Knowledge Management

An Introduction to skills involving Knowledge Management

What if I were to tell you that I could give you a process or methodology that would allow those that don’t know what they don’t know to determine what they really needed? If I had a tool that supported a process of gathering required information, providing information to those that need it, when they need it, and in a form they understood, would people really be interested in such a tool? Well if I had such a tool it would be “priceless!” What I’ve described is exactly the feeling I get when trying to understand the concept of knowledge and how to manage knowledge. There are superficial distinctions between knowledge, data, and information as one person’s data or information could be another person’s knowledge. Therefore, knowledge management sounds like something you can put your arms around (easily described), but in reality, it’s a concept whose definition changes depending on your personal frame of reference.

Knowledge management is an important issue in the manufacturing industry. However, the concepts in this paper transcend manufacturing. Therefore, my comments will be presented as if they pertain to many industries, including manufacturing.

Knowledge Management Is Very Personal

What is done with knowledge is a key concept people at all levels in an organization need to get comfortable with. I could not find a universally accepted definition of knowledge management. For instance some would argue, “the primary focus of knowledge management actions and thoughts should be directed toward accomplishing common goals.” If this is true, then information is generated in a form that enables people to attain a level of understanding. With understanding, people are better able to make sound and timely decisions. A cynical belief is knowledge management is just a euphemistic term that makes it legal to systematically take advantage of employee ideas. Others believe, “knowledge management is luring people together [physically or virtually] to share thoughts and ideas in order to produce a level of understanding needed to make decisions.” Still others believe “knowledge management involves managing cerebral activities (learning) within oneself to get some type of action.” In these examples, knowledge and understanding could be used interchangeably. However, the real concern is not knowledge or understanding, rather, the focus is on what is done with knowledge and understanding-the “action.” Throughout this paper, I’m going to assert that “what is done with knowledge” is the focus of knowledge management. Understanding how to influence “what is done with knowledge” in an organization can profoundly enhance productivity and is essential to leading and managing organizational change, maintaining an organization’s competitive advantage, and developing an organization’s future required operating capabilities.

Existing Leader Skills Are Valuable

Technological tools that make unlimited amounts of data available to anyone with access to these tools complicate the concept of managing knowledge. Combine this with the increasing reality that knowledge is “infinitely expansible (the more you use it, the more it proliferates),” I can understand why some believe that “what is scarce in this new economy is the ability to understand and use knowledge.” Therefore, the organizational skill becoming increasingly more valuable is a person’s conceptual capabilities-more importantly, metacognitive awareness (situational awareness).

Metacognitive awareness (also referred to as thinking about thinking) is when a decision maker knows when to shift from using critical thinking skills (cause and effect-based conclusions) to using creative thinking skills (putting ideas together in forms that did not exists before) in order to make decisions. The key here is emphasizing how important it is to understand information and actions chosen based on that understanding.

Knowledge Versus Intelligence

Knowledge is defined as understanding gained by experience whereas intelligence is the ability to learn and understand. For a long time it was believe that there was only one kind of intelligence, logical intelligence-designed to “form concepts, solve problems, obtain information, reason, and perform other intellectual operations.” This belief was used as the basis for determining whether or not people were likely to succeed. Now we know that there are more separate and distinct forms of intelligences. Logical intelligence is one, other intelligences are: visual, verbal, creative, physical, and emotional. The point being made here is that because of the limited scope we put on describing intelligence in the past, people who were considered geniuses in logical intelligence were thought to be more likely to succeed than those that possessed other categories of intelligence-this belief proved to be a fallacy.

We are now in what is considered a knowledge era-focused on managing those who possess knowledge. Managing knowledge is analogous to describing intelligence. I believe that we will need to avoid the trap of valuing those who possess a certain kind of knowledge over those who may posses an equally important, but distinctly different knowledge set. What is meant by different knowledge set is people possess distinctly different intelligence gathering capabilities (visual, verbal, physical, etc). Managing knowledge is supposed to be about making sure the right information is available to users, at the right time, in a form understandable [to the user]. Therefore, knowledge management should respect the many different forms of individual intelligence-gathering capabilities (put another way, knowledge management should avoid designing systems that shape people to the system).

Manage or Cultivate?

When considering organizational norms of “managing” knowledge, one tends to think in terms of limitations. How do you really manage an infinite resource not meant, by design, to be controlled? What if instead we used the term “cultivating” knowledge? This term tends to get people to think in terms of possibilities. Getting positive results from infinite possibilities provides motivation for acquiring knowledge or understanding.

Making decisions, taking actions, and achieving performance objectives are key. Knowledge management should be thought of as the “art” of systematically encouraging people to use their knowledge for the future benefit of the organization. This statement is consistent with the concept of cultivating and I believe can be very effective in influencing what is done with knowledge to increase productivity. The ultimate challenge is transitioning managers who are accustomed to managing finite resources (time, money, and things) and teaching them to manage an infinite resource (knowledge). This will involve an order of magnitude managerial paradigm shift from managing knowledge to cultivating knowledge.

