Pick up any conference brochure and chances are you'll see knowledge management (KM) listed as a key topic. Those of us who have worked in data warehousing (DW) for some time see similarities between the hype describing KM's potential and that used in the past to illustrate DW's benefits, especially capturing and consolidating data for information sharing and integrating knowledge for decision making and innovation.

A New Paradigm

Yet, it would be a mistake to dismiss KM as just another rehash of previous disciplines, or as a new marketing spin from vendors looking to repackage their offerings, or as an opportunity for management gurus to sell books. The fact is, KM truly represents a new paradigm because it ambitiously touches every aspect of an organization--people, process, culture and technology.

KM relies on a foundation of information management, decision support and data warehousing. The techniques we have used successfully over the years to design and build large, integrated data warehouses and departmental marts (such as information engineering tools and techniques, information architecture frameworks, meta data and reuse strategies, repository technologies, data administration policies, etc.) are necessary when developing the infrastructure that enables a knowledge-based business.

But there is much more to knowledge management than data warehousing technology. Success in KM is strongly linked with cultural change and behavior modification. In KM, "content is king" and much of the implementation process needs to center on determining what knowledge is important to users, which sources can be tapped and how to encourage employees to share their special expertise or experience.

If you ask 10 people to describe KM, you'll get 10 different answers. What then is a practical definition? KM can be defined as an emerging set of policies, organizational structures, procedures, applications and technologies to improve decision making and increase innovation. KM is also a discipline that promotes an integrated approach to identifying, retrieving, sharing and evaluating an enterprise's information assets.

There are a number of trends encouraging both business and IT to make knowledge explicit and to manage it so it can be shared. Important drivers include:

  • The increasing value of intangible assets and the shortage of human capital;
  • Global, dynamic, virtual project teams;
  • Open, flexible and adaptive environments; and
  • The growing ability to componentize and reuse products and systems through communications networks and software.

Dynamic customization for a "market of one" and other customer-centric approaches are becoming imperative for both the business and technology communities. KM provides the underlying framework to address these issues effectively.

Strategy and Assessment

There are two basic strategies for moving forward with KM. It may be initiated as a macro strategy to provide broad infrastructure support to knowledge workers. Here, the emphasis is on creation, collection and acquisition of knowledge using internal and external sources. Or, a micro strategy may focus on specialized, in-depth knowledge necessary to support a key business objective, such as developing a customer-centric knowledge base. In either case, an effective KM strategy must be linked to specific business benefits, such as increasing the pace of product or process innovation or enlarging the organization's customer base.

The present status of KM within an organization can be determined through a readiness assessment or knowledge audit. This will provide a baseline upon which to measure or prioritize KM initiatives and to determine the maturity level of KM in the organization. The assessment should include an inventory and evaluation of existing knowledge assets, bases, elements and processes. This is the foundation of an organization's knowledge map and catalog.

The ultimate goal of KM is to foster a culture of learning in which individuals are encouraged to create and share knowledge and best practices to help their co-workers solve business problems. Real learning is about enhancing capability and is inseparable from action. Knowledge is the capacity for effective action.

As KM becomes part of the corporate landscape, the infrastructure approaches described here can be used to facilitate the development of a knowledge management architecture. Such an architecture must include the frameworks, standards, technologies and processes for a good knowledge management practice. A holistic approach that successfully integrates each of these components is the only way an effective KM strategy can be achieved.

Future columns will discuss in detail the strategies and technologies for creating a successful knowledge management program.

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