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June 2003    Main Feature
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No. 74
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Managing editor:
David J. Skyrme

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Progress in Knowledge Management:
Steady But Not Spectacular

David J. Skyrme

In the June 1998 edition of I3 UPDATE / ENTOVATION International News we outlined ten shifts that we predicted would happen as KM matures. Five years on, how do they look now, and what lies ahead?

1. From a Dimension of Other Disciplines to a Discipline in its Own Right

We said: "It will be a subject of degree courses and a profession distinct from information management."

What has happened: KM is indeed a subject in its own right. There are Masters in Knowledge Management courses (see for example the MKM offered by Copenhagen Business School) and KM modules on related courses. In many cases (such as the Open University's Managing Information MBA elective) new course material has been specifically commissioned. But others are just rehashes of existing course material under new labels. There has also been a growth in professional associations and accreditation schemes (see for example I3 UPDATE No. 43).

What lies ahead: Like any evolving subject there are already more specialized public courses e.g. on knowledge mapping, knowledge audits, storytelling and measuring intellectual capital. The number of specialisms will continue to increase. They may eventually be reflected in academic courses, but practitioners will continue to define and refine the discipline ahead of academia.

2. From Strategic Initiatives to Routine Practice

We said: "The CKO of the future (if they exist) will embrace some of the functions of today's HR managers and CIO."

What has Happened: While KM is increasingly accepted in many organizations, it is still far from routine and embedded in many. Indeed one might argue that in many organizations it is still not strategic - are your KM plans an integral part of your annual strategic plan? Some CKOs do have prominence but HR managers and CIOs are well entrenched a(and not necessarily embracing the holistic aspects of KM)

What Lies Ahead: An uncertain time for many CKOs. Much depends on how well the CIO function integrates information management in its library sense with information technology.

3. From Inward Focus on Knowledge Processes to External Focus on Knowledge Businesses

We said: "Companies will identify how their knowledge assets can be recombined to create new knowledge-based businesses. For example, an engineering/manufacturing company might create an engineering consultancy business."

What has happened: Some manufacturing companies do indeed sell their expertise. You might have a Porsche designed camera without realizing it (the Fujipix 4000 and 6000 series). For many organizations, their external focus has not been on knowledge businesses per se but on customers. As in other fields technology was seen as a panacea in the form of CRM systems, but how they have been deployed has come under criticism. For many customers, seamless knowledge and service from large companies is still a pipe dream. And the major knowledge businesses - the management consultancies - have seen their revenues decline, perhaps as organizations realize the strategic value of knowledge that they should develop and retain in-house.

What lies ahead: Despite the revenue decline of the large consultancies, there is healthy growth in niche consultancies who can provide specialist expertise and provide practical implementation help rather than merely espousing esoteric strategies. Knowledge businesses will continue to grow, but the differences in mind-sets means that knowledge businesses created from scratch (or from existing knowledge businesses) are more likely to be the norm than manufacturing companies spawning off their expertise.

4. From Best Practices to Breakthrough Practices

We said: "Rather than improve incrementally, companies should strive for 10x improvements in key areas, such as time-to-market, functionality per unit cost."

What has happened: Sharing best practices remains a prominent theme in many KM programmes, though many organizations realize that achieving today's best may be a recipe for mediocrity. Certainly they want access to good practice, but they realize the need to create 'stretch goals' and innovate (See 'Are Your Best Practices the Best' in I3 UPDATE No. 54). So (see item 10 below) innovation is rising up the agenda, but many established companies find making breakthroughs that upset the status quo a major challenge. A sad reflection on the last five years is that many breakthroughs have been 10x in reverse - the breakthrough in the value of dot.com stocks and the innovative financial instruments of companies like Enron. A positive notable breakthrough has been the decoding of the human genome - 5 years ago it was thought it would take at least another decade, but public / private collaboration and a mix of methods speeded it up. But even as we learn more, we find there is much much more still to discover.

What lies ahead: Now that the dot.com bubble has burst and investors are being more realistic, we can hope that innovators will get backing for their breakthrough ideas - and not just financial backing but backing in knowledge and expertise.

5. From Knowledge Codification and Databases to Tradeable Knowledge Assets

We said: "Although publishers have done it for some time, many other companies are now realizing the opportunities from trading their databases e.g. fleet car managers and car reliability information."

What has happened: There are more knowledge assets for sale over the Web. But expectations for free content run high.

What lies ahead: There is likely to be gradual acceptance of payment for content (for example Ft.com and Britannica.com that used to be completely free now have subscription services for prime content), but traditional businesses are unlikely to enter this market. It will be innovative niche start-ups and existing knowledge business (consultancies, publishers, education) that finally figure out how to package knowledge and sell and deliver it online. In particular look for growth in e-learning courses and associated knowledge assets.

