Whatever happened to...knowledge management?

Whatever happened to...knowledge management?

Experienced knowledge managers have been on a learning curve. What have they discovered about KM in the process and are KM projects still on the agenda?

Phoenix from the ashes?

Knowledge management (KM) rose in glorious colour five years ago, dimmed somewhat in the early new Millennium, had its wings clipped by disillusioned CEOs in 2001, and finally seemed to die in the fire and ire of those who claimed it was dreamt up by IT vendors to sell software.

But did it really die? While KM technologies have clearly failed to live up to vendor and analyst hype, it is fair to say many IT managers are reserving cynicism; they’re waiting to see if there’s a phoenix hiding in those KM ashes.

While the instant business benefit a KM strategy can deliver has inarguably been

over-hyped, the IT managers spoken to for this report say their KM systems remain somewhat useful, if not always as useful as they’d like them to be.

Our research reveals IT managers are inclined to be wary rather than cynical of KM. Some describe degrees of KM success, which has instilled a desire for improvement. Others believe, while KM as a business concept is essentially sound, it is suited to certain cultures and environments and unsuited to others.

Advice they have for KM peers in 2003

We asked four senior IT professionals who have implemented KM systems and cultures whether knowledge management has lived up to their expectations, and what advice they have for KM peers in 2003: Denis Black, acting chief information officer, Ministry of Health; Andre Snoxall, director information management and planning, Capital and Coast District Health Board; Lynne Whitney, senior manager research division, Ministry of Education; and Mike Loftus, knowledge manager, Sport and Recreation New Zealand (SPARC).

Know when to hold back

Knowledge management doesn't work in the same way or at the same time for everyone. Decide if the content of your knowledge can be managed. If not, hold back.

Andre Snoxall, director information management and planning, Capital and Coast District Health Board, says if a KM vendor turned up on his doorstep today he’d probably tell them to go away and come back in a few years. “KM consultants should approach retailers, manufacturers or insurers. Only 38 per cent of medicine is evidence-based, or proven to work most of the time. So, in the health sector, it can be difficult to know which knowledge to keep and to manage.”

Snoxall believes KM in its purest sense is years away for many health organisations. “There’s no doubt we need it. One hundred and forty years ago Florence Nightingale knew we needed it.”

As the pioneer medic stated in 1863, “In an attempt to arrive at the truth I have applied everywhere for information, but in scarcely any instance have I been able to obtain hospital records fit for any purpose of comparison. If they could be obtained they would enable us to answer many questions.”

To this Snoxall notes, “But there are only a small number of organisations good at information management and extremely few with an understanding of what’s needed for KM.”

Learn from the past

Reassess your understanding of knowledge management, then plan for it and include it as an element of business strategy where it is needed.

Snoxall says Capital and Coast Health has strategic and operational plans around managing the information it is charged with dispersing and collecting.

“With KM, you need to be able to draw legitimate inferences from information, so you have knowledge as opposed to just information. You have to manage it so it can be maintained and communicated and more of it can be


Mike Loftus, knowledge manager for Sport and Recreation New Zealand (SPARC), says his organisation has included KM in its library strategy, systems strategic plan and knowledge plan. He has also asked key stakeholders what knowledge they are looking for.

“Look at internal systems, contact management systems, HR and finance systems. To keep KM up to date, you have to assign business owners to manage bits of information and establish KM service standards in contracts.”

Denis Black, acting chief information officer for the Ministry of Health, says getting KM right is difficult. “It’s easy to over-hype it. The concept of trawling through 100 hits and expecting to get value doesn't stack up. When the Ministry was smaller, KM processes were much better understood.”

Sell it internally

Users must not only be able to use a KM system, they have to believe in it.

Lynne Whitney, senior manager research division for the Ministry of Education, says KM requires a mind shift. “You have to engage all these people who need to be connected to make the most of it. They all need to have a clear understanding of the vision.”

Snoxall says one of KM’s biggest barriers is users who decide KM is “not their thing”.

“Instead of realising knowledge is something we all need to contribute to, they wait for someone else to do it for them.”

He says knowledge managers must make it easier for people to access information, which may mean making security barriers more transparent. “People shouldn’t have to go to a physical location to get a piece of information. They’ll want it from any internet-connected workstation or mobile device.”

