knowledge management

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""Effective knowledge use implicitly means changing the way people think about knowledge, which almost always means changing the language they use."" -- Davenport, 1998, p 53.

Knowledge management deals with attempting to do something useful with knowledge, to accomplish organizational objectives through the structuring of people, technology, and knowledge content. -- Davenport, 1998. Knowledge management consists of such efforts as making knowledge repositories (encyclopedic), improve access to knowledge (yellow pages), enhance knowledge environment (establish an environment conducive to more effective knowledge creation, transfer, and use -- this type of effort can address issues from information technology to culture), and manage knowledge as an asset (extract it from the heads of employees and make it an asset owned by the corporation)

Knowledge and culture -- knowledge friendly cultures have a positive orientation to knowledge is one that highly values learning on and off the job and one in which experience, expertise, and rapid innovation supersede hierarchy. There are few barriers to sharing knowledge. Cultures that don't have these characteristics have difficulty leveraging the collective knowledge of the organization. For example, if failure is punished, that knowledge is not likely to be recorded. If employment of each employee is not secure, they are unlikely to share their knowledge. If knowledge sharing changes the power structure in the organization, the power structure must be addressed before seeking to share knowledge.

Source for what follows: Alton Y.K. Chua, The Curse of Success, Knowledge-management projects often look good in the beginning. But then problems arise., Wall Street Journal, April 28, 2007, pp R8.

In the effort to improve corporate performance by sharing key knowledge among employees across an organization -- a practice known as knowledge management -- glowing reports of success far outnumber tales of disappointment.

This article seeks to cast a spotlight on the curses of successful KM projects. Three case studies are presented in which a KM system attained a high level of success before exhibiting one or more dysfunctional outcomes:

  • a bank that designed a fully integrated database to assist agents at its customer-service call center;
  • a telecommunications company that supplied engineers at its support centers with a ""digital repository"" of solutions for technical problems; and
  • a college that built an online forum to facilitate broad faculty participation in developing e-learning programs.

The bank case - replicating a success in a call center

  • integrating the KM databases with the applications of the other departments was monstrously complex. Across all of the departments, there were more than 50 back-end and legacy systems with which the KM systems had to be integrated. Each integration was unique, and demanded huge amount of resources and time, exceeding budgets and schedules.
  • Tools found helpful at the call center were not nearly as useful elsewhere. For example, the KM search engine was intended for full-text and keyword searches -- like call-center agents needed. But the marketing and business-intelligence departments, for example, wanted a different tool: concept search, which is the ability to make connections between patterns of words.
  • Adding to the chaos, most of the other departments were never certain what they wanted out of their KM systems.
  • ... with a team from the IT department driving the project, there was a lack of individual responsibility for results.
  • The extended systems did not attract sustained usage in any organized fashion outside the call center. The culture of sharing and exchanging ideas that existed among the call-center agents, and which kept the contents of the database fresh, proved to be more an exception than the norm.
  • The poorly conceived replication effort not only failed to deliver the purported benefits of KM, it also misdirected resources and damped staff morale. Subsequent bankwide initiatives promoted as bringing about better organizational performance and operational efficiency were perceived with much skepticism.

THE TRAP: Although one senior manager blamed the problems on the IT team assigned to the implementation, extensive research and interviews at the bank produced a more complex picture. The trap here was one experienced by many organizations: a tendency to rely on only one or a few proven approaches to deal with all of the challenges of the future. Flush with initial success, some organizations unconsciously discount new experiences and become incapable of coping with the demands of new environments as they move forward.

THE LESSON: Managers must resist the temptation of using a cookie-cutter approach after a successful pilot project. The focus should be on not only how the pilot was implemented but also on what mistakes and lessons the earlier experience uncovered. Managers also must be able to distinguish where factors of success were unique to a pilot and where generic principles of success can be applied on a broader scale.

The telecom company -- When a European-based provider of telecom equipment and mobile services devised a KM system for its 1,200 engineers at support centers around the world, there was initial excitement -- and subsequent lethargy.

These support centers, located in some 140 countries, help individual and business customers with a host of technical issues. The engineers have strict deadlines for solving problems, anywhere from three days for high-priority clients to 20 days for others. Every month, the company computes the average time that each center takes to solve a problem, and then posts the global average as a benchmark for all units.

In a bid to shorten turnaround times, the company developed for its engineers a Web-based digital repository of technical solutions contributed by their fellow engineers. Inspired in part by Eureka, the knowledge-sharing system developed for field-service agents at Xerox Corp., the stand-alone system was designed to break down a problem into parts, such as what the customer was trying to achieve, facts about the client's technical platform, and likely causes and fixes for numerous problems. When a user entered a description of a problem, the system searched its database for comparable problems resolved, and produced a best-matched solution.

Incentives were created to encourage engineers to contribute their knowledge to the database. Part of an engineers' annual salary increase was linked to the quantity and quality of his or her postings as benchmarked against the organization-wide annual average. Quality for each posting was determined by parameters such as the significance of the problem and the number of times the solution had been endorsed by other users. In the beginning, the system attracted a stream of postings mostly from the highly experienced engineers. Then, units began to compete as the prospect of earning more money drew regular contributions from more engineers.