6. From Knowledge Processes to Knowledge Objects

We said: "Just as computer applications are going object oriented, so too will the application of knowledge. We will package knowledge as objects (that might include an information record, a multimedia clip, and access to a person) that can be manipulated and transmitted in different ways."

What has happened: Steady progress, since more people now think in terms of packaged knowledge assets and e-learning objects. Content management systems have provided an essential foundation for chunking and repurposing content for different uses. And multimedia is becoming an integral part of more objects. More organizations are 'templating' their explicit knowledge on their intranets (using content management systems).

What lies ahead: As e-learning gains hold and taxonomic schemas based on XML standards gain acceptance, the packaging of structured knowledge will improve. There is still an education problem in getting content creators to think in terms of codified information chunks rather than documents (or discursive emails).

7. From Knowledge Maps to Knowledge Navigators/Agents

We said: "Maps are static representations of objects, and without extensive real time map making capability (which could happen in the future) we need other ways to find existing and emerging knowledge. These will be human brokers (people with know-where and know-who) and intelligent software agents".

What has happened: Search engines continue to improve and auto-classifiers / information alerters based on AI techniques have made some solid progress, outperforming humans in speed and accuracy for certain bodies of knowledge. But a hybrid approach - with human intervention and validation - generally seems to work best. More organizations are giving attention to the information architecture on their portals, and peer review and validation of content. The fact that communities are thriving show the value of the human connection to knowledge.

What lies ahead: The symbiosis of human-and machine - more adaptive/learning computer systems and more adaptive/learning humans. Finding the right balance will be tricky but the case for both-and and not either-or is now well established.

8. From Knowledge Centres to Knowledge Networks

We said: "Although aggregating knowledge and knowledgeable people at knowledge centres gives critical mass, a more effective model may well be local nodes of expertise interconnected through human and computer networks i.e. the virtual knowledge centre."

What has happened: Knowledge centres are not as prominent today as they were a few years ago. Most organizations do indeed have a distributed approach with subject matter experts across the organization acting as content owners or community leaders. A small core capability (which can still be a virtual team) is still needed to set standards, develop skills and to oversee future direction and ongoing development.

What lies ahead: More and better knowledge networking with communities of practice and content management at their core.

9. From Knowledge Communities to Knowledge Markets

We said: "Communities are emerging that provide an effective vehicle for knowledge exchange. But as knowledge acquires value, and becomes 'productized' as objects (Shift 6) these communities will develop payment mechanisms and other trappings of a market place."

What happened: Attempts to create online knowledge markets have had mixed success, with high profile ones like iqport.com and Mightywords.com withdrawing. After a hesitant start (too many new ventures chasing too small a market) sector-specific B2B marketplaces are finally making headway. Communities thrive - with knowledge being exchanged freely.

What lies ahead: Better packaging and content already has value (see shifts 3 and 6). B2B marketplaces are now more likely to be the place where profitable markets emerge. It will need Web services and some high profile backers (like Google, Yahoo or eBay) before emarkets for much content really take off outside of specialist niches.

10. From Knowledge Management to Knowledge Innovation

We said: "As ENTOVATION Colleagues will know, Debra M. Amidon sees Knowledge Management as a transition phase to something more fundamental. Management implies custodianship and managing what you know - innovation is creating something new and better, and that surely must be the ambition of all existing knowledge managers."

What has happened: Knowledge management has steadily improved and gained visibility while innovation has been occurring steadily in the background - and in some high profile cases in external ventures. However, it is finally (see I3 UPDATE No. 71) climbing senior manager's radar charts. Mostly, though, knowledge management and innovation have been viewed as separate distinctive disciplines.

What lies ahead: Innovation can be improved through knowledge management just as knowledge management can be improved through innovation. Is the time finally ripe for this symbiotic relationship to come fruition? We'd like to think so, but since it didn't happen as anticipated in the last five years it's one prediction we won't put a timescale on!

Summary

A review of these shifts shows the usual mix - some shifts well established (e.g. knowledge management as a recognized discipline), others making reasonable or good progress (knowledge processes to knowledge objects), but around half barely significant or fallen by the wayside, at least for now (e.g. online knowledge marketplaces). A more recent article than the one we revisited, that in I3 UPDATE No. 57 January 2002), shows some more recent trends, notably emergence of some key technologies (e.g. content management, portals, XML) and interesting techniques such as storytelling.

The true test of whether you are coping with these shifts and trends is not whether you are predicting them accurately, but whether you have factored different scenarios into your forward planning. Think about the implications - the opportunities and threats - to the way that you currently manage and exploit your knowledge for the benefit of your organization. How will such shifts affect your investment decisions? How can they be harnessed to your advantage?

There's less business value in managing your knowledge of these trends and shifts than there is in innovating around them as they happen. So ask yourself: do you want to be a knowledge manager or a knowledge innovator?


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