Knowledge Management and Collaboration Create Knowledge Sharing

By Guy Currier  |  Posted 2010-06-28

In the book The Wisdom of Bees, Michael O’Malley wrote: “Bees have honed an exceptionally complex system of information exchange by which they monitor internal and external conditions, convey hive status and needs to one another, and direct activities. … Perhaps we could take what the bees do so well and apply it to our institutions so we can do better.”

O’Malley’s thesis is intriguing. After all, most enterprises have a collective fount of knowledge and experience that is deep, rich and varied. All employees, no matter their experience or position in the company, have the potential to contribute to strategy, tactics and capabilities. Determining how to tap this resource in an effective, organized way has been a fundamental management problem for generations.

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Until recently, businesses haven’t be able to take full advantage of this wealth of knowledge. Most companies operate with a responsibility-and-task orientation, filling employees’ days and to-do lists with constrained, prioritized duties that strictly delineate their jobs and work philosophies. In general, enterprises only make use of the knowledge and experience of employees who happen to have job descriptions that include variations on the words “come up with new ideas” or “solve problems.”

But new knowledge management technologies are finally poised to change this. Baseline recently conducted a study of 342 managers knowledgeable about their company’s usage of knowledge management and collaboration technologies.

According to the survey results, 47 percent of companies have formal knowledge management initiatives or are planning them, and most of the remaining survey participants have at least an informal initiative under way. Seventy-eight percent of companies expect their reliance on knowledge sharing technologies to increase in the next two years—about a third of which expect it to be a dramatic increase.

However, only 33 percent of enterprises that use knowledge management technologies have even come close to achieving the goals they originally set. That’s where new developments—in particular, the emergence of what we’re calling “knowledge sharing,” which fuses knowledge management with collaborative and social tools—are producing new opportunities and real excitement.

“With the maturation of the Internet, collaboration and knowledge sharing have become a standard way of conducting business, to the point where enabling technologies require functionality to address these activities,” says Steve Cranford, a director in PricewaterhouseCoopers’ Advisory Practice. “A decade ago, we saw the emergence of collaboration as standalone tools that worked with search technologies, document management tools, etc. Today, we are seeing a convergence of these technologies, whereby document management, collaboration/social networking and process management activities are forming a new breed of knowledge worker enablement tools.”

Collaboration Drives Success

In Baseline’s survey, we saw much greater success rates in organizations that strongly linked knowledge management and collaboration initiatives: Instead of only 33 percent approaching their knowledge management goals, the number rises to 58 percent.

By adding collaborative features—or by being added to collaborative applications—knowledge management is expanding its capabilities and business value, sometimes dramatically. And it’s having further influence on how companies are run, how they interact with customers and partners, and how employees do their jobs.

Fifty-eight percent of the enterprises use knowledge management technologies (only 47 percent have formal initiatives), and 75 percent use collaboration tools. Among the organizations that adopted these tools, the sense is that utilization rates are high: Two-thirds of those surveyed said that nearly all employees whose work could benefit from their use have already started using them. Thus, the first stage of pursuing a knowledge sharing initiative boosts knowledge productivity among these workers.

Milford, Mass.-based Waters Corp., a manufacturer of laboratory systems serving the pharmaceutical, food safety and other industries, began using knowledge management tools from IBM Rational after a double acquisition brought three new overseas development groups into the company. Once the company customized DOORS (Rational’s requirements-definition and management software) for virtual document reviews, it “opened the door as to who’s doing what,” says Don Cunningham, a Waters business analyst.

This transparency led to shorter development cycles and streamlined processes. It also fostered new contributions to development from marketing, which had been somewhat distant from the process.

Adding collaborative features to knowledge management systems also lowers barriers to growth, since it enables Waters to more easily bring in third parties to help with projects when needed. “How do you accommodate additional resources that might be needed if you don’t have a collaboration capability?” Cunningham asks. “Working with outside consultants is easier and better [with knowledge management and collaboration technologies], and provides a better bottom line because it’s a resource you don’t have to commit to long-term.”

And Waters is not alone in its appreciation of these technologies. Fifty-seven percent of survey respondents said that knowledge management technologies are “integral” to the day-to-day performance of employees’ jobs, and the same number said this about collaboration tools. A little under half of companies—48 percent—give high priority to the development of systems that optimize knowledge flow.

