Soft knowledge management returns mean harsh reality

TORONTO — Mistrust and intangible returns are impeding knowledge management from growing within Canadian enterprises, experts told a conference on the subject Tuesday.

The industry can’t even come up with a consistent definition of the knowledge management, but it usually refers to a combination

of technology and techniques to share knowledge about best practices throughout an organization. Typically it includes some form of intranet (sometimes called an enterprise information portal) and a range of complementary software.

The Conference Board of Canada’s Knowledge Management 2002 brought together a number of analysts and users to discuss their experiences and offer advice. But many of them painted a dire picture of project failure, which they said has given knowledge management a bad name.

“”Call it a new form of database management. Call it anything, but don’t call it knowledge management,”” warned Vivian Forssman, principal of consulting firm Knowledge Architecture. “”Yes, it’s important to achieve organizational objectives, but it won’t be called that in budgets, especially IT budgets.””

Jan Duffy, group vice-president of solutions research at IDC Canada Ltd. in Toronto, said her experience showed that most management teams were made up of former accountants and financial experts who were put off by the infrastructure investment necessary to make knowledge management work. “”There may be some of them that ‘get’ the fuzzy stuff, but for most of them, you need to give the fuzzy stuff a proxy they can understand,”” she said.

Two weeks ago IDC completed its third annual Knowledge Management Adoption Survey, which gathered feedback from 720 respondents in a mix of medium and large-sized organizations. Duffy said 65 per cent of respondents told IDC they do not have the ability to measure the success of their knowledge management initiative. It’s hard enough just getting projects underway, she added.

“”They need help sorting out the taxonomies of what they want to keep,”” she said. “”We’ve largely gotten rid of our librarians and records keepers in many organizations, and as a result we’ve lost some of those indexing skills.””

IDC’s survey respondents said document management software makes up 15.9 per cent of the software budget for knowledge management in most organizations, the leading category. This is followed by collaborative apps, but while knowledge management suppliers put information exchange products at the top of their list of “”must-haves,”” users cited search engines. “”There’s a real disconnect between suppliers and users here, and I think if they can get in synch we’ll see knowledge management develop faster,”” Duffy said.

The choice of product may not matter so much as its cost. Forssman, who lost her last job with B.C. Gas in January, used herself as an example of how knowledge management can get cut in difficult economic times. Her slides included a budget for hardware and support costs that totalled more than $120,000. “”Operating costs — you’ve got to control them or they will take you out. Look at me,”” she said.

Even if costs are kept low, there’s no guarantee knowledge management will work. Mark Fox operates a lab within the Industrial Engineering department at the University of Toronto that models knowledge management for enterprise companies. One of its clients included Spar Aerospace. Fox and his students conducted a coordination time study that determined Spar engineers were spending 60 per cent of their time searching for proper information. A significant portion of their problem solving is spent re-creating what they could not find, Fox said, estimating that only a quarter of their time was spent on actual engineering work.

“”The information we’re talking about here is mostly anecdotal and heuristic,”” he said. “”It’s not simple for a computer to codify.””

Codifying knowledge can’t happen, however, if users won’t even put it into the system. Duffy noted the “”barriers of trust”” that keep employees from sharing their best practices. Those barriers can only be broken down if an organization develops a system that a new employee could understand and contribute to on his or her first day, she said. “”Too often we treat people as though their education begins the day they start working us for us, even though we hired them for their experience,”” she said, adding that corporate culture plays a big role. “”How many people here would say they work for a nurturing organization?”” she asked the audience. Very few hands went up.

Despite losing her job, Forssman said her experience at B.C. Gas showed her it was possible to get agreement and collaboration on big projects. She showed a slide of the company’s parking lot, where all the cars had been backed in to their spots. “”If an organization can get everyone to back their car in, surely building taxonomies is in their future,”” she said.

Knowledge Management 2002 continues Wednesday.

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