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July 2002    Main Feature
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No. 63

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Managing editor:
David J. Skyrme


Global KM eXchange:
Stimulating Knowledge Sharing in New York

David J. Skyrme

The three day Global KM eXchange conference in New York (25-27 June) brought together some of the world's leading authorities on KM and some 200 knowledge professionals ardently exchanging knowledge around the coffee bars and other venues in and around the conference venue Times Square. This was Ark Group's first major KM event in the US, but as with other Ark events, the quality of presentations was generally excellent. Those who have been around the KM field for some time will have heard speakers like Hubert Saint-Onge, Stephen Denning and Tom Stewart many times before. However, each time there is always something a little new (see below).

If there was one thing that stood out at this event, it was the intense dialogue between those in the throes of implementing a particular KM project, and those who had "been there, done that". Particularly intense was the questioning that Alfons Kuhn of Siemens received throughout his presentation of Siemens ShareNet system: "how did you get people to contribute content?"; "how do you maintain quality?"; "how do the ShareNet shares incentivize people?" The answers, of course, are very context and culture dependent. It sometimes seemed to me that US questioners wanted the cook-book approach and that some of their organizational cultures are not ready for the kind of methods that Siemens can take for granted and deploy in its own knowledge sharing culture (we wrote about Siemen's culture change programme in I3 UPDATE No. 18).

It's difficult to pick out any dominating themes at this conference. There were useful insights into techniques like storytelling and taxonomy development. There were highly practical case studies, such as those of the US Postal Service (John Gregory) and Unilever (Sam Marshall). Below are my perspectives on five themes that recurred in several presentations.

KM in a Period of Discontinuity and Change

The venue of New York stirred memories of the horrendous events of September 11th. Also, the unfolding of corporate scandals such as Enron, and perhaps the even bigger one of WorldCom (the news was flashed on the bill boards during the conference). In the first case, there was extensive data, but the information filtering and alerting mechanisms did not calibrate the risk sufficiently (amongst all the background noise) and there were gaps in information flows that prevented appropriate precautionary actions being taken. In the other cases, key knowledge was hidden from all but the most inquisitive people. In his presentation, Stephen Denning talked of the challenges of discontinuity - changing from a mindset of "need to know" to "have to share", and the use of different kinds of stories to stimulate this change. Steve Else described the government situation - that to respond to such events, there needs to be more knowledge sharing and concerted action across government departments ("joined up government"). His prescription: simplify and unify. Several speakers also mentioned the US federal government problem of a large proportion of their experienced workforce nearing retirement age, and the potential knowledge gap that this will create - or is it, as some suggested, an opportunity to unlearn the ways of the past, and think creatively about the future?

Clearly the context of KM is undergoing significant change, but how KM responds to those challenge is not obvious - yes, there is need to improve the flow and coherence of RELEVANT knowledge; secondly, and more difficult, is to agree on the best course of action based on this knowledge, and thirdly, act decisively. This is a theme that will dominate KM thinking in the short- and medium- term.

A Socio-Technical Approach

It was interesting to hear this terminology being used by several speakers. The socio-technical approach is not new. Its roots can be found in a Tavistock Institute study of long wall coal-mining in the 1940s, and later popularized by socio-technical approaches to IT systems design in the 1980s. However, its precepts have frequently been ignored by mainstream information systems developers. Within KM, we often talk of a holistic approach, that embraces people, processes and technology. Siemens refers to its appoach as socio-technical combining "a global community of knowledge and best practice sharing" enabled by a "user-friendly search and retrieval system". It blends "knowledge objects" with "knowledge communities". Peter Katz of Entopia added the vocabulary of "knowledge ecology" and "bottom-up" KM. He cited an article that described how "databases frequently turn into information dumps, teeming with poorly classified or outdated information". Increasingly, KM solutions must address personal KM benefits, and then scale up to workgroup and enterprise collaboration. Interestingly, the early socio-technical research studied how a work-group interacted at the coal-face. Perhaps, employing anthropologists as part of the KM team should become the norm in future.

Communities and Collaboration

The growing recognition of the social aspects of KM was reflected in this theme, prominent in many of the cases presented. Community pioneer Richard McDermott emphasized the need that communities have to have influence within their organization. This poses challenges for management to stop them from simply becoming "expensive chat rooms". Some ways suggested of "institutionalizing communities" are integration into business strategy (giving them funding), giving them authority and influence on key decisions, integrating them into work processes. In return, communities will need to have good leadership and be accountable. Several other speakers highlighted the need for communities "not to be left chance" but to become more mainstream. Hubert Saint-Onge described Clarica's approach to virtual communities, distinguishing different forms of virtual collaboration across two axes - the first from function to project; the second from structured to unstructured. He used the specific example of Clarica's agent network as an unstructured functional community. Looking beyond communities, David Snowden described some of IBM's work in understanding complexity and chaos through its newly formed Centre for Action Research in Organizational Complexity. One of its projects is on social network stimulation.

Action Learning

Related to action research is action learning. Learning has always been a key element of knowledge management, and earlier articles (e.g. ELearning: Which Side of The Coin?, I3 UPDATE No. 56) have commented that it often isn't managed as such in organizations, although finally some organizational programmes for learning and KM are coming closer together. This integration is evident from Clarica's KM Architecture as described by Hubert Saint-Onge. It comprises two core elements - Knowledge Access (through a Knowledge Depot holding knowledge objects) and Knowledge Exchange (through Communities of Practice). Joining these elements in a continual two-way flow is Learning. Joe Firestone linked learning concepts to decision life cycles, problem life cycle and the knowledge life cycle. Similar links between knowledge action and learning were outlined by Steven Cavaleri. He then went on to describe the use of simulation as a way of learning, and how it could change people's assumptions and beliefs. In a wide ranging coverage of the evolution of KM (illustrated with good case examples) Karl Wiig positions 'formalized organizational learning' as one of three second phase KM 'thrusts' - the others are fostering communities and understanding customers).

Knowledge and Value

Several sessions covered the link between KM and value, either in the context of measurement or as a contribution to the bottom line. A panel session on "non financial measures of corporate value" John Low gave overviews of four Ernst ∓ Young surveys. For example its Global 500 Executive Survey indicated that intellectual capital was one of the ten most signifcant drivers of value, yet 81 per cent felt that their information on it was not good. A statistical analysis of value creation also showed that 7-11 intangibles (these vary by industry) explains more that 50 per cent of corporate value. In the same session Cory Wicks of EDS described had gone beyond "the theoretical constructs of IC" to develop and deploy an IC methodology and tool (the IC dashboard). More examples of methods were described by Francisco Javier Carrillo who described frameworks for knowledge-based Value Systems and an Integrated Value Report®. Others stressed the need to demonstrate the link between KM and business performance, Richard McDermott in making the case for communities, while Pat Shafer reviewed performance measures in the wider context of KM governance that also includes policy and guidelines, organizations and alliances, communications architecture and elearning.


KM is now relatively mature, such that events such as GLobal KM eXchange rarely come up with startling new revelations or "ah ha" moments. Rather, they provide a forum for the constant sharing of evolutionary knowledge that adds to our overall appreciation of knowledge management, advances of understanding in theory and practice, and adds to the growing knowledge base of good practice and successful cases. A selection of papers from the conference can be read in Ark's publication - Knowledge Management magazine.

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What Next for KM?

KM Europe 2001




Siemens Culture Change

ELearning: Which Side of The Coin?

Knowledge Management Magazine

Stephen Denning

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