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Managing editor:
David J. Skyrme

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KM Europe 2003:
Reflective, Relevant and Revitalized

David J. Skyrme


Knowledge Thought

"Organizations are disappointed with 'shrink-wrap' knowledge management."
(Carla O'Dell, APQC, at KM Europe 2003).


RAI photo When you've participated in many KM events like I have, you often have to probe deep to find something new and interesting. In one sense there was not a lot new for hardened KM professionals at KM 2003 Europe last week. There were presentations extolling the need to make KM more relevant to the needs of business, to concentrate on human and social needs as much as technology, and the exhibition included a variety of IT solutions promising that they will find the knowledge you need better, faster and cheaper - not a lot new in all that.

What was new was a sense that all the strands of knowledge management are coming together in a way that will herald a new vitality over the next few years. Certainly, Ark Group, the event organizers brought together some 2,000 attendees with different perspectives in a highly variable and valuable set of formats: as well as key note presentations and the exhibition there was the "EU Village", free case studies, vendor presentations, masterclasses and a Knowledge Café. Here are some of the highlights.

Evolving Themes

Some common themes recurred across several presentations. These were enriched by speakers addressing them from different perspectives:

  • Value and Values - more than ever KM initiatives have to prove their value to the business. The value proposition may derive from sharing what you know or being more responsive to customers needs. RoIs (return on investment) of 50 per cent or more were cited in several cases alongside cost savings or increased revenues counted in the tens of millions, such as IBM's reported $100million a year. However, Carla O'Dell warned against a commonly suggested justification, that of saving employee's time. After all, what do they do with the time supposedly saved? Verna Alle's thesis was that much of the value in today's business environment is generated in what she describes as value networks - leveraging knowledge in relationships, such as with suppliers and customers. There were interesting exchanges on what could or should be measured. Can you measure the value of knowledge as an asset or is it only its derived outputs that can be accounted for? Values (in the form of beliefs) also underpin many of the social and behavioural aspects of KM, a topic eloquently covered in Fons Trompenaars talk on Culture (see Knowledge Nuggets below).

  • Narratives and Networks - increasingly it is recognized that knowledge management must give greater attention to the social aspects of knowledge creation and sharing. David Snowden, for instance, highlighted the dangers of viewing organizations (and KM) as machine-like and knowledge being confused with information. Organizations are complex adaptive systems and viable approaches to KM must recognize social networks and instill approaches that stimulate these networks and support large scale narrative (which he distinguishes from storytelling).

  • Content and Communities - over the last few years intranet and portal technologies have led to widespread availability of explicit knowledge. Today's technologies make information widely accessible to people working in virtual teams and on the move. However, it is communities where most of the relevant knowledge exchanges take place, since participants can dialogue and gain knowledge that is relevant to their context. Jean-Marc David of Renault provided a good example of how Renault has blended the two approaches. A document repository has significantly simplified access to information, even making engineers realize what already exists. In addition technical communities provide vehicles for knowledge exchange and identify best practice and pitfalls. Technical leaders facilitate collaborative working, while change management is viewed as an important KM tool. Some speakers, however, were worried that organizations are being too formal in their approach to communities and losing some of the value that comes though informal knowledge exchange.

  • Knowledge Work(ers) - the effectiveness of knowledge workers continues to come under scrutiny. Examples were cited of IT solutions that do not naturally fit into the way that knowledge workers work. Carla O'Dell reminded us of the myth of "build them a database and they will come". The loss of experienced talent (either through restructuring or workforce demographics) was cited as a key challenge by several speakers, and therefore leads us to delve more deeply into the precise characteristics of knowledge work and how to exploit human talent. Dorothy Leonard explored the notion of "deep smarts" (a potent source of expertise based on experience and deep tacit knowledge).

  • Take Away Tools - this was the theme of a masterclass given by Chris Collison who described some of the approaches he first used in BP to "learn before doing, learn while doing and learn after doing" (e.g. Peer Assist, After Action Reviews, benchmarking). Technological tools naturally featured highly in many of the vendor's presentations, with interesting perspectives on search and retrieval, the semantic web (see for example http://sekt.semanticweb.org for a discussion on its relationship to KM) and email management. The user presentations, in contrast, emphasized some of the more human-based tools such as change management, coaching, mentoring and learning (including the master / apprentice model). Sam Marshall of Unilever in a presentation 'How Many KM Solutions Do you Need?" drawing on earlier work by Turner and Cochrane grouped KM projects into four types (on a 2x2 matrix): engineering (goals known, methods known), product development (methods unknown), software development (goal unknown, methods known) and organizational research (neither goals or methods known). He used knowledge maps to show connections between business problems and relevant KM solutions.

