Knowledge management’s rise to prominence reflects a widespread recognition that fundamental changes are taking place in the way companies do business, with regard to their internal organisation and their external relationships with customers, suppliers and competitors. The first phase in the emergence of a knowledge management (KM) market now drawing to an end (Skyrme, 1999) has been characterised by considerable hype and confusion. In this first phase early adopters followed different approaches to knowledge management with varying emphasis on technology, cultural, organisational and managerial issues. Nevertheless, if one has a look into the research landscape as well as into the business world, it is easy to notice that two main strategies for knowledge management have been employed by early adopters of the principle (Hansen et al., 1999; Koehn and Abecker, 1997):
The main motivation of the Know-Net project (Know-Net consortium, 1999; Mentzas and Apostolou, 1998) has been to design, develop and test a total solution for KM that would explicitly address and integrate the two prominent approaches. Moving towards the conclusion of the Know-Net project this paper aims to substantiate the bias towards the process-centred and product-centred approaches in KM initiatives, methods and software tools, present the research findings and our approach regarding the integration of the two approaches and demonstrate how this integration is accomplished in all constituents of the Know-Net solution, that include:
Applied knowledge management is currently being shaped by three major influences:
The goal for knowledge management technology is to create a connected environment for knowledge exchange. This connected environment acts as the technical embodiment of the corporate memory. The connections that knowledge management software must facilitate are between people as much as they are between people and information systems. In particular, the software must support the exchange and transformation from tacit to explicit knowledge. The movement from tacit to explicit knowledge is also a transformation of individual knowledge into organisational knowledge. The reverse flow is equally important enabling the individual to draw on the corporate memory for decision making and problem solving. To be able to truly support sharing of information and knowledge between people and between people and systems two key components are required:
Software vendors have adopted knowledge management with great enthusiasm and most of them have found a niche in the KM software market exactly because of the great diversity of facilities required. The information retrieval vendors have been promoting a major aspect of knowledge management – the need for coherent and integrated access to corporate knowledge resources. Groupware, mainly in the form of Lotus Notes and, to some extent, Microsoft Exchange, has benefited by being the de facto infrastructure for knowledge management in the absence of any more suitable products. However, groupware products have not yet integrated powerful classification and information retrieval facilities required to support the “between people and systems” information exchange; see also Figure 1 The process-centred and product-centred approaches in KM software .
A similar bias is evident in existing KM initiatives in the industry. Davenport and Prusak (1998) have found that most KM projects attempt either to create knowledge repositories or to improve knowledge access, while there is a third group of projects that focuses on improving the culture and environment for knowledge exchange.
In the first type of projects, much of the energy has been spent on treating knowledge as an “it” (product-centred), an entity separate from the people who create and use it. The typical goal is to take documents with knowledge embedded in them – memos, reports, presentations, articles, etc. – and store them in a repository where they can be easily retrieved. Another less structured form of knowledge as an “it” is the discussion database, in which participants record their own experiences on an issue and react to others’ comments. Three common types of repositories are for:
The second type of project was predicated on providing access to knowledge or facilitating its transfer among individuals (process-centred). These projects recognise that finding the person with the knowledge one needs, and then successfully transferring it from one person to another, are difficult processes. If the metaphor of a library is useful for conceptualising knowledge repository projects, then the Yellow Pages represent the purpose of knowledge access projects. The underlying strategy here is to facilitate connections between those people who possess and those who need knowledge.
The global consulting firms are often case studies for KM implementations because they were among the first businesses to make heavy investments in the management of knowledge, their core asset. In their internal KM initiatives the bias toward the process or the product approach is evident (Hansen et al., 1999; Apostolou and Mentzas, 1999).
In selling KM services to clients, most global consultancy firms are taking a long-term “programme” approach to implementation. In KM assignments all global consultancies address strategy, people, process and technology issues, all considered as key factors that need to be altered so that they are aligned with the knowledge management principles. Nevertheless, despite the “holistic” consideration of knowledge management, individual approaches show to a lesser extent some bias towards the “product” or “process” approaches. Ernst & Young (Woods and Sheina, 1998) for instance considers community enabling as a key solution that runs across most of E&Y’s KM implementations. The firm focuses on the creation of communities of interest or communities of practice (self-organised groups which “naturally” communicate with one another because they share common work practices, interests, or aims) to address knowledge generation and sharing. On the other hand, although KPMG also takes a holistic approach covering all “seven key knowledge processes” (creation, application, exploitation, sharing, encapsulation, sourcing, and learning), its technology implementations are based on knowledge repositories, such as document management systems for storing captured knowledge assets and data warehousing for knowledge discovery and decision support (Woods and Sheina, 1998; Skyrme, 1999). Similarly solutions from PricewaterhouseCoopers, which target knowledge management at key business areas within the organisation, are often implemented as part of a wider ERP or data warehouse project (Skyrme, 1999).
