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The Knowledge Era

Published
  • April 01 1998, 1:00am EST

Knowledge management (KM) is an emerging set of processes, organizational structures, applications and technologies that aim to leverage the ability of the capable, responsible, autonomous individual to act quickly and effectively. Creating an effective knowledge architecture for the organization is the first step in leading users to the information they need. Key factors include creating, gathering, storing, accessing and making available the right information that will result in insight for the organizations' users. It differs from BPR, TQM and other trends in that it depends on exploiting technology infrastructures such as intranets and middleware such as e-mail. KM requires an integrated approach to identifying, managing and, most importantly, sharing the enterprise's information assets including databases, documents, policies and procedures, as well as undocumented expertise resident in individual workers.

Past experience is, many times, the best indicator of future performance. We use past experiences to help us run our businesses in many ways. We define best practices, predict marketing trends and set production schedules based on our existing knowledge of what came before. Using that same model for knowledge asset delivery would seem to be the next logical step. Using natural selection to manage information assets gives knowledge managers a systematic way to present users with the most valuable assets of the organization.

The cybercorp needs a knowledge infrastructure to capture and create knowledge, store it, improve it, clarify it, disseminate it to all employees and put it to use. The most successful corporations will be the ones that learn in every way possible and put what is learned to the best use. The essence of organizational adaptability is enabling every employee to accelerate the process of corporate learning. There should be no "ownership" of ideas and no boundaries that prevent data sharing.

Francis Bacon said, "Knowledge is power." The modern executive should say, "Knowledge is money." Knowledge creates money in many different ways. It translates into good marketing, good design, satisfied customers and better production methods. Knowledge permits more profitable decisions to be made. It facilitates timely inventory control. It makes automated production possible. As knowledge flows over networks, it enables events to take place more efficiently, saving intermediary steps.

Corporations succeed because they have greater expertise than their competition in such fields as design, management and marketing. Human expertise is amplified by computers. Software is an encapsulation of knowledge. Knowledge, constantly renewed and enhanced, is the primary source of competitive advantage.

Corporations in the knowledge era must constantly learn. Most knowledge can be copied. Corporations rapidly learn to do what their competition has done. The only way to stay ahead is to learn faster and better than the competition. Most knowledge leaks to other corporations, so learning, which creates new knowledge, provides the primary competitive advantage.

An era in which the key economic resource is knowledge is startlingly different from an era in which the key resources were capital, raw materials, land and labor. Most knowledge, unlike traditional economic resources, is endlessly replicable. It can reside in computers, on disks or in exceedingly complex software. It can be transmitted worldwide in a fraction of a second, customs officials having no idea that the most valuable economic resource has just flitted past them.

The knowledge infrastructure is the foundation on which the learning enterprise is built. A knowledge infrastructure communicates innovations across the enterprise. Computers and networks are used to help choreograph the complex interplay of activities. A key characteristic of the cybercorp is a knowledge infrastructure that uses the Internet and an intranet to help acquire knowledge, enhance it, store it in an organized way and make it accessible to everyone who needs it in the enterprise. It is essential to use technology to facilitate learning and experimentation and to disseminate the knowledge acquired and ensure that it is put to good use. Internet and intranet software provides "open" connectivity and makes it technically easy to create a knowledge infrastructure designed to accelerate this process.

Many local, individual learning experiences occur; a knowledge infrastructure should help communicate them so that people throughout the enterprise benefit. Without some structure for knowledge, it is extremely difficult to communicate learning experiences from group to group. An efficient knowledge infrastructure becomes more important as an organization grows large. A small organization can "muddle through;" but as it grows, it needs to invest in its knowledge infrastructure.

Increasingly, the asset of most value in corporations is skill and knowledge. This asset resides in people who could walk away. Knowledge must, therefore, be captured, stored and used as a tool to empower and retain the organization's most valuable assets--its employees and the knowledge housed within.

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