Giovanni Piazza, Global Head-Information and Knowledge Management, Johnson & Johnson
Often announced and never occurred, the death of Knowledge Management is one of the most popular prophesies that circulate in the world of Information Sciences. Not unlike sects and cults that periodically proclaim that the end of the world is near, gurus and evangelists of the revolutionary and innovative flavor of the month take particular pleasure in demonstrating how their “disruptive” innovation will lead to the inevitable demise of KM, and not a day too soon.
Despite the prophets of doom, however, KM has survived and keeps evolving and maturing, while also taking stronger and stronger footholds in new industries and business areas. For instance, Health Sciences and Pharma, enveloped in the tidal wave of change originated by the ACA, find that a systemic use of Intellectual Capital increases access to health care providers and patients, can originate substantial savings in the production of medical evidence, and elevates its quality level.
Moreover, the analytical capabilities available today, allow to mine and sift through very large volumes of unstructured data, giving birth to types of knowledge never seen before: terms like Real World Evidence (or equivalent), designate new types of medical research, like studies conducted among tens of thousands of patients, in addition to the traditional knowledge generated through rigidly controlled clinical studies, conducted among relative small groups of patients.
These innovative kinds of research generate what KM practitioners have always known as “experiential knowledge”: knowledge derived by the analysis and distillation of vast amounts of empirical data collected from the field and the practice.
In another example of KM ability to grow and mature with the times, the judicious adoption and incorporation in the KM toolkit of collaboration and social tools has allowed companies to solve one of the toughest historic KM challenges: the capture and circulation of “tacit knowledge”, the knowledge locked in the brains of the experts, those experts who are now retiring, taking with them decades of experience and expertise.
While social and collaboration tools have generally failed when introduced as stand-alone solutions or ways to get street cred with the Millennial Generation (“people are going to want to work for us because we have Yammer!!”), they have thrived when used to solve real business problems, integrated with more consolidated and traditional tools, like good old repositories, search engines and sites dedicated to the enablement of communities of practice.
The availability of blogs and wiki platform has not magically given birth to waves of enthusiastic users, and the daily production of impressive volumes of user generated content (“all for free!!!”), just as much as the availability of social platform has not created thousands of “corporate facebooks” dripping with content, but all these tools have given serious organizations innovative ways of presenting information that was not promptly available before.
"All organizations—and there are many—that have seen a nice return on their investment in KM, have learned a few important lessons"
It is today possible to mine HR system, learning platforms and other internal applications to generate more than decent people profiles and present them in an appealing way; this has always been the often elusive target of a KM sub-discipline, called “expertise location”.
Cracking the code of the capture of tacit knowledge and the construction of good expertise locators is powerful evidence of KM good health.
Certainly the navigation has not always been smooth, and KM has been a victim of inflated expectations and excessive promises, for which we—KM practitioners—have been responsible: KM has been a miserable failure every time it has been sold as a way to paper over the lack of discipline in the production and care of content, for instance, or every time it has been used as a pretext to play with some new, shiny, cool technologies.
All organizations—and there are many—that have seen a nice return on their investment in KM, have learned a few important lessons.
The first key lesson is that nothing will ever replace good content care. A Sharepoint installation running amok, with more sites than employees cannot be fixed by installing a new, cool Search Engine. KM is a way of making content easy to find and reuse, but, to this effect, content needs to be well identified, well organized and well curated.
An organization must know, at any point in time, what content is relevant to its people and to its business model, where it is, how it can be captured, where it needs to be stored and what is the best way of circulating it.
As a corollary to the previous point: no, there isn’t a technology that can organize content while we sleep. There are indeed technologies that make content care easier and more cost effective, but KM is a business function, and it needs to be staffed with the appropriate competencies and with an adequate number of people, just like HR, Sales, Finance or any other enterprise function.
Content production and capture is another sticky point: the old saying “knowledge management is everybody’s job” means “knowledge management is nobody’s job”. On the other hand, it is not realistic to ask people—even those people who create content as part of their mission—to perform librarian functions on top of their day job. Contrary to popular belief, however, a compact and very dedicated group of content curators can take care of thousands of knowledge objects at a surprisingly affordable cost. As in any other specialty or business function, productivity of a small group of trained professionals is much higher and much more convenient that the “spontaneous”, uncoordinated effort of a much larger group of untrained and unskilled people.
Lastly, technology is never the problem, technology is never the solution. Often KM has been used as the pretext for the installation of some sexy piece of technology, but in all those cases, once past the initial enthusiasm, efforts lagged, solutions were left unattended, business processes were not optimized and the KM effort was deemed a failure. Conversely, blaming the failure of KM on the lack of adequate technologies is also a false excuse: sure, enterprise search is still miles behind the equivalent Google experience, and this scenario won’t change any time soon, but it is certainly possible to build very effective enterprise search programs if competent people work hard on content organization, search engine optimization, traffic analysis and technology tuning, every day, as their day job. Install and forget does not exist.
With these few lessons in mind, I am convinced that there is a brilliant future for KM and related disciplines, and to all those who say that “KM is dead”, I reply “Long Live KM!”