David Skyrme Associates


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No. 15: December 1997


Knowledge Communities - Helping Them Thrive
Online 97:
- Information Managers embrace Knowledge Management
- Arrogance or Bluff?
- Working with Knowledge
- Footnote: The Alure of Technology
Knowledge Management Tools and Techniques - An Update
And Finally ... Merry Christmas


Welcome to this, the last issue for 1997 of I3 UPDATE, a free briefing analyzing developments in the networked knowledge economy.

On the administration page you will find important information about leaving and joining the distribution list. We hope you enjoy this UPDATE, and welcome comments, contributions and feedback at david@skyrme.com.

David J. Skyrme
Managing Editor

Knowledge Communities - Helping Them Thrive

David J. Skyrme

The notion of a 'Community of Knowledge Practice' has been evolving for some time. The term 'Community of Practice', emanated out of the work at Xerox Parc at the turn of the decade, and has been increasingly been applied in the knowledge management context. For example, Shell uses the term KMunity (now trade marked I believe) to describe their communities of practice. Essentially a Community of Practice are a group of people who are "peers in the execution of real work" (John Seely Brown, Xerox). They are not a formal team but an informal network, each sharing in part a common agenda and shared interests. In the Xerox example, they found that a lot of knowledge sharing among copier engineers took place through informal exchanges, often around the water cooler. They used a social science technique called ethnography, also we have found to be growing in use as researcher and managers strive to understand the nature of knowledge work in different office settings.

Debra Amidon, a long term strategist in the field of knowledge, recognized how such a community was evolving around the knowledge movement. She described it as a Community of Knowledge Practice (see for example, The Emerging Community of Knowledge Practice, Knowledge Inc. (March 1997) [1]). This community is drawing together people from all geographies, all industries, all functions. The harnessing of knowledge and its use as a factor in business success is too important to be left to any one function, such as MIS (management information systems). According to Amidon, each part of business has their part to play, for example:

  • Finance - reorienting the way they measure business performance, taking account of the intangibles (intellectual capital)

  • Human Resources - championing the 'people-centric' perspective of knowledge management; helping the development of the learning organization and learning networks

  • MIS/IT - helping to systematize the flow of knowledge and the flood of information; providing the technical infrastructure and tools for knowledge sharing and collaboration.

  • R&D/Technology Transfer - focusing on innovation, and in particular the process for taking invention through to the marketplace quickly.

  • Marketing - drawing in knowledge from the market, and especially customers, constantly monitoring the environment, and leveraging that intelligence and their organization's distinct competencies to create new market positions (or even, as we have seen in several cases, totally new markets)

These are just some examples of how different specialisations and skills converge and collaborate around the knowledge agenda. In analyzing developments over the last year, we have seen a kind of 'roll out' of the knowledge focus around geographies, industries and functions. While we should beware of oversimplification, it has happened something like this:

  • Geography - First. in the USA (and Canada) knowledge management became more explicit and visible (e.g. in seminars in 1995); then Europe (at first Scandinavia - some would say before the USA, then Holland and the UK, and now other countries); now we see growing awareness in Australasia and Latin America, while the Japanese have been quietly practicing their own form of knowledge management for many years.

  • Industries - Not surprisingly the management consultants (who business is mostly about knowledge in any case) have had knowledge bases and knowledge centres for several years; next other knowledge intensive industries like pharmaceutical, computing and telecomms, and now a steady progression into oil/chemicals and finance.

  • Functions - While MIS have been active for some time in many companies, HR were often encouraging knowledge management through the 'learning organization route. The information management community (including information centres/libraries) have jumped onto the knowledge bandwagon with a vengeance. Others are now become much more active. Still dragging their heels, not universally, but in many countries and companies, are the finance function.

This overall community will grow in 1998 and evolve (perhaps to something not called knowledge management by the year 2000). However, we must not lose sight that much of the real ground work is taking place in smaller, interconnected communities. They may be people who share an interest in new materials for packaging, or a new techniques for deep water seismology. These communities (call them networks if you like) are already, and have for many years, been active within organizations, and across organizations (e.g. via professional societies, special interest groups etc.).

The challenge for organizations is to support such communities and make them effective. One potential danger of the focus on knowledge MANAGEMENT is that a degree of systematization and formality will stifle such communities. How can knowledge managers minimize this risk?