Turnaround times improved dramatically as word about the system's usefulness spread and usage rates increased. After the first year, the average time-to-solution for high-priority problems was reduced to four hours from two days. Two years later, solutions for about 70% of problems encountered daily could be easily and quickly found among the 150,000 entries in the system.


  • Chiefly, engineers developed a dependency on the database, fueled by its usefulness and by the constant pressure to maintain fast turnarounds. When problems were received, expediency drove most engineers to locate and apply solutions directly from the system without first giving the problem some thought.
  • Moreover, an analysis of the contribution pattern found that 90% of the solutions were created by 15% of the engineers. As the system became more saturated with contributions, the possibility of contributing unique solutions narrowed. Coupled with the fact that the pressure to turn problems around remained unabated, most engineers chose the easy way out by simply relying on the system to solve problems.
  • Thus, what appeared to be a successful KM initiative actually diminished problem-solving abilities among the majority of the company's engineers. Management of the telecom company disputed that the engineers experienced any loss of skills, citing data showing the reductions in turnaround time as evidence. But in many interviews, engineers said they didn't know what to do when faced with problems that had no solution in the database. Such problems went unsolved and were passed along to research and development for further study.

THE TRAP: The company offered rewards for both contributing and using solutions. But it took a lot more time to devise a solution than to find one in the system. Thus, even though the cash reward was greater for contributing solutions, there was more incentive for most engineers -- in the form of job pressure -- to solve problems quickly. Thus, they became more adept at searching for solutions at hand, and less so at problem-solving.

Another pitfall of digital repositories: Once management enshrines a particular solution as a so-called ""best practice"" by placing it in the database, often there is little or no motivation to improve or refine the solution, especially in a fast-paced operational environment.

THE LESSON: For KM projects in which similar workers create and re-use knowledge in a database, and in which the contributions require a great deal more effort, managers must either design the system so that the reward and effort for each are more in balance, or they must change the way the organization's best practices are conceived and communicated.

Any best practice must be subjected to regular inquiry and validation. Additionally, when documenting a given practice, the assumptions and rationale that underpin the solution should also be included.

This allows re-users of the information to retain the sharpness of their problem-solving skills, as they have the opportunity to assess the extent to which the original solution is appropriate and to decide whether any further adaptation is required.

the college -- What began as a collaborative effort to develop online courses at a college in Malaysia eventually stalled as the team leaders refused to consider ideas that came from outside the core group.

This project began by taking some 25 faculty members from the government-funded school's 500 teachers and seven academic departments, and putting them through an intensive three-month instructional-design training program. Afterward, the 25 were to play an active role in supporting colleagues throughout the school in designing effective e-learning courseware.

A few of the initial members set up an online system for a so-called community of practice, or CoP -- a forum consisting of persons with a common interest or shared field of study who exchange ideas and information, debate with and learn from one another, and so achieve goals and find solutions that might have eluded each of them individually. Seven members of the original group volunteered to help lead the CoP. The college's management praised and approved the idea as a bottom-up initiative to augment the e-learning focus.

Invitations to join the CoP Web site online were periodically emailed to all faculty. Those who registered could post comments in online discussions and gain access to e-learning courseware developed by the core group and other e-learning materials. Members also were invited to quarterly lunch-and-learn forums on such themes as virtual collaboration and online assessment.

Within three months, membership reached 125, greatly exceeding expectations. The CoP successfully produced a Web-based reference guide to help faculty present teaching materials effectively on the college's e-learning platform. The guide drew praise from management and faculty alike.

Thus encouraged, the CoP began to develop a broader suite of e-learning methodologies and practices, such as a step-by-step guide on how synchronous discussion with students could be conducted, for example, and design templates for presenting Web-based learning materials. Gradually the CoP was recognized as the college's authoritative voice on e-learning.

DOWNFALL: The CoP also developed two serious problems: a tendency by its core members to promote their own ideas for practices and tools as the only acceptable form of e-learning; and social alienation.

Although membership reached 300, only an inner circle of about 15 were actively engaged in CoP activities. These core members jealously guarded the group's established canons. Always believing that its work was best-in-class, the core group was unwilling to make any changes to the set of e-learning methodologies and practices it had developed. Newer CoP members were kept out of the inner circle and had little opportunity to contribute fresh ideas or challenge existing ones.

Intentionally or not, it appears that the CoP became alienated from the rest of the faculty whom it was intended to serve.

THE TRAP: In a properly functioning CoP, different perspectives on shared problems and issues are constantly exchanged, given shape, refined, and eventually approved or adopted as a solution or best practice, making a CoP possibly the ideal structure for developing, sharing and stewarding knowledge. The danger, as in this case, is that a CoP can also mutate into a structure which monopolizes the creation and transfer of knowledge.

The dysfunctional development of the college's CoP could be traced to the core group's unwillingness to consider ideas other than its own; the lack of a leadership-renewal process; and a lack of criteria that outsiders could use to judge the quality of the CoP's work.

THE LESSON: Managers who intend to build a CoP must nurture the sense of identity among members and ensure timely cycles of leadership renewal. Outside contacts must also be encouraged with sources of expertise such as professional bodies and trade associations. This helps ensure that ideas which are sparked internally do not stagnate but are constantly challenged and renewed.

Judging criteria must be set as well for outsiders to challenge the quality and appropriateness of the CoP's offerings.