  • Innovation and Leadership - reiterating themes we have discussed before in these columns, sustained success requires leadership (rather than custodial management) and innovation. KM can drive higher efficiency in innovation, through knowledge re-use and applying lessons learned, but you have to watch out for the NIH trap (R&D people's natural propensity to invent rather than recycle). Verna Allee gave a vivid example of both forces at work in Canada's Environment Agency. She described three levels of knowledge mastery which has helped it achieve a massive transformation from an organization with a regulatory focus to one with a client serving focus. The three levels are:

    - business and strategic: redefining the organizations purpose; modelling its value networks
    - tactical: a communities of practice initiative, an appreciative enquiry around trust, knowledge retention
    - operational: technology tools, metadata and knowledge mapping

    Incidentally she referred to the online social networks that have evolved around the computer game Roller Coaster TycoonTM as an instructive example of innovation (by the user community) and an indicator of what knowledge managers need to consider.

Keynote Nuggets

It's impossible to do justice to over six hours of keynote presentations in a short report like this, but here are few key highlights.

  • Verna Allee - Knowledge, Networks and Value Creation:
    - cited "the first job is not to make decisions, but to make sense" (Alan Weber, Fast Company)
    - knowledge is a social phenomenon but we are not very skilled at developing shared meaning together
    - new levels of governance are needed for the intangible economy; we need more transparency (= access to information)
    - an organization's social reputation affects its ability to compete for talent, customers and the hearts and minds of citizens and regulators.

  • Dorothy Leonard - Ways Of Knowing:
    - by the time you realize that valuable knowledge is walking out of the door, it becomes harder to capture it
    - experienced people have "thick Rolodexes" (know-who)
    - KM has to come to grips with how to stimulate 'guided experiences' (learning by doing).

  • Ciarán McGinley - Risk Management Is Knowledge Management:
    - patenting helps enables a market in intellectual property, but needs to successfully deal with risk
    - the patenting process needs to be more efficient and balance cost and risk
    - visualization is a great tool to gain insights from the masses of data in the Europe Patent Office databases.

  • Carla O'Dell - Creating and Retaining Knowledge Lessons:
    - three types of KM approach: self-service (portals), networks/CoPs, facilitated best practice transfer
    - many successes with good savings, but KM must be linked to a "burning business need"
    - important approaches for the future: collaboration, expertise locators, integration with workflow
    - the key to measuring the impact of KM impact is understanding workflow (inputs, processes, outputs)
    - small rewards make no difference to knowledge sharing behaviour; however 'rewarding' jobs do.

  • David Snowden - Organizational Complexity About The Future of KM:
    - KM gives a lot of attention to 'best practices', but people learn most from mistakes
    - organizations are complex systems, therefore apply complex systems theory (not the same as chaos theory)
    - one approach is to create 'seed attractors', rallying points and shaping conversation in way that influences others
    - three useful tools: narrative databases, social network stimulators, a learning ecology of just-in-time KM.

  • Fons Trompenaars - From Knowledge Management to Knowledge Leadership:
    - where KM meets culture: how people respond to types of situation reflects underlying values
    - illustrated by a dilemma of whether you would testify against your friend who when driving a car exceeding the speed limit knocks over a pedestrian (wide variations in national responses from 97 per cent yes for Swiss, 32 per cent Venezuelan)
    - ten dimensions of differences, e.g. universalism vs. particularism (above example), internal control vs. external control
    - three step approach: recognize these differences, respect them, resolve them through reconciliation (not the same as compromise where both parties feel aggrieved).

    Incidentally the title of his new book is "Did The Pedestrian Die?" (would knowing that change your answer to the first dilemma?)

Continuous Learning

As well as the keynote sessions there was a continuous stream of presentations in the auditorium as well as other types of session.

  • Vendor sponsored sessions - many of these were pitched as tutorials and thought pieces on important developments in KM and were not overtly commercial. Interesting topics included online customer behaviour analysis to optimize content management and search; information discovery (especially using visualization), corporate taxonomies (and ontologies) and collaborative working.

  • Case studies - generally these indicated the growing adoption of KM with increased focused on community and people-related aspects, although better use of document management systems was a common theme. The notion of 'balanced' or 'holistic KM' was aired by many speakers. Unlike the US, I've always felt that KM in Europe does not put undue emphasis on technology solutions.