In specialist knowledge consultancies, that usually provide expertise on niche areas, the focus on either the process or product view is clearer. For instance Knowledge Associates, Collaborative Strategies and NetForm are all firms with expertise and methodologies for facilitating KM through collaboration and informal people-to-people interaction.
In developing the conceptual, methodological and technical architecture of the Know-Net knowledge management solution we have been particularly concerned to ensure that it fuses the product-centric KM approach with the process-centric KM approach. For doing so we needed a conceptual, theoretical foundation that would ensure this fusion and that would be underlying every aspect of the solution (software tool, consulting methodology, measurement system, etc.). Both the process and the product-based approaches aim to support the identification, managing and leveraging of knowledge, through better managing of the organisation’s knowledge assets. Knowledge assets are the resources that organisations wish to cultivate. In essence, knowledge management is working to better manage the content, quality, value and transferability of knowledge assets.
Knowledge assets can be human, such as a person or a network of people, structural, such as business process, or market, such as a brand name of a product. Naturally the product approach is more concerned with accessing and organising knowledge assets while the process approach makes direct connections between the organisational knowledge assets – both explicit and tacit. Both approaches, however, are using some form of knowledge representation as a means of packaging and transferring knowledge either from a person to a system and vice versa or between people. If we define as “knowledge objects” the means of representing knowledge then the following statement outlines the relation between knowledge assets and knowledge objects:
A knowledge asset creates, stores and/or disseminates knowledge objects. For example:
A knowledge object represents the information required to be processed by humans and transformed into knowledge. Knowledge derives from information through knowledge-creating activities that take place within and between humans. Typical knowledge-creating activities include (Davenport and Prusak, 1998):
The knowledge objects aim to facilitate and leverage such knowledge-creating activities by providing to humans the information they need. A knowledge object has the following characteristics:
Therefore, we conclude that the knowledge object is the common unifier and lowest common denominator of a holistic KM solution incorporating and integrating process and content, and we have used it as the “resultant manifestation” in the design of the Know-Net solution that fuses the process-centric approach with the product-centric approach; see also Figure 2 Fusion of the “process” and “product”-centric approaches .
The consideration of the knowledge object being the common unifier for integrating the process and product approaches, not only underpins each one of the three constituents of the Know-Net solution (framework, method, tool), but also links them together into one holistic solution, as described in detail in the following sections. Figure 3 Interdependencies of the Know-Net framework, method and tool highlights the overall interdependencies of the Know-Net framework (Figure 4 The Know-Net framework ), method and tools (Figure 5 The Know-Net tool architecture ).
Know-Net has developed a holistic conceptual framework that can be used as a roadmap for ensuring integrity of a knowledge management effort. Figure 4 depicts graphically the important and central role of knowledge assets and knowledge objects in our approach.
In the centre of the Know-Net framework are the knowledge assets. As defined previously the knowledge assets create/use/disseminate knowledge objects that are the representations of knowledge (both explicit and tacit). The Know-Net framework also represents:
In fact even these elements that are drawn in the periphery of the knowledge assets (structure, systems, processes, strategy) can be considered as knowledge assets themselves. A process for example can be a knowledge asset if for instance it creates best practices, company standards, R&D material, etc. Having them as discrete entities linked to the knowledge assets aims primarily to indicate that they are or should be the constituents of the knowledge management infrastructure (KMI) which should be established within a company, in order to facilitate knowledge leveraging initiatives.
The different levels of knowledge networking, represented in the outer section of the framework, correspond to what Nonaka calls the “ontological dimension” in his model of organisations as knowledge creating mechanisms; see Nonaka (1994). This ontological dimension refers to the social interactions, which begin at the individual level and then by communication between organisational boundaries let knowledge expand and grow up.
According to Nonaka (see Nonaka and Ray, 1993) if new knowledge is relevant to the needs of the organisation, it is likely to permeate through groups and divisions and thereby extend the community of interaction dealing with that knowledge. New knowledge that has a potential to support more advantageous ways of doing things is likely to be retained as a subject for further debate within the network and may also lead to an extension of the community of interaction.
Within Know-Net we distinguish between four levels of knowledge networking:
The individual level refers to the capabilities, experience, competencies and personal development issues treated at the individual level of the knowledge worker.
The team and organisational levels include the internal company networks, i.e. the informal, self-organising or the formal networks of communities of knowers with common interests, the communities of practice involved in similar activities, the engagement teams, etc. that are built within an organisation.
The level of inter-organisational networks refers to inter-enterprise relationships, value networks where each focuses on core competencies, as well as on the accessibility to external, developed capabilities. Hence networks with customers, competitors, subcontractors, partners etc. are included in this level.
A technical implementation, that would exploit the consideration of the knowledge object being the common unifier of information retrieval (product) and groupware (process) technologies, is, at the architectural level at least, relatively simple and straightforward.
