to believe that the effort isn't worth the time. The more ideas and information in a knowledge management database, the more valuable the database becomes. Second, once a piece of knowledge is contributed, some may believe that makes the submitter less valuable as an employee or more easily replaced, so there is a reluctance to part with critical knowledge.
Knowledge management is especially difficult, since most "knowledge" differs from data in several regards. First, "data" is usually a unique instance or a number, where as knowledge may be a statement or a description. Second, knowledge is valuable in context. Data usually has the same meaning regardless of context. Third, knowledge may violate conventional wisdom or norms. Data just represents some physical facts. Therefore, it has been hard to capture knowledge about what people do or what they know, since it is so much harder to record and understand "knowledge" versus data.
According to the article in the WSJ, many firms that started knowledge management applications, including Bain, which advocated KM systems for its clients, failed in their first attempts. What made the KM systems ultimately successful was an emphasis by senior management teams to encourage everyone to capture their knowledge, and coaches and sponsors to ensure people began to participate. In almost every case, once the information reached some critical mass, people began to turn to the database to gain insight and to add their own knowledge. This is the famous "Tipping Point" that Malcolm Gladwell noticed in his book.
In a knowledge based business, your assets leave the premises every day at 5pm. How can you best acquire, reuse and manage those assets to your long term success? In an economy where we tag every physical asset and count every piece of inventory, what are we doing to account for our corporate knowledge?