Has It Peaked?
One of the companies who first raised awareness of knowledge management in Europe through its conferences - Business Intelligence - used to hold an annual knowledge conference at this time of year e.g. KM '96, KM '97 etc. But there is no KM '00. In fact, the last major event of this series was Knowledge Summit '98 - hence the title of this article. To give due credit, Business Intelligence has in the last year or so hosted conferences on the Most Admired Knowledge Enterprise (see the results of these annual surveys in I3 UPDATEs Nos. 31, 35, 41). However its focus has now shifted to topics like Business Intelligence and Customer Relationship Management. In a similar vein, the heavy promotion of knowledge management as a separate theme by the top 5 management consultancies has now largely passed. On the other hand, Knowledge Management Europe, has attracted huge audiences (see Knowledge Digest). What do these mixed messages tell us about the current state of knowledge management?
2nd Generation Knowledge Management
The broad consensus is that knowledge management is evolving into a second generation. The consensus stops when trying to discern what this second generation is. I see two opposite shifts. First, knowledge management is becoming more segmented - e.g. professional segments such as knowledge management for marketers, and specialisms such as storytelling (see I3 UPDATE No. 44 - The Springboard - and the KM '97 Special Edition). Second, knowledge management now embraces and integrates many other activities that once stood alone, such as best practices or organizational learning. A look at our reflections on Knowledge Summit '98 (I3 UPDATE No. 25) and the article "Will the real knowledge management stand up" (I3 UPDATE No. 29) will show that knowledge management is becoming more widespread and is increasingly recognized by senior business executives as an important dimension of business strategy and contributor to organizational performance. More importantly, that effective knowledge management is as much about social factors - communities, personal development, working environments, as it is information processes and technology. Some people (mostly those who previously viewed IT solutions as knowledge management) argue that this 'people' dimensions is what constitutes 2nd generation KM.
Other perspectives are that it goes beyond what we have previously called the first thrust - that of knowledge sharing - into knowledge and innovation (the core of ENTOVATION's proposition - Knowledge Innovation® - since 1993!). The newly announced KMCI Institute talks of second-generation KM, "a perspective on knowledge and innovation management". Yet others say that e-learning is the next main thrust. My own preference - at least for the moment - is that it is about the convergence of e-business and knowledge management to create online knowledge businesses. No doubt you have your own views (please share them with our readers).
In any case, knowledge management continues to mature and evolve. As some aspects of it become well understood and established, the once eagerly sought seminars are being replaced by regular series of repeat workshops and seminars (for newcomers to the subject), textbooks and many academic courses. Other aspects are continuing to attract interest, research and debate - measuring intellectual capital, the role of thesauri, and the problems of search engines. Technology is often a driver of divergent views - often reinforced by different vendors decrying the radically different approaches of other vendors. Take search engines, for example. What we used to know as search engines (e.g. AltaVista) are now portals. But some portals go even further by allowing searching within categories (e.g. Northern Light and Portal B). A second generation (or is it really first and a half?) of search engines, such as Google and Autonomy, use a range of techniques to both find and rank searches. New search engine technology is currently a hotbed of innovation.
Knowledge Management as a Microcosm of the Knowledge Evolution Process.
The evolution of knowledge management to date is itself a microcosm of how organizational knowledge evolves and is exploited:
- It starts as the specialist knowledge of a few. Through astute marketing and presentation (recall that the very first KM conferences in 1995 were sponsored by Ernst & Young and Arthur Andersen) attracts interest and those in the know exploit their position. In the organization, an idea gets lodged with a senior manager. A champion promotes it. An initiative is created.
- As momentum gathers, a raft of other providers of related knowledge relabel their offerings (think of all those document management systems that overnight became knowledge management systems). Everyone wants to be associated with the new phenomenon that is attracting attention - and funding.
- Products and solutions are developed. Informal knowledge is codified. Techniques are learnt and applied. New processes and structures are created. The informal knowledge has become more codified - in databases, documents, perhaps as training courses.
- Widespread adoption. Knowledge is more widely diffused. Books, courses, workshops, 'how to' guides proliferate. It's not novel any more. Everyone knows the terminology - even if they don't fully understand the subject. Knowledge management solutions are packaged and sold. Knowledge is embedded into procedures and new products and services.
- Evolution and development. New branches of knowledge are developed. The simultaneous process of segmentation and integration described earlier occurs, creating new rounds of knowledge development and diffusion.
The process is akin to biological evolution. There is continual birth, growth, decline and mutation. New organisms grow and multiply. New variants are formed, their success and direction of development depending on their in-built mechanisms and external environment. Some habitats are species rich, while others are species poor. In the KM world, some habitats (organizations) have many infants, while others have many mature adults. Overall, the 'community' (people) focused species appears to be in the ascendant, coexistent and sharing knowledge with the rampant technological species. It all sounds like a healthy situation of evolving knowledge development and exploitation - but is it?
Knowledge Gaps and Discontinuities.
One of the things that has struck me over the last year is how many organizations seem to have forgotten what they once knew about knowledge management. If you go into to some of the organizations that featured as 'leading exemplar' case studies in 1996-1997, you wonder what has happened since. There are a number of discontinuities and gaps that prevent organizations maintain a healthy state of ongoing knowledge evolution and development.
- The novelty gap - KM is no more a novelty. The pioneers - many of whom were active communicators and advocates - have moved on. Many of their replacements, where they exist, are custodian managers, not leaders. Those formerly active in the KM network find that their day job is more demanding.
- The generation gap - A new generation of staff is in post; senior managers have changed jobs; perspectives and priorities are different. What was once known, now needs to be relearnt.
- The restructuring disruption - the organization has downsized, merged or restructured. The well established body of knowledge is now viewed as from the 'old times' and not relevant to the new.
- The culture / behaviour gap - top management says all the right words about knowledge sharing, the value of people and their personal learning and development, but their actions and support belie their words.
- The systems gap - knowledge is being used inefficiently; it is reinvented; it is not systematically captured and codified; on the other hand if it becomes too systematized it may become inaccessible or difficult to update. A pragmatic balance between systems-held and people-held knowledge is needed.
- Language barriers - different parts of the organization use different terminology; technologists and knowledge managers have their own jargon that they impose on the beneficiaries of their methods and solutions.
- The technology gap - the promise and reality of technology rarely match. Sometimes people have high expectations, but the scaling up from prototype or pilot to enterprise-wide is often fraught with difficulties. Other times, people underestimate the capabilities of technology, or rely on their intuition more than the results of a technological solution.
- The innovation gap - it takes many times the effort to embed an idea into a product or process than it does to think it up. There is gap between the capability to generate new knowledge and the capacity to refine it and productize it.
The biggest gap of all, however, is the knowledge gap. No sooner do we conquer one knowledge summit, then a whole new array of other peaks unfolds before us. That's what continues to make knowledge management a continuing and evolving challenge. What do you think?
Ross Ambrecht write with his thoughts on the innovation gap. Read his reply.
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