The current business environment is characterised by a shift from the old order of predictability, involving occasional incremental, and linear change to the new order of rapid, radical and discontinuous change. In the small world in which we now all live - and the global economy under which we all operate - this affects all businesses - large and small. Organisations who fail to recognise this - and act upon it - may not survive.
All businesses need to be increasingly flexible and adaptable - they need strategies which can react to, and even predict, the changes occurring.
Unfortunately, the old command and conquer hierarchical structures that were based on old military command structures are no longer relevant or effective. "Unfortunately", because these are the kinds of structures still in use in most companies - and still being developed and refined. These worked will in coping with the slow, evolutionary development of the past - we could make strategic plans, translate them into tactical plans, work out operational schedules - and all the time we improved our efficiency steadily year-on-year - and we were successful. We could predict the future from an analysis of historical figures and the trends they indicated.
We might face some revolutionary form of product or process technology once or twice in our working lives - there might be pain associated with this revolutionary change, but at least it was uncommon.
This new world is different. Technology change has accelerated massively. Global communication irons out technological advantage very quickly - we all have to run hard just to stand still. There are few breathing spaces. Even the very concepts of "organisation" and "industry" are becoming difficult to maintain. We hear of 'virtual corporations' - organisations, yes - but not in the traditional sense.
New models of business are being formed, modeless that do not fit into the old categories, that defy the traditional boundaries. Similarly, within these 'organisations', product/service definitions are becoming increasingly blurred. In this uncertain world, we need to ensure that we remain creative, alert to opportunity, responsive to external stimulus. We need a good grasp of the changing environment, and we need confidence in our own ability to adapt.
Our very survival may depend on our capacity for exploiting the intellect and creativity of our employees, and our ability to create new knowledge through a continuous process of learning (and sometimes unlearning).
This is the arena of Knowledge Management. Knowledge Management recognises the valuable resource of the collective expertise of the workforce - often called the intellectual capital - and recognises that this asset should be valued and managed as any other.
Intellectual capital is not everything we know - since some of what we know is only of limited value. Rather, the intellectual capital of an organisation is the sum of everything everybody in a company knows that gives it a competitive edge. It is also the learning that goes on in the organisation - and even learning that takes place as a result of shared interactions between the organisation and its customers, the organisation and its suppliers.
Of course, re-engineering has made great claims as to being the technique to address the changed business environment. Re-engineering and business transformation models can be highly effective devices for 'bootstrapping' an organisation from old ways to new ways, but they are essentially 'one-hit' models. KM is a continuous and continuing approach that can take over when a re-engineering programme has made the big hit, and start to address the fundamental culture changes necessary to embed change into the organisation.
There are some obvious areas in which knowledge is important - in designing new products, in improving manufacturing processes, in establishing new procedures, in examining new distribution channels, for example. In fact, you could look at a review and improvement of any area of the business - it will need experience and experience, knowledge and skills. Ensuring the organisation has the requisite knowledge, maintains it, grows and develops it - and exploits it, is KM.
Establishing KM should not result in a new division or department of the company : KM must be embedded into the company, as a part of the infrastructure. Information technology can be used to support KM - but it is not KM. However, it is a part of the 'information infrastructure' - not the technology infrastructure.
Organisations who establish KM have information strategies, not information technology strategies (though they may have these as second order items). Technology can help gather, analyse and disseminate information - as yet, only humans can successfully interpret and exploit it. Having state-of-the-art technology does not necessarily ensure creativity and innovation, or organisational competence. There is no necessary correlation between investment in technology and business performance. There is certainly no necessary correlation between investment in technology and knowledge management. Effective utilisation of technology is necessary but not sufficient - it must be made to be a part of the process of utilising the creative and innovative capacity of the human beings!
Knowledge and information are not the same. Information generated by computer systems is not a very rich carrier of reasoned argument, of human interpretation, of potential action. The knowledge required for all these lies in the information user's subjective context of action based on that information. Hence, knowledge can be said to lie with the individual and not 'in the system'.
KM involves the establishing of structures, processes and procedures to ensure the communication of knowledge, the transfer and sharing of knowledge between individuals and groups - and the further development of the knowledge and skills of those with the existing knowledge. We are not collecting their knowledge so that we can do without them!
Whereas traditional approaches to information and information provision treat those who handle the information as passive processors of that information, the whole concept of KM is based on the premise that these processors are, in fact, highly important links in the information-value chain. They have a very active part to play in turning base data into valuable information.
Pre-packaged and programmable information systems do have an important part to play in a knowledge society and organisation. The intention should be to delegate those tasks that are suitable for such simple information processing devices - leaving the people free to handle the analytical and interpretative that really add value. Similarly, such devices as expert systems should not be ignored. It is often beneficial - but not always possible - to make the implicit, internal knowledge of experts explicit in a form that can be used by others.
KM is also about identifying gaps in knowledge and finding ways of plugging those gaps - by accessing externals knowledge sources, such as external libraries and databases, consultants, etc.
We also may need relatively lowly, conventional technologies to complete the process.
We have to use whatever help we can get - but first we need to be clear about the kind of organisation that we are trying to create; the kind of organisation that can grow and develop within this changing business environment. We can then set about making the organisational information and knowledge base accessible to a wide spectrum of individuals within the organisation - by devolving knowledge to appropriate levels.
We can also provide staff at those levels with the confidence to submit their interpretations, and even, if appropriate, to take action based on those interpretations. We then have a knowledge management system - and a culture of knowledge creation, sharing and use.
for further information and analysis of Knowledge Management, see @BRINT.COM, the BizTech network at http://www.brint.com
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