If you've got a 'quality' responsibility – whether it's written on the org chart or not – you're a knowledge manager. You deal with information, and if you're lucky, you use it to drive improvement. That's KM – and it's a hot topic, right up there on many agendas. The knowledge economy? You're in the thick of it.
Professor of Knowledge Management at the Open University Business School* Paul Quintas explains it like this: Knowledge management builds on the culture of the organization, and its capacity for learning, communicating, capturing, sharing and creating new knowledge. Challenging issues; yes. Yet crucial if organisations are to survive and prosper in an increasingly competitive and global operating environment.
So what about a definition? Here's what Xerox say: Knowledge management is about creating a thriving work and learning environment that fosters the continuous creation, aggregation, use and re-use of organizational and personal knowledge.
That's a process definition. Knowledge exists in many different forms and many different places. Organisations need a way – a process – for gathering up and making good use of that collective knowledge.
Why is it such a hot topic? What's it got to do with 'quality', and – I can hear you saying – what's it go to do with me?
First, we found in the 1980s that stripping people out of organisations – downsizing, de-layering, early retiring – also nuked the institutional memory. I recall being told by a senior public servant that he was the only person who knew why there were 21 Crown Health Enterprises – the only person involved in making that decision still around. Now, we're realising the value of memory and culture, and of somehow making the tacit explicit – re-useable.
Second, we're recognising the ownership value of knowledge. Microsoft, sometime most valuable company in the world, mostly sells knowledge. Bill Gates' most valuable assets walk out the door every night. Intangibles – not the labour, land, capital and materials of past success – create a lot of today's wealth.
Third, we're all becoming interdependent – part of someone else's supply chain. If you want to deliver a product or a service to a customer you have to integrate – across disciplines and across boundaries. That means sharing knowledge, with suppliers, internal customers, partners, external customers and even 'the market'. But at the same time hanging on to what gives you a competitive advantage, while soaking up new knowledge. Management!
Fourth, there's the pace of change. In a few years time a lot of our revenue will be from products we haven't invented yet, say the real innovators. Knowledge has to be continually 'reinvented'. That implies a culture where people want to learn, where learning is always available, and where processes and routines are continually quickly and inexpensively reinvented.
And fifth – OK you IT guys – there's the technology. In the late 1980s, Prof Quintas says, businesses began to realize that their megabucks information systems weren't capturing the knowledge that was driving the organization. It was in people's heads, in telephone conversations, and in reports and documents, and it was trapped there or ended there. What's new is the internet – the realisation that boundaries are very open to knowledge flowing in both directions – and the power and utility of intranets.
Back to the questions: Where do you, and quality fit in? To find, reveal and communicate tacit knowledge, in a language that 'foreigners' up and down your supply chain also speak, you need to know how work works in your organisation. Who has the best handle on that?
Maybe you're ahead of me here, but it's my argument that your quality system is a natural, already-existing KM engine-room. If you're familiar with the business excellence/quality award criteria, or with ISO 9000, then you have both the tools and the architecture of a highly effective knowledge management system.
That's what it's got to do with you.
Friday, February 16, 2001
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