Ask the Expert: Knowledge Pool

FRAMINGHAM (07/17/2000) - Wendi Bukowitz and Ruth Williams, authors of The Knowledge Management Fieldbook (Financial Times, 1999), answered readers' questions on about their area of expertise-knowledge management-and offered tips on implementing KM within geographically dispersed organizations.

Here's what they had to say.

Q: I'm just getting started on a KM project at my company. What questions should we ask management in order to determine their KM needs?

A: First of all, we see a bit of a red flag when you talk about determining management's KM needs. A KM system designed around management may not be helpful to those who really need to gather information. In fact, management often fails to see a KM need, because when they need information they generally just ask a subordinate, and it miraculously appears. A KM system should meet the needs of the people, not simply the needs of an elite group. The first question you need to ask those who are expected to use and contribute to a KM system or process is, "What mission-critical information do you need to do your job?" Is it previously completed project deliverables? Is it process methodologies? Is it customer information? The answers should serve as the cornerstone of your KM initiative. Furthermore, you will want to look at how your organization conducts KM now (every organization practices some form of KM, even if they don't call it that). What is your company good at? What needs work? You can then prioritize where you ought to focus your efforts.

Q: Why is KM different from information management?

A: One persistent myth about the difference between knowledge management and information management is that knowledge management is about managing knowledge, while information management is about managing information. While knowledge and information are not the same thing, this is almost beside the point when discussing the difference between these two areas. For the sake of argument, let's just call what's purportedly being managed "stuff." What makes the discipline of KM different from that of information management is that the latter focuses on finding the stuff and moving it around, while the former is also concerned about how people create and use the stuff. Furthermore, information management is usually, though not always, concerned with electronic and paper-based information, while knowledge management deals with a far broader range of approaches to communicating and using both knowledge and information. KM is also made up of a whole range of soft issues that involves fostering an environment in which knowledge and information are shared and new knowledge is created. In short, information management is a subset of knowledge management.

Q: Could you speak to the topic of resources for ongoing management and maintenance of a knowledge management system that is worldwide in scope?

A: If by knowledge management system you mean some kind of information repository that members of the organization contribute and have access to the "organizational brain," these things don't run on autopilot. In large global organizations, the infrastructure required to maintain a well-oiled KM system are enormous. Technology support is needed not only to keep all the servers housing information in working order but to develop databases and websites as well. The human infrastructure also includes a host of people to maintain information currency and a consistent taxonomy within the KM system.

Q: I represent senior IT management for an organization that delivers local government services to small, impoverished communities in British Columbia.

Most KM case studies showcase large levels of government, such as in New York or California. For these small communities, examples on those scales are utterly irrelevant. How can I bring some understanding of using KM to improve local government services to other senior management in my organization?

A: Not all KM initiatives have to span mega-organizations. By the same token, not every organization needs an IT-based KM system. Our advice would be to find someone outside of IT with whom to partner and codevelop a pilot project.

Q: We are implementing knowledge communities to bring our people into the equation. What strategies have you used or heard of to get employees to participate?

A: Bringing people into the equation is always a good idea. But if you have to force people to participate in communities, you do have to ask yourself whether they're necessary. Not long ago, we directed a study of online knowledge communities (OLC) where we looked at what it takes to get people to participate. An online community will work only if it serves the needs of members, not if it simply serves the needs of the larger organization. The acid test: Does the OLC help members do their work better? We're also fond of quoting our former colleague, Joe Cothrel: "There are things I'll do only if they're mandatory-like my time sheet. There are things I'll do regardless of whether they're mandatory-like organize my files. And there are things I'll do only if they're voluntary. Participating in a community is a little like that."

Q: Do you have any information on the general education and salary range of a chief knowledge officer (CKO)?

A: We did a little digging for you. Roughly speaking, CKOs in companies with revenues under US$100 million have MBAs, JDs or PhDs, and their base salaries range from $125,000 to $225,000. In companies with revenues above $100 million, CKOs generally have PhDs and a base salary of $200,000 to $350,000. CKOs in both large and small organizations also usually receive some company stock in addition to their base salary.

Q: Do you see enterprise portal technology facilitating KM?

A: It seems to us that portal technology is overhyped. Clearly people in organizations are overwhelmed by the amount of information available to them.

Solutions that help them organize information and customize and personalize access to it are critical. To this end, portal technology can be a real boon to KM-portals are a way for people to make sense and order of their information environment. We would just add the caveat that having a portal strategy doesn't mean you have a knowledge strategy.

If you would like to recommend an expert or suggest a topic, e-mail Senior Writer Daintry Duffy at

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