PICK UP A NEWSPAPER these days and you're highly likely to see an article about the demand for tech-savvy knowledge workers who can all command outrageous salaries. It's hard to fathom, until you accept that knowledge management today goes way beyond managing the information typically generated by executing transactions and the data available in structured databases. It also encompasses the skills, expertise and ongoing insights about management processes that are critical in shaping judgements and actions.
It's a brave new world out there but many organisations have to re-engineer themselves and build systems that support knowledge as well as data.
The term "knowledge management" gets used a lot these days and it will remain a fad if people don't go beyond codifying knowledge - simply putting what people know into a database system.
While the context for knowledge management is computing power and storage, knowledge itself is something that exists between people's ears.
The convergence of trends in computing and telecommunications is also creating a sea change in the way we communicate, interact, entertain ourselves, shop and do business. We are entering a whole new economy, which is having profound effects on industry sectors as well as the enterprises that operate within them.
Information-based economics represent the post-industrial era where business emphasis has shifted from the management of tangible processes and production to the creation of intangible advantages, such as customer interaction, marketing, distribution and design. Again this is reflected in employment: six out of 10 of us today are knowledge workers. At the beginning of the last century only one job in six was knowledge-based.
Knowledge management has a simple imperative: companies should "know what you know" and employees should be able to share their expertise freely and efficiently. But to accomplish this, those in need must be able to locate the crucial knowledge and knowledgeable people. Unfortunately locating specific information or a person who can help isn't easy in most organisations.
Many organisations leverage the use of their information technology assets poorly. They have a myriad of legacy systems, each governing a basic business transaction, each with its own interface, and each standing alone.
The typical worker today lives in a world of interfaces designed by technologists to support transactions, not designed by expert users to support the mental processes of knowledge working. These employees must move awkwardly between these interfaces, since none is a representation of the mental flow of thinking involved in the work.
Many hands make light work
Most companies also fail to use their IT infrastructure as a communication platform that can be used to boost performance. When the IT network is used to facilitate communication and collaboration, it allows all employees to be the "eyes and ears" of the organisation and contributing insightful feedback.
In a world that is becoming ever more chaotic and dependent on brainpower, teams at the top will make more sense than a single outrageously paid executive who sits behind a "buck stops here" plaque. Most urgent projects require the coordinated contributions of many talented people working together throughout the enterprise.
"I learned along time ago that a team will always defeat an individual" John Chambers, CEO of Cisco SystemsKnowledge management systems should meet the needs of many employees not simply of the elite management group.
It is a truism today that if we are living in a knowledge economy then the most intelligent enterprise - all other factors being equal - is going to win. One way to be the most intelligent organisation is to make sure you have the most intelligent employees and hence the competition for talent. But everyone else is thinking that way too, or they will be in the near future, which is leading to the explosion in knowledge management consultancies.
Knowledge management may sound like the new kid on the block, but the concept dates back at least a decade. Search-and-retrieval software, databases, workflow software, data warehousing, push technology and the proliferation of intranets have revolutionised the ability of organsiation to find, accumulate, organise and access information.
To be effective, a knowledge management system must have the commitment of top management and be supported by a culture that encourages sharing.