  • Provide facilities that make it easy for them to meet and exchange - web space, internal newsgroups, mail lists; also physical meeting places (where tacit knowledge conversion can take place)
  • Offer facilitation to help them improve current processes; too often communities get bogged down in the content, not stepping back and seeing the effectiveness of their ongoing processes e.g. when enrolling new members.
  • Provide connection information - help others who share their interests apply to join, help them publicize their existence to the outside world e.g. via community directories.
  • Develop effective note taking methods for meetings, articulating the gems of conversation that often pass too quickly into 'knowledge nuggets', that can be recalled and shared with those not at the meeting. This represents the creation of value through conversion of 'tacit' to 'explicit' knowledge.
  • Suggest that email discussions be synthesised and edited; this is a common role for a 'knowledge editor', and represents explicit to explicit conversion
  • Respect their norms and value - some may want to remain small and intimate and restrict membership.

Above all, give them 'space' (physically and metaphorically) to develop and grow. In summary, this represent the style of management needed in a knowledge-enriching organizations. Such communities are self organizing, and the role of management - where it exists - is to provide the appropriate environment and tools for these communities to flourish, by providing the context, and using the techniques of facilitation, mentoring and coaching. You may also find some useful ideas in our "Principles of Virtual Organisations and Teaming" (see I3 UPDATE No. 11 at http://www.skyrme.com/updates/u11.htm)

In the wider context, two kinds of community are very apparent:

  • global communities of shared interest
  • local, geographically based, communities

The Internet is enriching the former, not just through the Web but through news groups and mail lists (particularly moderated ones to eliminate 'spamming'), not forgetting plain old email (still the workhorse and highest value use of the Internet). Genealogy provides an illustration of how they might evolve. As a subject it is being transformed through the readiness in which different branches of families can compare their histories and make connections between previously disparate branches. Webs of 'family knowledge' are being created, with rich interconnections. Skyrm(e)s (a fairly rare name) are popping up all over the world, and finding their common ancestors (mostly in Pembroke, South Wales and Herefordshire).

Surprisingly, the Internet, while offering global reach to local businesses (such as David Skyrme Associates) is also helping local communities find more sense of community and a sense of identity in the wider world. Just as in organizations, people just down the corridor email each other, so too this is happening in local communities, with the advantage that more than two people can share in the exchange and increase collaboration.

Most readers of this I3 UPDATE are participants in the Community of Knowledge Practice (as well as other communities of interest). We encourage you to reflect on how it is evolving, how well it is working and how your other communities of interest intersect with it. As always we welcome your insightful comments and feedback to david@skyrme.com.

[1] Abstract at http://www.entovation.com/info/article1.htm
Knowledge Inc: http://www.knowledgeinc.com

Update - Sept 2002: Read our K-Guide Developing Successful Communities available from our K-Shop.

Online 97

David J. Skyrme

Information Managers Embrace Knowledge Management

OnLine 97, organized by Learned Information (http://www.online-information.com) held at London's Olympia Conference and Exhibition Centre from 9-11 December attracted over 10,000 attendees, mostly information professionals, representing information (and knowledge) centres in corporate, academic and public sector organizations. My immediate impressions/reactions were:

  • Information overload - everyone trying to thrust their literature into your hand; lots of 20 minute presentations, one after the other with little time to reflect;
  • The future role of information centres - as information streams past them from information providers, directly into the desktops of managers and professionals across the organization
  • The information-centric view (not surprising) of knowledge management
  • The pervasion of the Internet, in all products and services.

However, several streams were devoted to knowledge management, indicating as noted in the previous article, that yet another profession is actively participating in the evolving Community of Knowledge Practice.

Arrogance or Bluff?

The stance of the online industry to the Internet was particularly interesting since a couple of years ago, the online service providers were very dismissive of the Internet (just like EDI suppliers!), seeing it as either no threat, or cheap and rubbishy. Most, now though have embraced, if not the Internet per se, the user friendly Internet tools, such as browsers, so that their information services are Internet enabled, or can be used on a company's Internet.

However, Danny Wagner, charismatic head of MAID, who have now merged with Knight Ridder to form the new Dialog corporation, in his opening talk spoke of 'confused users'. They are confused he says because through the Internet, they expect lots of information delivered to their desktop at virtually no cost. He suggests that they are misguided and need educating, since no one can provide the quality and organization of information that online providers can. He is right, of course, to some extent, but to my mind came across as an arrogant supplier (perhaps that is why he has been such a successful business person anyway!). In my own talk at Online 97 ('From Information to Knowledge Management: Are You Prepared?'), I say:

"The worlds of online services and the Internet are already converging. Users want the best of both world's: the accessibility, universality, ease-of-use and low cost of the Internet, combined with the structured, organized and (in some cases) the exclusive information of online services".