He advises raising a team who will fight for awareness of the project. “Raise a groundswell of people who want KM. People need to realise every time they repeat information or do something manually they have lost a huge opportunity to save time or money.”

Loftus says while some consultants advise small steps, internal people need to see one or two “big win” parts to a KM project to get enthused about it.

Avoid the repetitive edge

Don't just collect information, manage knowledge. Develop processes to ensure knowledge is updated rather than repeated.

“Try to collect information only once,” says Snoxall of the Capital and Coast District Health Board. “For example, if a patient is asked

what their allergies are in one department, we don't want them to be asked that in every department. If a hospital computer has a patient’s anaesthetic information, why re-key

it into the anaesthetic machine when that machine has the facility to connect to the computer? Don’t waste people’s time and they'll support KM.”

Whitney says the Ministry of Education is working to integrate the information held in several databases and provide one point of access to information, without having to recreate new databases. “We want to build on the information we have, not overlap it,” she says.

Communicate KM value to top management

Clearly communicate time frames and realistic KM business benefit to the board or CEO. Don't hype KM in order to sell it.

“We have a governance body and they gave us the go ahead to research a KM system. While previous work had identified the descriptors and possible tools for a KM system, the Ministry’s IT governance board recognises there are wider issues associated with a successful KM implementation,” says Whitney.

Loftus says his CEO went through and actively created KM roles. “SPARC wanted a KM element because a lot of our value is tied up in how we disperse information.” Black, on the other hand, says the Ministry of Health has top-level KM commitment. “We are knowledge-based, people-centred and systems-minded. The value of KM is firmly embedded in the Ministry philosophy and is part of the e-government philosophy.”

Snoxall says Capital and Coast Health has “absolute commitment” to information management. “There has been a groundswell of understanding in recent years that good health care needs good information management. The word “information” is probably mentioned 15 times an hour in board meetings.”

Practise makes perfect

KM is dynamic and never ends. Goals and methods of knowledge management must be regularly reassessed and improved upon.

“The KM technology base the Ministry put in place in previous years is still going. Now we need to build on that. We can do better still and there are better ways to organise information. This means remaining in contact with the organisation and keeping up with user work patterns and requirements,” says Black.

He says the Ministry needs to refine its search strategies and assess commercial products and internal development. “We have stored everything. Now we have to distinguish what's useful and what to keep. We need to tag information and the processes in place for this are not as well used as they could be.”

Spotlight on searching

Realise the importance of search technologies, which can make or break a KM system from a technological perspective.

Black says beyond the need for metadata in KM systems is the requirement for information to be categorised, as well as for good search technology. “Imagine searching for something substantive on a topic like chickenpox. You don’t want to see a personal email saying someone is off work today because their child has chickenpox or an email from someone saying they have no knowledge of the chickenpox problem.”

Whitney says the objectives of the Ministry of Education’s teaching and learning KM system include easy and effective access to tools that improve access to and the use of existing research. A case study for the Ministry details the issues that need to be addressed. These include “process reliability so all relevant research can be identified, retrieved and accessed.”

Future Focus

KM strategies are not short-term strategies. To make KM valuable, keep one eye on future KM technologies, plans and trends.

Black says the Ministry of Health is looking forward to the connection of internal and externally generated knowledge.

“Subsets of all information will be made available to the public. KM as a concept is changing and users are getting more sophisticated in their own requirements.”

He says while the Ministry has currently delivered on all its early KM promises, expectations keep moving.

Entertain experts

Don't discount vendor and consultant opinions. Discerning and structured vendor analysis is needed.

While it’s healthy to be on the lookout for hype, IT vendors and KM consultants are trained to see the ‘big picture’ the KM problems and needs of an organisation.

One senior manager more than happy with her vendor experience is the Ministry of Education’s Whitney.

“We asked our vendor to develop a KM system based around our needs and we received five different options as to how proceed. The vendor set out the problem to be solved, scoped that, and then held workshops to ask people what their needs were. They then stepped back because we applied their advice ourselves,” she says.

Measure with measure

KM benefits can be difficult to assess and measure, but this doesn't mean they aren't there.

Loftus has “mixed feelings” about the ROI value of KM. “It is about internal processes and information management and that doesn’t necessarily provide improved bottom line profit. KM has the potential to save money b

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