|Half of the companies responding to InformationWeek Research’s Second Quarter 2003 Priorities Survey list knowledge management as a top technology priority. However, according to InformationWeek Research, firms are no longer calling it KM. What organizations appear to be doing is now focusing on simpler, more-focused business strategies, enabled by technologies that leverage productivity. The emphasis and term gaining acceptance is seems to be collaboration.
Vendors are still selling knowledge management as expensive tools. Intelligent search applications like Verity’s K2 cost more than $100,000, expertise software like Kamoon's runs at $175 a user or more, and instant-messaging and collaboration tools from IBM Lotus Software add as much as $38 per user.
Add in consulting fees and labor costs, and it is not uncommon for large companies to invest millions of dollars setting up knowledge management environments. But companies are buying: Research firm IDC forecasts that knowledge management software sales will reach nearly $6.4 billion by 2006, up from $2.2 billion in 2001.
InformationWeek Research notes that many people are increasing viewing term KM in a negative way. KM is considered a ‘fuzzy’ management philosophy rather than a proven business strategy. The researchers observe that knowledge management has had a difficult time delivering measurable business benefits for many companies. Yet even as managers and practitioners ditch the baggage-laden KM nomenclature, companies are moving ahead with IT-enabled initiatives to better gather and share the expertise and experiences within their organizations.
A number of practitioners shared their views on this subject as part of the survey. Extracted from the report are the views of KNOW Network members Kent Greenes (SAIC), Arjan van Unnik (Royal/Dutch Shell), Jack Flanagan, (Giant Eagle) and Pete Smith (BP).
Kent Greenes, senior VP and chief knowledge officer at consulting firm Scientific Applications International, observes that 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.
According to Greenes, 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. “If you’re not capturing it for reuse, then why bother?”
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 one year it ditched the KM label and called the initiative simply ‘New Ways of Working,’ says Arjan van Unnik, founding member of the New Ways of Working team.
Shell International found it had to direct expert discussion, not just IT-enable it. The New Ways of Working initiative started by letting people create communities within the company in which professionals in similar disciplines around the world could participate in Web-based discussion threads, collaborate on documents, and post queries to subject experts. But the communities splintered into more than 100 groups. “An individual would have to join three, four, or even 10 communities just to get his or her job done,” van Unnik says.
The company combined the groups to create 12 large communities that brought together related professional groups that could collaborate to potentially solve problems faster. The platform is a Web-based application - SiteScape’s Enterprise Forum - that provides a personalized view of the communities a person belongs to and allows a user to search postings. For instance, a team of geophysicists facing obstacles in trying to identify the location of oil deposits in Lagos, Nigeria, might find that a team in another part of the world posted lessons it learned from a similar situation.
For grocery retailer Giant Eagle, knowledge management was never a goal, but it happened nonetheless. The operator of 214 stores in Maryland, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia has a system that’s part portal and part information repository, but with a focus foremost on simplicity.
The knowledge sharing is somewhat manual: business analysts monitor the portal, called KnowAsis, and alert people they think should know about additions. The portal is based on Open Text’s LiveLink collaboration software, which can automatically deliver updates, but Giant Eagle doesn’t use that feature. It’s not glamorous knowledge management technology, but it works.
“We’re not interested in writing a Ph.D. dissertation on the vision and future of knowledge management,” says Jack Flanagan, Giant Eagle’s executive VP of business systems. “We just want something practical.”
Regardless of what companies spend, the ones that succeed with knowledge management most often are those, like oil and gas company BP, that build off of the existing ways that work really gets done. “The nature of our culture is more of a verbal one than a written one,” says Pete Smith, BP’s technology VP of innovation, learning, and environment. “If we’d focused on information, it would have failed from the outset.”
Much of BP’s effort, including the technology, centers on putting people together. A home-grown application called Connect can search a company directory and a database in which 30% of the company’s 105,000 employees have registered their work experiences. Most recently, BP added a process called ‘Great Operators,’ setting up teams to develop best practices related to exploration and production. The company expects that if it gets all 18,000 employees in that area involved in the Great Operator program, it could increase revenue by 25%. “It’s pure knowledge management, but we never call it that anymore,” Smith says.
And, InformationWeek Research notes that with this kind of sharper focus on results, maybe the new names for KM won’t pick up the same baggage those two words - knowledge management - have accumulated.