Knowledge Management is not just a new buzzword doing rounds in the corporate circle. The `tech concept’ is increasingly becoming a must to share, mobilize and leverage knowledge as a tangible organizational asset
Why manage knowledge?
The need for knowledge management is self-explicit. With increasing competition, knowledge about how to produce and sell a service or a product efficiently has become the key factor distinguishing companies. There has also been an explosion in such knowledge in line with the increase in the complexity of the products and services. At the same time, many organisations have been downsizing in a bid to reduce employee costs. As a result, the number of people privy to organisational knowledge is smaller. High employee turnover–another feature of modern business–therefore increases the threat to this key intellectual asset of the company. While the importance of knowledge management is widely recognized, the formal methods for preserving and propagating knowledge are few. Most knowledge transfers still happen informally through oral means. The “guru-shivery” tradition of ancient India or the more recent practices of apprentices in the trades, articled clerks in chartered accountant firms, junior lawyers in law firms are a few examples of formal mechanisms adopted for knowledge transfer.
The difficulty in managing knowledge is in defining knowledge. We are all familiar with data, the basic raw material, which is processed to generate information. We store structured data (employee salary details, for example) in databases. Unstructured data lies in text documents (say, the annual performance appraisal report of the employees). As stated by Peter Drucker when “data is endowed with relevance and purpose” it becomes information. Thus salary data can be analysed to generate information about the region-wise staff costs. So far so good.
However, there is less agreement on the value addition needed to convert information to knowledge–the discussion can quickly get lost into obscure by-lanes of philosophy. Instead of quibbling about the definition we will move on to the concept of “tacit” knowledge, which, according to Michael Polanyi, is based on the experiences, beliefs and values of the expert and is latent in his head. Tacit knowledge is communicated, if imperfectly, by face-to face dialogue with the expert. As against this is the “explicit” knowledge that is capable of being recorded and accessed relatively easily by others.
Approaches to knowledge management
One approach to knowledge management places greater emphasis on the cultural and behavioural aspects of the organisation. This approach believes that organisations are process driven and technology is of little use if the organisation lacks a knowledge-sharing culture. This approach is loosely related to the management disciplines of total quality management, business process re-engineering, benchmarking and best practices. The mechanistic approach to knowledge management is more down to earth. It concentrates on providing efficient tools to capture, organise and access knowledge as well as to facilitate its delivery to the right people at the right time.
Categorization is key
The tools used for knowledge capture include the existing groupware applications like Lotus Notes, which facilitate collaborative working in a group. Document management software that helps index images of paper documents as well as to read them using optical character recognition technology also falls in the same category. Once you have identified the sources of knowledge and converted them into electronic form–whether as document images, databases, word processing files, web pages or email folders–the next challenge for KM tools is to facilitate quick access to meaningful knowledge. This poses great difficulties. The plain vanilla search tools will not do because they will return an unmanageable large list of files and documents, which meet your search criteria. (How will you wade through them to locate the knowledge about analyzing balance sheets of firms belonging to the sugar industry?)
The first step to improve the chances of meaningful knowledge access is to build a comprehensives classified catalogue–called taxonomy in KM jargon–which will define the categories in which you would want to classify the knowledge base of your organisation. This is a manual task, which should be carried out by experienced domain specialists with the assistance of librarians. Obviously the more comprehensive the catalogue the better would be the subsequent retrieval. (A category called “balance sheet” and another one called “sugar industry” will not do since that is still not fine enough for you to locate a shortlist of documents relating to analysis of balance sheet of sugar industry).