Knowledge may be the sharpest tool in the box

In the first of a five-part series on software and information management, Vince Brown examines the role knowledge management is playing in business.

THE famous industrialist, Henry Ford, once said: “If money is your hope for independence you will never have it. The only real security that a person will have in this world is a reserve of knowledge, experience, and ability”.

Ford’s insight must now seem almost prophetic to those in business, as they struggle daily for competitive advantage in a dynamic economy characterised by rapid change and uncertainty. Many have come to realise that ‘knowledge’ is often the primary determinant of long-term viability in such a volatile environment.

The importance of know-ledge, having been recognised by those in the academic and business communities world-wide, gave rise to the relatively new concept of knowledge management (KM). Despite its youth, KM has attracted considerable interest worldwide, and is a dominant business concept at the present time.

Sue Jefferies, one of Australia’s most experienced and respected KM consultants, provides a valuable definition as to the essence of KM as a business practice.

“KM is about putting in place behaviours, procedures, support structures and tools to encourage and enable the acquisition, creation, storage, sharing and application of knowledge,” Ms Jefferies said.

“This inherently means getting the right knowledge to the right people at the right time – to do the right work.”

Rather than a single, unique discipline, KM may more accurately be understood to be an aggregation of strategies, techniques and practices that help organisations get maximum value from what they already know and from what they will come to know in the future.

Ms Jefferies said that while KM was comprised of several previously established disciplines, it was unique in light of the central imperative that bound them together.

“KM does draw upon a number of disciplines, such as organisational learning, process re-engineering, innovation and creative thinking,” Ms Jefferies said.

“However, it is different in that it focuses on the importance of both tacit and explicit knowledge within the organisation. The emergence of KM as a ‘unique’ field is indicative of the fact that organisations are pro-actively recognising that knowledge, both tacit and explicit, is a ‘slippery’ concept, but that knowledge is core to the survival and success of organisations.”

So is KM a technology-driven discipline, or a genuine management function as its name suggests? In his article ‘What is Knowledge Management?’ internationally renowned KM expert Karl-Erik Sveiby indicates that KM can be both an IT-focused discipline in which the management of information is paramount, or a human-centred field in which the management of people is the primary goal.

Mr Sveiby’s numerous articles about the topic clearly indicate that he sees the key to gaining maximum value from organisational knowledge resources as being held mainly by people rather than technology.

Ms Jefferies’ approach to KM demonstrates a similar course.

“I look at people, processes, structure and tools,” she said. “All of them are important, with people and processes being most important.

“The best tools in the world are useless unless people want and know how to use them.”

The way in which organisations stand to benefit from KM implementation is very much linked to the unique circumstances that pertain to their day-to-day operation. This is a point Ms Jefferies emphasised strongly.

“To broadly predict in general terms how organisations stand to benefit from KM is something very difficult to do with any degree of accuracy,” Ms Jefferies said.

“Outcomes achieved through KM practice rely very much on an organisation’s current situation, its culture, existing processes, behaviours and the type of industry it is in.”

However, she said the following benefits were common to many organisations in which KM initiatives had been well implemented.

p Improved generation of ideas pertaining to such things as new products and services as well as process improvements. This in turn provides opportunity for potential increases in market share, or the creation of new markets.

p Greater organisational knowledge ‘robustness’. This results from improved sharing and transference of knowledge throughout an organisation, thus reducing the impacts associated with the turnover of personnel.

p Potential for more efficient and effective core processes, which in turn may lead to increased client/customer satisfaction.

p Potential for a more skilled workforce overall, assuming good knowledge transfer processes are put in place.

p Potential for greater job satisfaction and the increased retention of personnel that is likely to produce.

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