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Global Knowledge Networking - The Use and Abuse of Technology

Dr David J. Skyrme

This is a synopsis of a presentation given at the IQPC conference Managing the Virtual Laboratory, February 1998. You can browse the presentation or download the Powerpoint file (298K).


This presentation positions the virtual laboratory in the wider context of knowledge management. By reconceptualizing R&D as the flow of knowledge, from idea to commercialization, research managers can avail themselves of the tools and techniques that are being applied in knowledge initiatives. A very important set of tools is those in the category of collaboration technologies, most notably groupware and the Internet. The presentation reviews their contribution and provides guidelines for effective use, based on the results of a year-long study of world-class best practice in knowledge management.

The Changing Nature of R&D

More than ever R&D has to respond to the changing business environment in which it operates. Few firms can now afford to go alone with basic research. Collaboration is the order of the day [1]. Other significant shifts in industrial R&D are towards:

  • Concurrency - R&D works more closely with functions from marketing to manufacturing throughout the whole product development cycle
  • Accessing global expertise - ‘world class’ organizations need best in class expertise, and this may be the other side of the world;
  • Closer to the customer - many centralized research labs are being distributed into business units.

All require more interaction and knowledge exchange with experts within and beyond the organization. Hence R&D is part of a wider process of innovation, where knowledge is created (ideas), refined and used to develop new products and services.

The Knowledge Agenda

Knowledge is a hot topic. Knowledge management initiatives are being created in many organisations. Why this surge of interest? Essentially, the value of firms is increasingly found in their know-how and intellectual capital, including patents. In our research into knowledge management [2], we found several strategic levers that were being used to bring bottom line benefits. These include:

  • Knowledge in Processes - sharing best practice knowledge has saved companies like TI hundred of millions of dollars
  • Knowledge Repositories - structured knowledge about industry development and internal capabilities has helped knowledge intensive firms, especially management consultancies, gain business more cost-effectively
  • Knowledge Assets - by taking a systematic intellectual capital view of assets such as patents, Dow Chemical have generated over $125million in additional revenues.

In surveys of knowledge management, R&D comes out as the most interested function [3], and innovation as a key benefit [4]. Better sharing of knowledge that already exists within a firm and innovating through better application of knowledge are the two main thrusts of knowledge management. Both can benefit the R&D department.

The ICT Contribution

ICT (information and communications technology), plays an important part in leveraging knowledge. There are specialist narrow applications tools, such as data or text mining, or case based reasoning. However, the technology that has had the broadest impact in leveraging a firms knowledge are collaborative technologies - most notably groupware such as Lotus Notes, and the Internet (also in the form of an internal Intranet and a network for close collaborators - an ExtraNet). In the knowledge context, the Internet is used in three main ways:

  • As a communications medium - plain old email is still regarded as the killer application of the Internet. However the Internet offers many more communications facilities such as specialist list servers (e.g. on innovation).
  • As an information repository - the World Wide Web is growing in importance as a research resource. Sometimes, however, it does seem difficult to find what you want.
  • For building knowledge communities - these are locations - either lists, newsgroups or Web conferencing sites, that draw together communities with a shared interest.

In the R&D context, a fourth use can be added - that of provided access to scarce, expensive or remote resources. Thus researchers use the Internet to access remote sensors and high performance computers.

The main challenge for users is to choose wisely from the wide range of technological functions, and to learn how to use them effectively. The slides illustrate some differences observed between effective and ineffective usage. Usually it is human and organisational factors, that are the problem, not the technology. For example BP in their virtual teaming programme, which helped knowledge flow from exploration scientists to oil rigs through the use of videoconferencing, found that personal and team coaching was an essential element of success.

Putting it all together in a virtual collabaratory is no mean challenge.

Examples and Cases

There are numerous examples of virtual collaboratories. In fact, the R&D community was one of the first to use the Internet in such a way. Often overlooked are the large number of European Commission funded ICT projects, where by their very rules, participants have to be part of a transnational consortium, thus adding both national and organizational cultural differences to the management challenge.

The cases, selected from over 33 covered in Creating the Knowledge-based Business represent a research biased cross section, that covers different kinds of knowledge process -from creation to codifying to diffusion.

Key Lessons

There are several factors that recur in succesfully achieving business benefits, such as faster innovation, through knowledge. Generally it is found that companies have a balanced approach, blending the skills of information professionals (who are good at classifying and structuring knowledge), technologists, change managers and business champions.

There are two sets of balancing acts to master, for R&D to successfully exploit knowledge innovation in a networked global environment:

1) Providing a degree of discipline for codified information and structured information exchange vs. creating a learning and innovative environment where serendipidous knowledge processes can flourish

2) Balancing the amount of face-to-face knowledge exchange (which may be costly to arrange and difficult to schedule), with that of virtual exchanges (which can engage more people and occur at times and places of their convenience).

Improvements in technology, such as virtual reality meeting rooms, are diminishing the disadvantages of different time-different place interaction. However, whatever the technology and work environment, the management challenge remains unchanged - that of providing effective leadership where teams and individuals can flourish and play their part in global networks of innovation.

References

[1] Creating the Knowledge-based Business, David. J Skyrme and Debra M. Amidon, Business Intelligence (1997).

[2] ‘The Facts about Knowledge’,Peter Murray and Andrew Myers, Information Strategy (September 1997).

[3] ‘The Knowledge-Based Organization - An International Survey’, Rory L. Chase, Journal of Knowledge Management, pp. 38-49 (September 1997).

[4] Managing Innovation, Joe Tidd, John Bessant, Keith Pavitt, John Wiley & Sons (1997)


David Skyrme Associates provides consultancy services and workshops on information and knowledge management that address the topics covered in this article.


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