by March 1, 2000 0 comments

There are two broad types of 
knowledge–tacit and explicit. Explicit knowledge is that which can be formalized easily, and as a consequence is easily available across the organization. For example, broad knowledge on how to produce a magazine is explicit knowledge within PC Quest. Many people here know about it. The processes are well known, and probably documented. Similarly, broad knowledge on how to create software would be available across software firms, and so on. 

Tacit knowledge, on the other hand, resides in a few often in just one person and hasn’t been captured by the organization or made available to others. It is this tacit knowledge that differentiates between organizations when push comes to shove, and hence provides the strategic edge to any organization. A regular example in the software industry is how to write code to get around a particular limitation, or to include a particularly tricky condition. Normally, there would be an “expert” in the organization who you would turn to for help in such situations. Here, you make use of the tacit knowledge of the expert. And as anyone who has had to deal with such experts can vouch, it’s hardly an easy task. The biggest challenge of knowledge management is in capturing such tacit knowledge.

At this point, we need to consider another important aspect–the process by which tacit knowledge is transferred. Typically, tacit knowledge is asked for, and transferred in non-formal situations. And so, it’s extremely difficult to record it. For example, you may catch up with an expert at the office water cooler, or at the lift, and ask for advice on something. Now, how can any organization capture the conversation, unless they have video cameras at every nook and corner? Instead, what they do is provide tools on the office network, which make such conversations easier than the accidental bumping-into-the-expert. Then, as you use the system, the transcript of the electronic conversation gets captured. Sounds complicated? A simple chat application–ICQ for example–can do this.

Organizations may also make it mandatory for employees to record their learning from projects in structured formats. Most software companies, for example, at the end of a project, require the project leaders to fill out reports that capture their learning. These would even include areas like foreign travel, cultural issues, and so on.

Another issue is linking across multiple media. For example, someone may write and make available a document in, say, Word. Someone else may clarify a point made in it during the course of a chat session. Your chairman may refer to the same topic and provide his insights during the course of a speech that may have been captured on video. The question is, how do you lead a user accessing any one of these documents on to the other? To do this, you should have systems capable of handling these diverse media (or you should have a system wherein everything is transcribed) and you should be able to thread these together.

The third aspect is making the knowledge easily available. For this, you need to make the knowledge accessible from every machine, irrespective of its operating system, or the applications it’s running. The standard answer to this is to provide a browser front-end, and provide the documents as Web pages. Or in other words, put the knowledge up on an intranet. Once you have an intranet, it also becomes easier to add features like chat, mail, etc, without too much of effort.

It isn’t enough to have the knowledge bases available on the intranet–they have to be easy to search through. For this, there should be proper categorization, and robust search capabilities built in. You also need to have a mechanism by which older topics that are not relevant anymore can be moved offline. 

To sum up, a knowledge management system is a value-added intranet, with facilities to search and identify captured knowledge, or identify experts who have the knowledge in the area you’re looking for.

The system will also help you establish contact with the expert and have a dialogue with them. It will capture and make available to others the transcripts of such discussions, whether they be on chat or on e-mail.

How do you monitor the quality of what goes in? There’s no other way than the good old review process. Most organizations formally identify reviewers on each topic who decide on whether a particular piece goes in or not. The reviewers may, depending on their workload and the volume of incoming material, work alone or work with a team.

One problem that most organizations face is in getting the “experts” to part with their expertise. Experts have a certain value in the eyes of the others because of their knowledge, and are usually reluctant to forego that. The standard way out seems to be to give ownership and credit for what has been contributed. Peer acclaim, rather than monetary incentives, seem to be the deciding factor. Another interesting fact is that, it may not be the acknowledged experts who contribute the most to the knowledge bases. It might more often be the younger, newer employees who want to make their mark.

It’s easy to believe that a knowledge management system can be built by the employees, as part of their regular work. Nothing could be further from the truth. You need to invest significant amounts of time and expertise into building a good knowledge management system. It doesn’t come cheap, and it doesn’t happen overnight. TCS, for example, estimates that it spent about 25 man years in building up the system. Infosys has a four-man team dedicated to the task, and they’re planning to increase the strength of the team.

Does your organization need a knowledge management tool? But before that, do you already have one? Though Knowledge Management as a term came into use in 1995, organizations have been capturing expert knowledge before that. If you have an intranet running, chances are that you already have some rudimentary knowledge management happening. And it may be fairly easy to improve its structure and extend it.

Typically, it is in organizations where people come together in cross-functional teams for specific projects that knowledge capturing and management systems find the most use. Typical examples are consultancy firms. Now that doesn’t mean that others can’t make good use of this tool. Surely, there are some elements of knowledge within your organization that you wish were available to everyone. That’s your starting point.

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