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.
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.