  • Masterclasses - these longer sessions went into more depth, especially on approaches, tools and techniques. Classes included an organic approach to knowledge mapping (David Snowden, IBM), developing and nurturing communities of practice (Richard McDermott) and demonstrating the business value of KM (Cindy Hubert, APQC).

  • Association Programmes - several membership organizations ran their own programmes throughout the event. An example was the European Knowledge Management Forum where there were lively discussions on what activities could stimulate better dissemination of knowledge and coordinate research. One specific session was devoted to the future of KnowledgeBoard, one of the most highly regarded KM portals. Its formal first phase ended a few months ago, and its ongoing evolution is covered by a new contract and new management team (though with some continuity from the old team). However, its success and most of its resources depend heavily on unpaid volunteers. Among the ideas discussed was better refining and navigation of the wealth of content that is already there, clarifying and redefining the role of knowledge editors, and the nature of the community (beyond the portal). The EU also had a series of workshops including a fascinating session by Marcus Speh Birkenkrahe addressing the spiritual side of KM.

  • Knowledge Café - this format is one that is now more commonly used as a way to stimulate discussion and share knowledge. It is an evolution and more codified form of the process of knowledge networking, widely used by my Digital colleague Charles Savage (author of 5th Generation Management) in the 1980s. Participants sit at round tables, typically in groups of 5 or 6, to share their knowledge about an issue under question. At a predetermined time and according to various algorithms, participants then move to other tables, picking up the threads of earlier discussion at the table they move to (for one description of how to run a knowledge café see http://theworldcafe.com/cafetogo.pdf). David Gurteen facilitated such a cafe (see his own description of running a cafe at http://www.gurteen.com) where the buzz of conversation was indicative of the quality of dialogue.

  • The Nice Surprise - The very last session of the conference session I attended I expected to learn about ABN-AMROs KM programme from Paul Iske and Tony de Bree. I did. They described a good approach of balancing knowledge stock (databases etc.) and flow (face-to-face), commenting that the most effective knowledge sharing is often "just people talking together". They also described how peer networks operated in the Dutch health sector. The nice surprise was a view on how individuals could start their own eknowledge business from home - "small people are strong if they organize in networks" - citing several examples of 'mini-sites' that do not cost a lot to run yet make profits for their owners and contributors (they suggested look at http://www.go4estrategy.com and http://www.7mistakes.theknowledgecircle.com for how to do it - and how not to do it). Tony de Bree's own venture is Cutting Edge International. It looks a bit 'hard sell' and gimmicky. But like Allee's view on the value networks around Rollercoaster TycoonTM and on 'smart mobs', perhaps these networks are something that corporate KM professionals need to learn more about.

KM Solutions - Getting There

Although not large, the exhibition had a good mix of solutions from large and small vendors. Of particular interest were the contributions from niche providers, especially European companies. While there was no obvious 'killer application' there was good evidence of steady progress in the kinds of software that organizations seek to improve the effectiveness of their knowledge workers. The main solutions of interest:

  • Document management - suites from vendors such as Documentum and Verity continue to mature. With growing need for better control and archival management of documents to meet tougher compliance rules (such as those required by the Sarbanes-Oxley Act) vendors such as Zylab were keen to point out their product's audit trail capabilities. While all systems boast some kind of collaboration facilities, these vary from system to system, with some like LiveLink integrating more seamlessly document related work with discussion forums and online meetings. As many formerly discrete content functions converge into enterprise suites, the use of XML and other open standards is making integration and inter-operability easier (though still not as painless as many vendors would like you to believe).

  • Sophisticated (Intelligent?) Search and Retrieval - although most suites offer search functionality, there is a growing thriving niche for providers who are concentrating on making searches faster and more relevant to user over a wide range of different formats for ever larger volumes of information. Most solutions also rely on some type of auto-classification software during indexing (using natural language or statistical techniques) so that results are grouped into categories. Auto-classification is itself a growing niche, with products like Lexiquest Categorize and InXight being separately available. Stratify links such functionality into a dynamic taxonomy manager, either generating taxonomies from a set of documents or updating imported taxonomies. A European company that pulls several modules together for processing text content is XtraMind Technologies of Saarbrucken. Its XM-MindSetTM "Intelligent Building Blocks of Knowledge" includes categorization, clustering, associative retrieval, context visualization as well as language identification.

