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Interview with Larry Prusak    [Date Added : 04/06/2004 ]
Larry Prusak discusses the future of knowledge management in a wide-ranging interview with Stephen Bell of Computerworld.

KM specialist Larry Prusak states that IT plays a comparatively small role in a well-functioning knowledge economy.

What matters more, according to Prusak, are the extent of personal and company networks and the willingness to use all available avenues of inquiry. Along with this is needed a well-tuned sense of trust in the parties with whom you exchange knowledge.

Prusak recently was appointed inaugural visiting fellow in the school of information management at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. Prusak was the founder and first executive director of IBM's Institute for Knowledge Management.

"The dissemination and management of knowledge is the most important story of the 21st century," he says. It was pretty important in previous centuries, too, but in the modern world, where capital chases cheap labor, the way to ensure continuing employment for the individual and continuing health for a company's balance sheet or a nation's economy is to get into work that "can't be done by an algorithm and can't be done [in a cheap-labor overseas country]."

Those who can do such work should be valued in companies and nations, he says. At present, many seem to value 'apparatchiks' (administrators), including lawyers and accountants and salespeople.

A successful company should look to reward information sharing rather than exclusive possession of information, Prusak says.

"I've seen companies that say 'we reward intellectual capital.' But they only promote salesmen - people who'd step on their own grandmothers to get an advantage over someone else."

Prusak says that knowledge sharing means the freedom to ask questions. At Toyota - in the next few years destined to overhaul General Motors as the world's leading car-maker - anyone on an assembly line can ask a question. They type it into a terminal whereupon it is flashed on to a large display visible to the whole floor. Anyone can answer the question.

Organizational knowledge is not in brains, documents or even databases, he notes, but in "groups, communities, networks - 'practices' is the latest term - which share and reinforce common vocabularies and traditions."

Implicit in the efficient distribution of knowledge is trust. "Trust lowers the cost of transactions. If A asks B for a piece of knowledge and B doesn’t't trust A, then what happens? Either A doesn't get the answer, or they have to write a contract first." And that's either unproductive or expensive, according to Prusak.

Useful as IT is, its importance to knowledge economies is "definitely overrated," Prusak says.

"When electricity first became commercially available and everyone was looking for a way to use it to best advantage, all the large companies had vice-presidents of electrification. What happened to them?"

In the same way, the IT manager will become obsolete as a specific function, he suggests, as IT becomes absorbed invisibly into the functioning of the organization, the way electricity has.

"Human qualities are not driven by technology. In the 1880s they told us the telephone was going to bring an end to warfare, because the leaders of nations would be able to talk one-on-one and sort out their differences. What happened? Telecommunications has made warfare more efficient. But then they told us television would elevate the culture of the US."

"The champions of technology tell us it eliminates space and time; that space is no longer needed for knowledge exchange, and it can be done in much less time. Tying knowledge down to bits and bytes limits it, says Prusak.

Computerworld (New Zealand), April 2, 2004. Copyright IDG Communications Ltd., 2004.
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