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Knowledge Management Isn't Just a Technical Job

February 25, 2000
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Knowledge Management and E-business are getting a lot of ink lately. We have to keep in mind that the job of journalists is to find a story. If they can t find one they manufacture one. That s fair we all exaggerate a bit now and then. But what is the story behind the hype?

What is this thing called knowledge management and what relationship, if any, does it have to e-commerce? Furthermore, what effect, if any, might either have on the structure of organizations and management of people?

Starting with knowledge management, let's recognize that no one really manages knowledge. What the more insightful have done is set up technology and developed cultures that facilitate and promote the sharing of information across their organization.

Within these environments employees are able to access most of the information they need to do their jobs at a very high level of efficiency and effectiveness.

E-biz, on the other hand, is a new channel of advertisement and sale.

It puts buyer and seller in contact and in most cases speeds up the search, purchase and delivery. It closes the traditional dichotomy between richness (variety) vs. reach (accessibility). To take a phrase from Ma Bell, it lets your fingers do the shopping.

What possible connection could there be between those two disparate phenomena? And what difference do they make for managing human capital?

Here it is. The driver is E-biz and the support is KM. E-biz gives us the ability to rapidly search supply sources, make a selection and place an order. The key differentiator between E-biz and traditional shopping methods is speed. We find it, order it and expect to receive it quickly.

The more insightful have set up technology and developed cultures that facilitate and promote the sharing of information.

For some products it is true that we can get in our car, drive to the local store and pick it up faster. But for most business-to-business (another new acronym: B2B), and many consumer purchases E-biz is faster and gives us the ability to shop several sources quickly. So, if the consumer is expecting availability and speed then the supplier must deliver accordingly. This is where knowledge management comes in.

You'll win with KM
KM is one of the imperatives underlying a highly competitive E-biz capability. It is possible to run an E-biz without a good KM system, but it won t be competitive. Employees of a top E-biz provider must have nearly instantaneous access to all relevant information. They need a high-speed, on-line order entry, inventory, picking and shipping system to fulfill the customer s expectations.

Customer service, sales & marketing, production, R&D and administrative personnel also need a knowledge exchange (KX) to keep up with what is happening in the market and to quickly search out sources for help in solving problems or taking advantage of opportunities.

An E-biz environment cannot function where it takes days to find help or answers. Without high-speed capability the company cannot compete with others who know sooner what is happening and how to deal with it.

A people issue
That sounds like a technology issue and it is, in part. But just as important is organizational culture and human capital management systems. Computers and databases, like all capital assets, are inert. Unless a human being knows how to leverage value by using them, they are nothing but depreciating assets.

Early attempts at knowledge exchanges poured millions into technology, ignored the human element and failed. Only when management remembered that employees are the only active asset and focused on what people needed to participate in and contribute to KXs did they begin to work.

This understanding closes the loop. Systems and processes drive employee behavior. In turn, systems and processes are driven by the culture. When systems, processes and culture are misaligned inefficiency, confusion and frustration reigns. When they are aligned, everything works.

Culture dictates the aptitudes and skills needed in the workforce. Culture dictates how things work (systems and processes including KXs). Culture dictates rewards and punishments. This is human capital management.

The obvious conclusion is that E-biz rides on a culture that values people and knowledge. If you want a highly competitive E-biz you need to design and manage a culture that supports it.

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