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Knowledge Management > Articles > Knowledge retention, industry benchmarking, innovative communiti >

Knowledge retention, industry benchmarking, innovative communities are key for KM

Madanmohan Rao reports from the BrainTrust KM summit in San Francisco

Knowledge retention, harnessing customer bases for innovative inputs, industry benchmarking, communities of innovation and intra-organisational communication are key knowledge management (KM) requisites for 21st century organisations, according to leading KM practitioners who gathered recently in San Francisco for the Braintrust 2003 Practitioners Forum hosted by the Institute for International Research.

"One must not under-estimate the power of the social fabric in innovation processes," said keynote speaker John Seely Brown, chief scientist at Xerox. Networks tend to be of three types: social (for checking in with), innovative (for brainstorming) and expert (for advice). Roles which must be nurtured in communities of practice include hubs, pulsetakers and gatekeepers.

The four key drivers of KM today are the speed of global competition, rapid technological change, downsizing and the need to manage decentralised organisations, said Andrew Michuda, CEO of Sopheon.

Depending on what companies know or do not know about the knowledge they have or do not have, the knowledge strategy grid encompasses four quadrants: conscious knowledge, unconscious knowledge, conscious lack of knowledge and unconscious lack of knowledge, according to Michuda. This maps onto different business processes as well, depending on granularity of data and complexity of processes: for instance, product development is a complex process requiring sophisticated knowledge, while traditional accounting is a simpler process requiring basic data.

One challenge in such an area is to "kill" bad products early enough, either at development or launch stage. Companies like Sopheon offer "stage-gate" tools for product lifecycle management (PLM) processes, ranging from ideas and validation to design and production.

Other gaps which can manifest themselves in KM practices include the knowledge value gap (presence of irrelevant knowledge), the knowing-doing gap, the knowledge flow gap and the creativity gap, said Sam Marshall, head of KM at Unilever. Depending on the degree of sociability and solidarity present, organisational culture is of four types: fragmented, mercenary, networked and communal. Unilever has developed an eight-dimensional questionnaire for organisational KM, covering these aspects of culture and knowledge.

"Knowledge is like light. It can manifest itself in two ways - as an object, or as a process," said Tom Brailsford, manager of advanced research at Hallmark Cards. Knowledge creation is all about ideas and growth; innovation is an "emergent" property of networks.

Key research areas at Hallmark include helping customers articulate unmet needs, learning how to ask questions, leveraging the Net to get closer to consumers, and improving the flow of knowledge.

Leveraging consumer knowledge in pursuit of innovation is a major thrust at Hallmark. The company has launched IdeaExchange, an online community for consumers like grandparents and Latinas. Select consumers - now totaling 800 -- are invited to become "consumer consultants" for discussion and brainstorming on fresh ideas and perspectives.

"Consumers are starved to have an active voice in the company. Our registered online consumers have evaluated products and editorial, given us an unprecedented insight into their lives, bonded together very well, and even come up with potentially big ideas," said Brailsford.

This "permeable membrane strategy" via interactive online communities has helped Hallmark form questions, develop insights and shape ideas into new products. The company has come up with an "innovation index" based on weighted questionnaires about connectivity (eg. Internet/Intranet access), content (eg. availability of fresh documents) and culture (eg. support for creativity, sharing, reflecting).

Benchmarking is a useful way for a company to assess and improve its KM performance. "The Most Admired Knowledge Enterprise awards are based on performance dimensions like corporate knowledge culture, knowledge leaders, knowledge-based products/services, enterprise intellectual capital, collaborative knowledge sharing, learning organisation, customer knowledge, and wealth creation," said Rory Chase, founder of Teleos, which conducts the annual MAKE awards along with the KNOW Network. Parameters of measurement include profits as a percentage of assets, wealth-added index and total shareholder return.

A key area of focus today for industry KM consortia like APQC (American Productivity and Quality Centre) is coping with knowledge loss while dealing with a shifting work force. Knowledge loss takes place due to retirement, downsizing, mergers, turnover and shifting jobs. "Knowledge retention gives a compelling business reason for doing KM," said Bob Newhouse of APQC.

APQC has conducted industry-wide studies on KM best practices, role of IT, learning organisations, external KM and knowledge-sharing cultures. Its recommended KM roadmap includes developing KM strategy, launching KM initiatives, expanding KM activities and institutionalising KM.

"Knowledge retention requires KM and HR groups to coordinate," advised Newhouse. The World Bank identifies people who are retiring after decades of work; Northrop Grumman conducts a knowledge audit using an outside consulting agency. Other commonly used techniques include project milestones, mentoring, videotaping, storytelling and communities of practice.

Knowledge capturing via stories and anecdotes can be a lot of hard work - people need to be trained in how to ask questions and give appropriate answers, cautioned Melissie Rumizen of Buckman Labs, author of the bestseller "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Knowledge Management."

In a world of info-glut and global resource distribution, organisations suffer from sub-optimal knowledge re-use, duplication of effort, wastage of time in finding expertise, and reliance on a narrow set of individuals as information gatekeepers, said Alla Shpilsky, senior manager of information solutions at Aventis.

The healthcare company actively uses techniques like automated email-based expertise location ("KnowledgeMail") within the portal interface. "Linking the portal to expertise can drive both collaboration and innovation," observes Shpilsky.

It is also important to understand the tool choices, interaction cadences, participation norms, training needs, workgroup lifecycles and content accumulation in global collaborative environments, advised Michael Fontaine of IBM Research. These environments range from whiteboards and portals to email forums and instant messaging, depending on whether the collaboration takes place in the same or different time zones and locations.

Cataloguing of content becomes increasingly difficult as a project progresses. "Tools should be aligned with workgroup needs. Taxonomies should be built carefully, with scope for changes over time," advised Fontaine.

KM can be successfully leveraged to deal with changing business environments. For instance, over the last decade, projects have changed from large to medium sized, market windows have narrowed, product lifecycles have shortened, system architectures have become open, and downsizing has increased at Ericsson Research Canada, according to Anders Hemre, its CKO.

KM related opportunities are embedded in the new product development process in areas like innovation, collaboration, knowledge sharing, problem solving and learning. Ericsson Research Canada launched a 3-year KM program in 2002. "KM needs to integrate with business strategy and process," advised Hemre.

In these times of economic uncertainty, KM is one of the lights. "KM is morphing into something important," said Dan Holtshouse, director of corporate business strategy at Xerox. The challenge for making knowledge flow is to knowledge-enable the "greater workplace" which includes personal, informational, physical and organisational workplaces.

"Software intensity is increasing in our products, and different KM techniques are called for to handle knowledge sharing in code categories like utility tools, routine code and proprietary code," Holtshouse said.

"It is important for an organisation to devote the time up-front to build a foundation of KM principles, concepts and vocabulary," according to Lee-Anne Little and Deb Wallace from the Knowledge and Learning Team at Sun Life Financial. The company has comprehensive knowledge-sharing tools accessible from its Intranet portal called The Source.

"Implement an organisation-wide innovation framework. Above all - communicate, communicate, communicate," Little and Wallace concluded.

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Madanmohan Rao madan@techsparks.com

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