KM Technology, KM Reality

Advertisements for knowledge management software solutions seem to be everywhere nowadays--on billboards, on television, on bus kiosks, all of them spouting jargon that only a year ago very few people could understand. This appears to be evidence that KM is finally becoming an accepted part of the mainstream business world. However, on closer observation it becomes clear that this is not the case. The only thing that has thus far become widely accepted is KM technology--not the practice of knowledge management itself.

One of the most persistent myths about KM is that it is technology based. Unfortunately, cutting-edge gadgets do not KM make. The latest content management software may facilitate knowledge capture and redistribution, but it won't populate a knowledge base for you without staff cooperation. The synchronized calendar that connects to your remote employees' PDAs from a central server can't update itself accurately if no one uses it. In short, knowledge management, like any other form of management, begins with people, not with programs.

Knowledge management ultimately begins with changing the habits of each individual worker to facilitate the sharing of useful information throughout the enterprise. The rank-and-file must learn to communicate what they know to their fellows in an organized, context-specific manner--preferably one that can be documented. Management must support these efforts by providing forums and tools for these efforts as well as incentives. Technological tools can help but unless a social structure that supports knowledge sharing is already in place when they are introduced, generally all that they will do is gather dust.

It is possible, of course, to wean workers onto a KM program or other tool in the absence of an ingrained knowledge management system through training and incentives. However, using this tool will likely be seen as an extraneous additional duty instead of one that is central to the user's day-to-day work habits. To illustrate, say that a well-meaning manager passes out PDAs to his dispersed sales force and shows each member how to use the installed synchronized calendar function. Users must log in daily for updates and must contribute events for addition on a regular basis as a new condition of their annual performance reviews. The new practice is adhered to fairly faithfully--but reluctantly, and most likely in addition to calendaring data entry on tools with which the user is more familiar, thus duplicating efforts and wasting time. The PDA itself, meanwhile, will probably end up either being rarely used or being used as a repository for business information extraneous to the knowledge sharing effort.

Now say that the same manager goes through the same process with his team but this time he prepares them beforehand with more socially-oriented team-building efforts. For example, he could arrange for the group to meet once physically to get acquainted, then schedule regular meetings and report sharing online or through teleconferencing. Business-critical information shared at these meetings is documented and the sources commended publicly. Once salespeople have grown accustomed to collaboration and knowledge sharing, they will adopt a KM tool such as the synchronized calendaring system with much more enthusiasm, since it facilitates what they are already doing.

Next time you pass by an e-learning program billboard or find a press release on some hot new content management software, by all means consider whether it would be suitable for your business. But don't believe that you can implement it in a vacuum and call it an acceptable substitute for a soup-to-nuts KM program.

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