  • Knowledge Discovery / Visualization - as well as data mining solutions, such as Clementine, based on AI techniques, the combination of auto-classification and visualization techniques has boosted the effectiveness of text mining. InXight - A Xerox Parc spin-out company - offers 'star trees' (that shows linked concept clusters) alongside its Categorizer. Its linguistic technology is also used in Thing FinderTM which analyses text within documents and indexes and tags individual sections. One company that has brought several of the related techniques just described together is SPSS. Its predictive analytics platform integrates (among others) Clementine (data mining), Lexiquest (text mining) and NetGenesis (web analytics), enabling users to query information from many perspectives and see results in the form of visual clusters (e.g. of market segments).

  • Adaptivity - a growing trend in both search solutions and in content management systems is dynamic presentation according to user's profiles and online behaviours. At one level search solutions like Endeca's 'guided navigation' updates all the options for a user after each click. Another type is the use of behavioural analysis in the Mondosoft's Behavior TrackingTM. Based on analyzing user's search strategies, it can for example, recognize that a search for 508 is actually a search about accessibility for disabled people (since 508 refers to a section number within the USA's Disability Act) , even if the term '508' does not appear in relevant sources.

  • Question and Answer Solutions - an extension of what is commonly known as expertise finders, several vendors were demonstrating their question and answer systems. A question search will typically list a set of potential experts as well as matching documents and.or answers to similar questions asked previously. Some offer additional functions. AnswerWeb, for example, automatically emails your question to relevant experts (through whether experts regard this extra workload as a good thing is open to question).

Many of the above solutions are closely related and sometimes it is difficult to discern where one ends and another begins (e.g. classification vs. search and discovery). Although products have different origins and emphases (e.g. search or document management) all are addressing some part of a continuum of structured information to unstructured and to tacit knowledge (in people) alongside some facet of user-content interaction (I like InXight's list of organize, find, visualize, browse, analyze). This raises the all too common IT dilemma. Does one look for a suite which offers a large amount of the desired functionality (which may turn out to be the lowest common denominator), or does one seek 'best-of-breed' for each specific function? As usual, the answer is probably a bit of both, and best of breed vendors are usually keen to list all the other products with they happily coexist and suppliers with whom them have cooperative marketing agreements.

The EU Village - Connecting Initiatives

EC photoA regular feature of KM Europe is the EU Village, a showcase for KM-related projects under the EU's Research and Technology framework programme. A particular shift over the last few years has been 'horizontal actions' that cut across several areas and promote dissemination. Two specific examples on display were:

  • Beep - Best European ePractices: a structured database that has descriptions of cases drawn from earlier RTD projects in the areas of work and skills, regional development, social cohesion, digital SMEs and e-government. A selection of non-RTD cases and cases from the rest of the world provides useful comparators. A key feature of the database is that each case is structured into sections and that users can search in 5 different ways, including searching for cases that fit certain profiles or had certain objectives. An instructive approach to a common KM challenge of sharing best practices (at least the explicit part).

  • KTWeb - "Connecting Knowledge Technology Communities": a focal point for disseminating the outputs from over 20 projects that developed tools for knowledge and content management. The scope of projects included digital content management, the semantic web, intelligent agents, concept mapping, metadata, multimedia retrieval, filtering and ontologies. KTWeb has several roles, including helping developers find exploitation opportunities, raising awareness among the technology and market players and to encourage more collaboration across projects.

Other stands covered specific projects, such as WISE (knowledge management in engineering) KINX (knowledge integration in high-tech SMEs) and INKASS (Intelligent Knowledge Asset Sharing and Trading). The latter is particularly interesting, since several times over the last few years we have highlighted the potential for online knowledge markets (see for example I3 UPDATE / ENTOVATION News No 47: 'Knowledge Markets - Do They have a Future?). With partners who include Planet Ernst & Young and Empolis, the INKASS project has investigated market enablers, such as dynamic pricing models, and has developed a prototype platform and infrastructure for B2B knowledge trading.

Knowledge Networking

One of the reasons that people attend events like KM Europe 2003 is that our friends and peers are also likely to be there. With around 2,000 attendees, many of us renewed our old connections and made many news ones. The areas set aside for knowledge networking always seemed busy (perhaps there should have been more!). I think we could all relate to the words of Verna Allee in her recent Knowledge Management magazine article looking forward to this event:

"The real action is in the hall ways and the in-between places."

Over the last couple of years, this event has hopped from The Hague to London (see I3 UPDATE No. 67), but from the success of this year's event and its setting I understand from its organizers, the Ark Group, that the RAI Amsterdam has been booked again for next year's KM Europe from 8th-10th November, 2004.

I'll see you there.

David Skyrme


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