Albert's Analysis: Knowledge Management Tries to Live up to the Hype

Suddenly, everyone’s talking about knowledge management. But with many buzzwords of the day, knowledge management runs the risk of being misused or misunderstood. Often discussions on the topic generate more questions than answers.

So what is knowledge management? David Goldes, an analyst for The Basex Group in New York, offered this definition: “The process of collecting, organizing, classifying and disseminating information throughout an organization, so as to make it purposeful to those who need it.” And Mike Zisman, executive vice president at Lotus, described it as “maximizing the knowledge assets we have.”

These new applications are designed to build a knowledge base, and then leverage that “asset” within an enterprise. In other words, they’re meant to help people share and gain from each other’s know-how.

Goldes said one of his clients requested “to know what everyone else in my organization knows.” Such accessibility can be critical when a company is spread across many offices or locations. By knowing who within your ranks has which area of expertise – and then being able to download and use that information -- eliminates the opportunity costs that come from “reinventing the wheel.”

Knowledge management, at its best, can also help nurture new ideas, capture and share best practices and other reusable knowledge assets, and create on-the-job, “distance” learning through collaboration and sharing.

I’m pleased to see IBM and its subsidiary, Lotus, starting to offer varied knowledge management tools. IBM announced plans to acquire Integrated Technology Inc.’s KnowledgeX technology, used for mergers and acquisitions and sales force automation. And Lotus and Compaq intend to co-market Cipher System’s Knowledge Works, which processes competitive intelligence, and GlobalServe’s Research Accelerator, used for research and development.

Lotus’ Domino Extended Search is being hailed as the newest platform for knowledge management. It can search data across many databases -- external or internal, unstructured or structured -- such as an IBM DB2, the Internet and Notes databases, at the same time. You specify your search across these disparate search engines, and results are consolidated into one single list.

I hear the capabilities of knowledge management go beyond those of “groupware” -- earlier versions of Domino/Notes that linked mailboxes and calendar planners within an organization. And they’re broader in scope than earlier Business Intelligence initiatives.

The impetus behind knowledge management makes sense. But a healthy degree of skepticism is warranted. The tools offer great promise, but customers must be careful to link the use of this new strategy to their company’s overall business strategy. Also, assign user access rights carefully.

In service industries, from legal to consulting to accounting, the “product” offered is knowledge. As the amount of information grows exponentially, it becomes impossible to retain it all – not even intellectual giants could claim such a feat. So the greater skill is to know where to find the knowledge when you need it. Certainly, shared knowledge “flattens” an organization, by making a company’s key asset – the knowledge of its employees – accessible to all employees. But it also runs the risk of stepping on toes. As e-mail did before it, the sharing of knowledge can run up against issues like intellectual property and job security, and can threaten deeply-held cultural beliefs.

Progress of any kind creates jitters. As human nature isn’t apt to change anytime soon, the better bet is to manage this powerful new tool with forethought, and with plenty of security built in.

Notwithstanding my attempt here to explain knowledge management in its simplest terms, a great deal of overlap continues to plague such synthesis. For example, should knowledge management be categorized under business intelligence, data mining, collaborative computing or given its own identity? This is still being sorted out by IBM and others.

No matter how that question gets answered in the long run, the automation of yesterday’s factory floor may be today’s adoption of knowledge management tools. Whether these new tools can support the hype around them remains to be seen. But IBM thinks so, and has invested resources into creating new knowledge driven applications. Let’s see if they’re right.

Sam Albert is president of Sam Albert Associates (Scarsdale, N.Y.), a consulting firm that specializes in developing strategic corporate relationships.