The Culture Complication

Where job functions already align with sharing and organizing information, businesses can benefit quickly from the deployment of knowledge sharing systems. But it is hardly a given. For one thing, the corporate culture can work against it. One complication to watch out for is management suspicion concerning collaborative applications that frequently look or behave like social networking applications.

But management isn’t the chief culprit: Even though 31 percent of companies in the survey cited a lack of management commitment as an obstacle, that does not indicate a widespread problem. Rather, the management issue is a reflection of the overarching work environment.

“‘Nice’ organizations are better at this,” says Lisa Welchman, founding partner at WelchmanPierpoint, a management consultancy in Baltimore, Md. “‘Political’ organizations can have problems getting enough participation” for the investment to pay off.

So a clear enabling factor is a corporate culture that already has strong collaborative and creative elements built in. In such organizations, knowledge sharing systems can provide the kindling for explosive development.

LeapFrog, an educational toy company based in Emeryville, Calif., has used Arc90’s Kindling idea management tool since late 2008. Now, says Mark Tellegen, director of studio operations, “We’ve got it engrained in our culture. We’ve seen that the act of submitting an idea in a system that allows you to see activity has a multiplier effect.

“When Kindling launched at LeapFrog, lots of green initiative ideas came in, leading to a dedicated ‘room’ within the system, and to a new team of five or six core people who led the initiative. The system creates leaders organically.” This generates focus out of fruitfully disorganized activity.

The result is the creation of a “virtuous circle” of collaboration, idea generation and information gathering. In such a circle, initial participation leads to concrete and publicly recognized successes that increase the perceived value of the system. Those successes stimulate even more participation, value and successes—the essence of knowledge sharing.

But how do you jump-start such an initiative before any virtuous circle has been created, when you don’t have many idea-development job functions or a collaboratively oriented corporate culture? That was the situation facing WelchmanPierpoint, a small company in which the chief deliverable is knowledge.

There, the process was relatively straightforward, if not painless: The company adopted KnowledgeTreeLive to collaborate on document management. “We are a document-driven organization,” says Welchman. “We were having version-control and redundancy issues, but the shared document repository solved that.”

Welchman believes that, in most organizations, management must adjust job functions and processes first. “You have to teach people what collaboration means, and that might mean changing the core business rules by which they operate,” she says. “People will bend the tool, break it or boycott it before changing how they work.”

Getting People on Board

It seems clear from the survey results that people management is the greatest sticking point. Among the cited companies that strongly connect knowledge management with collaboration initiatives, end-user training is the number-one challenge in the deployment of these tools; in other surveyed companies, it’s number three. Employee resistance is the number-two challenge for knowledge management technologies and number three for collaboration tools in companies strongly connecting the two. In other companies, it doesn’t crack the top five.

“Roll it out in a way in which those who have interest and skills in this area can get a ball rolling, and others will hop on,” counsels John Mancini, president of the Washington, D.C.–based Association for Information and Image Management (AIIM). He also suggests a healthy measure of leadership and expectations-management. “Make sure you’re serious about it, from the top of the organization,” he says, “but don’t try to bite off everything at once.”

There are many more benefits to be found if you can go beyond the classic process of planning, training and execution. It turns out that, especially when launching a knowledge sharing initiative, you already have a natural ally—and a nearly overwhelming one at that—right under your nose: social networking.

Led mostly by younger employees, there seems to be a new work philosophy developing: Sharing is good. Or, perhaps more accurately: Sharing is fun.

“This is how the ‘Y’ generation wants to work because they love the immediacy,” says Brian McDougall, provincial program officer at the Nova Scotia Justice Department, which uses RHUB Communications’ TurboMeeting Web conferencing appliance.

Collaborative applications are increasingly adopting Facebook- and Twitter-like interfaces and functionality. As these appear, in turn, within knowledge sharing applications, they profit from the very market forces managers worry are sucking up employee work time and causing a drag on productivity.

Beyond merely transferring excitement from a popular trend (an ephemeral advantage, at best), social features allow you to bring social forces to bear on knowledge management initiatives.

The Educational Testing Service (ETS) “started out with a pretty small effort around SharePoint,” says Dan Wakeman, the Princeton, N.J., company’s vice president and CIO. “The first people we worked with were the ‘influentials’ we were able to identify through a social-networking analysis we had done with Rob Cross.” (Cross is an expert on social networks—the original offline version—from the University of Virginia.)