Already several services were showing this in practice. I was particularly attracted by the offering of recently created KnowledgeCite, (by former Silver Platter employees) that adds a level of searching by fields on top of the increasingly frustrating free text Internet search engines.

The real threat to suppliers, as other speakers indicated, is that the rapidly falling cost of packaged information. Using many examples - cost of electronic encyclopedias, software etc. - one speaker estimated that the cost to deliver customized industry news, direct to an individual's desktop will reduce from $20/per seat/per month to just a few dollars per person per month. At such costs, the business model will change, advertising forming a significant part of the revenue stream, so that the nature of the business changes, with some vendors not able to make the transition. The demise of once strong names who failed to make the transition from text based command language to Web enabled formats is testimony to this, as is the panoply of completely new entrants such as Individual with First! and Desk Top Data with Newsedge.

The online industry is not alone. The fact that Internet transactions and operating costs are significantly less than conventional methods means that many established companies in any industry that is to any degree information intensive (including software, publishing, music, training, financial services) will have to face competitors who charge a fraction (say a fifth or even a tenth) of the current prevailing price. If you are in such an industry and you have not played out such a scenario against your business model, then perhaps you should!

Perhaps Wagner, rather than educating the confused user, is calling their bluff, saying they will miss out if they don't pay Dialog's up front subscription fees. These arrangements, while fine for large corporates who want to budget their online costs, exclude a growing section of the market - the end-user who wants focussed information for specific needs on an ad-hoc basis. Interestingly, even Dow Jones has introduced a pay as you go service.

Working with Knowledge

There were several streams covering several wider aspects of knowledge management as we know them. These included:

  • Managing Information - the Solution to Overload - the use of intelligent agents as filters, and a sensibly structured Intranet site (such as Booz, Allen and Hamilton's Knowledge Online) were featured

  • Knowledge Management Strategy - Of particular interest here was Clive Holtham's notion of a 'knowledge fabric'. He distinguished knowledge management the fad (which may disappear in the near future) with the underlying strands of 'deep knowledge management'. The weft of his framework - information, technology, people and organization - are the most visible and more easily changeable. The warp - direction, knowledge, process and climate - are less visible but form the fundamental underpinnings.

  • Knowledge Management - The Technological Solution: though in fact, most speakers were very aware of the importance of non-technical factors. Rob Welch of Kudos, for example, cited context, mediation, ownership and elicitation as important aspects of knowledge management.

  • Measuring, Marketing and Maintaining the Knowledge Asset - This included an interesting online demonstration of Skandia's Dolphin system, that lets managers view in real time the intellectual capital indicators of their business. Perhaps the most interesting fact to come out was that most organizations do not have a way to put a value on the services of their corporate library, and that many do not closely align with business strategy.

Footnote - The Alure of Technology

Space and time limit a more thorough analysis of the whole conference. However, one feature was very noticeable - the interest by the information (library) profession in technology. The session on push technologies for example, had to be switched to the main auditorium to prevent overcrowding. Although as several delegates wryly commented; "The technologists have finally delivered what we've been doing for years - only we called it selective dissemination of information (SDI)".

Perhaps that sums up the challenge, not just for information specialists, but other professions being caught up in the technological revolutions and the knowledge movement - don't sit on the sidelines and watch these upstarts (e.g. Internet push providers, knowledge managers) take over your domain. Go with the flow - join them, become partners, and apply your well honed skills of effective information management, so that you both succeed.

Knowledge Management Tools and Techniques:
An Update

We had planned by now to do a review of tools and techniques that are being used for knowledge management. This has turned into a major exercise, since many software suppliers e.g. of document management systems, are repositioning their products as knowledge management solutions, some with more credibility than others. Do send details of products (not just software, but methods used to encourage knowledge exchange) that you feel should be featured. We will report our findings in a future I3 UPDATE.

And Finally....

A Merry Christmas (or Season's Greetings if you do not celebrate Christmas) and a prosperous New Year to all our readers.

...May the Knowledge be with You

© Copyright, 1997. David Skyrme Associates Limited and Authors - All rights reserved.

This newsletter is copyright material. In the interests of dissemination of information, forward circulation is permitted provided it is distributed in its entirety including these notices, that it is not posted to newsgroups or distribution lists and that it is not done for commercial gain or part of a commercial transaction. For other uses please contact the publisher.

I3 UPDATE is a publication of David Skyrme Associates Limited - providers of market studies, consultancy and strategic advice in knowledge management, knowledge networking and collaborative technologies.

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