Knowledge Management and the Economic Element of National Power

Our economic systems are not set up to understand or measure the impacts of knowledge as a national asset. We are still using traditional methods to value national performance or ranking nations in relation to other nations. We use gross domestic product (GDP)-valuing land, labor, and capital production. Knowledge, on the other hand, does not fit into traditional methods of measurement. Some have attempted to measure things like patents or trademarks that are intangible in nature. However, these intangibles are measured at what it costs to register the trademark or patent-not by how the patent or trademark has benefited or will benefit the organization.

In economic terms, knowledge as an asset follows the law of “increasing returns.” This means that with each additional unit of knowledge we use, the more it proliferates. In contrast, traditional forms of assets follow the law of “diminishing returns.” Which means that for each additional unit of asset used, the less it benefits the whole. This sort of confirms that today’s measurement systems are limited in their ability to account for knowledge embedded in human resources. It is difficult for organizational leaders to understand how an intangible asset such as “knowledge” can add value to an organization-unless they know what they’re trying to do with it. Recent history has shown that “huge investments in human capital and information technology are key tools of value creation that often does not show up on a balance sheet as positive values themselves.” Therefore, it is safe to conclude that quantitative measurements of knowledge as an element of national power is not likely in the near term.

Political/Diplomatic/Social

People who see knowledge management primarily from a purely economic point of view may miss how knowledge management can create all sorts of political, diplomatic, and social issues. As an example, given the new-networked economy, we should see increasing numbers of people who consider themselves “free agents” and “knowledge intrapreneurs” (people who promote themselves). As new workers empower themselves by appropriating networked technologies, they assume self control and self-leadership for their own development regardless of their affiliation with the so called concept of the organization or nation. They will become “denizens” of a global electronic village-creating potentially catastrophic national security concerns. Anyone with access to shared knowledge has the potential to effect national and international interests almost anonymously. “The future will be shaped by the actions and interactions of countries and people all over the world.” This will undoubtedly change the political, diplomatic, and social underpinnings of nation states.

Informational

Imagine information being all around us sort of like sound (for those that can hear). Our inability to make sense of sounds makes these sounds appear to be noise. Our ability to interpret sounds around us gives meaning or understanding to those sounds-music, words, signals, etc. Therefore, giving sounds meaning transforms sounds from noise into other identifiable forms (knowledge) and allows people to make decisions based on that understanding. Paraphrasing the late Congressman Thomas P. (Tip) O’Neill, “the rapid spread of information has made local politics, global.” This has enormous implications for the way nation-states view knowledge in the future and how they translate these new views into national policy.

Military

Knowledge management focuses on doing the right thing instead of doing things right. Therefore, “major new initiatives will call for the reengineering and modernization of current military and intelligence processes into networked enterprises that effectively manage knowledge and organized doctrine and strategy around information-based operations.” Data capturing and warehousing, decision-aiding tools, developing measures of knowledge management performance, and leveraging commercial knowledge management technologies are just some of the many challenges for future military operations. Overcoming these challenges are necessary because of the current asymmetric military environment. What worked yesterday may not work tomorrow. Knowledge management in a military context implies ongoing change and renewal to anticipate future opportunities and threats. Knowledge management in the military will require creativity and inquiry-driven learning-sometimes difficult in the traditional command and control environment.

Innovation

Knowledge management is also about cultivating innovation. Innovations requiring very different technological capabilities are considered “radical.” Innovations that build on well-practiced technological capabilities are considered “incremental.” Research has found that “firms or organizations failed when new technologies destroyed (radically changed) the value of competencies (knowledge) previously cultivated. Firms or organizations succeeded when new technologies enhanced (incrementally improved) competencies previously cultivated.” This is true in many industries but especially true in the manufacturing industry. Paraphrasing a thought from Clayton Christiansen, “coping with the relentless onslaught of technological change was like trying to climb a mudslide raging down hill. You have to scramble with everything you’ve got just to stay on top of it, and as soon as you stop to catch your breath, you get buried.” How this relates to knowledge management is change, whether radical or incremental, requires the ability of humans to adapt. I believe complicated solutions are established in environments where people don’t know what they need to know-trying a little of everything until they stumble onto something relevant and useful.

Summary

I’ve only scratched the surface discussing an enormously fascinating topic still in its infancy-knowledge management. The focus of knowledge management, I believe, is really what people do with information once they understand it. Depending on one’s perspective, knowledge, data, and information can have similar or uniquely different meanings-ultimately leading to decisions. The quality of decisions made at all levels is directly related to one’s understanding of organizational intent. Unfortunately knowledge is not easily measured economically, a majority of organizational cultures do not foster innovation, and managers are not accustomed to managing an infinite resource-knowledge. Skill sets used to manage change should be useful when managing knowledge and technology will continue to expand the speed in which information is available to people at every level [in an organization]. Understanding information and turning that understanding into some sort of action should remain the ultimate goal of knowledge management. Those able to influence what is done with knowledge in an organization will be better positioned to develop future required operating capabilities. Because in the final analysis, it’s not what you know, it’s what you get done that really counts.

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