“Influentials” are individuals who hold positions of social influence over others in the organization. This socially based seeding effort was complemented by the use of social tools that create recognition and rewards for individuals contributing to ETS’ knowledge base. “It’s given the opportunity for some people, who otherwise might have remained unknown here, to get known,” says Wakeman. This sort of participation driver can overcome employees’ hesitancy to share their experiences or change their work habits.

Finally, companies are encountering real usability and applicability obstacles to knowledge management and collaboration deployments, as one would expect from a nascent technological area. Social tools can help address this because the interfaces and modes of interaction are so familiar.

In the survey, about two-thirds of knowledge management technologies and 58 percent of collaboration tools deployed had to be customized in order to be truly useful. But under the influence of social tools, a kind of a “harmonic convergence” seems to be gained from combining the two because social tools allow collaboration in an unstructured way that can still feed into a highly structured resource of organizational knowledge.

Dealing With the Downside

What’s the downside of using social networking to power knowledge sharing? Loss of control. “You have to have a tolerance for a certain amount of chaos or disorganization,” says AIIM’s Mancini. “You can’t anticipate many of the outcomes, so don’t try to over-engineer the whole thing.”

Companies that are risk-averse or have stringent legal or compliance concerns could find it prohibitive to have a messy, widely distributed accumulation of Twitter-like information bits.

However, idea-centric companies that don’t have to operate within these strictures can adopt corporate tools to encourage individuals who already like to share ideas and knowledge to do so internally—to the company’s benefit. Once such a system has started and the organization experiences tangible benefits, it can convert more traditional employees—and, more importantly, managers—into the sharing mode, creating another kind of virtuous circle.

Consider Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), a global company headquartered in India, which has developed a “find an expert” social application called Just Ask. The app identifies experts through their participation, based on the answers they give. It uses a points system—a kind of virtual currency—linked to a companywide points system that employees use to purchase merchandise from the internal company store.

Employees gain points—as in a social network–based game—and are also rewarded materially for their contributions. Initially, the only motivation was social, says Krish Ashok, head of TCS’s Web 2.0 Innovation Labs. “It was having their photos appear in the Champions’ list,” he explains. (“Champion” is the top expert level in the Just Ask system.)

Another company, the global consulting and outsourcing firm CSC, uses Idea Central from Imaginatik as a “platform complementary to our social software and enterprise wiki,” says Howard Smith, global lead for CSC Collective Intelligence. “Social networking is essentially a bottom-up phenomenon: a proliferation of actions and groups that are sometimes difficult to sustain,” he says. “We use Idea Central to create ‘ideation events,’ that have clear sponsorship—a director, vice president or president who owns the issue or challenge.”

When events launch, hundreds or even thousands of employees are asked to take part, starting a massive idea- and experience-collection process. A panel of experts organizes and develops these views using the same portal. The event framework provides discrete lifetimes and documented practices.

As Smith describes it, the Idea Central system directs CSC toward quantifiable results against “hard-edged commercial objectives.” When one region at CSC was showing weakness in cash flow, an ideation event was built to address it.

“The cash-flow event included 27 experts and approximately 3,000 employees, and produced a permanent impact worth $64 million to $128 million per year to CSC,” Smith reports.

But the long-term benefit is the shift in corporate culture that accompanies the understanding that all employees can contribute to the resources, capabilities and direction of the company—and that, by so doing, they also help themselves and their careers in a documented, public way. “If there’s a covert objective to our ideation events, it’s cultural change and social engineering,” Smith explains.

This objective is not a general knowledge sharing goal for most surveyed companies. Only 23 percent said that knowledge management tools would help in the creation or maintenance of shared visions or goals, and only 19 percent said they would help promote innovation or improve employee satisfaction.

Nevertheless, these figures are significantly higher in companies that have made the necessary leap connecting the two halves of knowledge sharing: knowledge management and collaboration. So it would appear that this connection makes the crucial difference. “From this point forward, I don’t think you have knowledge management unless you also have collaboration,” says AIIM’s Mancini.

This new category—the fusing of knowledge management with collaboration tools to create knowledge sharing systems—offers a rare triple threat. It meshes well with a contemporary social phenomenon; it delivers near-term tangible benefits; and it promises to improve how the organization as a whole operates. Now we can exploit, in a far deeper way, an evergreen resource every enterprise has and already counts on: its people.

Guy Currier is executive director of research at Ziff Davis Enterprise.