Applications that support the process view of KM, such as groupware applications, should use knowledge objects that are also accessible by applications and tools that support the product view, such as searching and indexing tools. Therefore knowledge objects have to be separated from the applications that create or use them in order to be accessible also by other applications.
To achieve this, a three-tier architecture is suitable, with a separate repository, a “place holder” for storing the knowledge objects. Such a knowledge repository is a store of both codified knowledge (information) and metadata – information on that information. Metadata can be simple information such as the author’s name, current version number or more complex information that is organisation-specific and adds value to information based on the organisational environment and context. The knowledge repository does not have to store all the items that need to be captured, but it should “know” where these items “reside” and point to them. In fact, due to the heterogeneity and variety of information systems and sources existent in any organisation, it is more meaningful for the knowledge repository to act as a knowledge broker rather than to actually store information. The knowledge repository can serve requests for information, and use whatever mechanisms are necessary to retrieve and deliver the results to the user.
The primary objective in the design of the Know-Net tool has been to define an architecture that exploits the integration of the two approaches (product and process). It has three fundamental elements and associated components, as listed below, and shown diagrammatically in Figure 5.
The user interacts with the Know-Net tool through the navigators, which are accessible through standard Web browsers. Three different navigators are available for three different types of users:
Underpinning every organisation is a set of processes to perform the business. Typical key business processes are: sales and marketing processes, human development processes, manufacturing and distribution processes, etc. Significant organisational knowledge is embedded in these processes, and therefore business processes are considered key knowledge assets themselves. In addition, significant knowledge is being created and shared by people that are involved in different business processes. Equally important is the more tacit type of knowledge that exists in people, or networks of people, formal and informal, that collaborate and socialise within or even outside the business environment.
The KM processes/applications library is designed to contain a growing suite of KM applications that support key business and operational processes. These processes/applications are the prime source to create, amend and delete knowledge objects.
The important points that differentiate the Know-Net KM applications/processes are:
Additional features of the Know-Net tool that are available through the KM processes/applications include:
The Know-Net architectural approach is based on the idea of a central knowledge object store, a place to hold knowledge objects, as these are being created by the company’s knowledge assets. They should be stored only once, together with the most important relationships and interdependencies between them. The knowledge object store allows for central administration of knowledge objects and for generation of simple knowledge maps that show the hierarchy and relationships between them.
However, despite the knowledge object store capability of being an integrated knowledge and information system, in all organisations there exist, nevertheless, a fragmentation of the organisational knowledge base, caused by an extreme heterogeneity of knowledge and information sources to be dealt with. It is impossible to anticipate all future uses of knowledge items and documents such that you can only realise one specific storage and access approach Further, heterogeneity naturally comes into play when legacy systems and other information sources external to the Know-Net tool are to be linked into the system.
For these reasons there must exist flexible means for defining new views and mechanisms (such as alternative classification mechanisms) for easily organising and accessing information that reside within and outside the Know-Net server. This is the second, and equally important, aspect of the Know-Net knowledge server: its metadata storage, management and search facilities. It includes a knowledge modelling mechanism, the Know-Net Ontology Editor (Figure 6 The graphical interface used for indexing and searching ), comprising all dimensions of metadata relevant to describe a knowledge object, including conceptual structures that logically organise the knowledge content. Based on these metadata, the tool offers a uniform search interface with a mixed browsing-searching approach, through which all underlying information repositories are accessible.
A basic tenet of knowledge management is that it is not primarily a technical issue. Knowledge management addresses basic cultural and organisational issues of how knowledge is shared, distributed and created, and how these processes relate to key business goals. This emphasis on the business as well as human element of knowledge management implies that for a KM initiative to be successful significant education, communication and consulting is required in parallel to technology implementations. To support these activities, we have developed a methodology with the following distinguishing characteristics:
The Know-Net method proposes the below-mentioned phased approach (see also Figure 7 Building blocks of the Know-Net method ) to enable structured thinking and planning for a knowledge management project:
The method is designed to be modular so that an organisation can choose to start at different levels depending on its readiness, needs and requirements.
In Stage I of “Strategic planning for knowledge management” an organisation determines:
In Stage II of “Developing the knowledge organisation” the structure and the design of a holistic solution (that covers processes, people and technology) are iteratively developed, tested and reviewed.
Stage III is the company-wide implementation of the KM initiative, while the measurement part of the method aims to provide consistent support for measuring the creation, sharing and use of knowledge assets within the company.
Strategic planning is an important stage of a knowledge management project because it helps the organisation quickly focus on knowledge that counts and delivers value to the firm. Based on the corporate strategy and objectives a clear knowledge management strategy needs to be defined to help the firm set forth the criteria for choosing what knowledge a firm plans to pursue and how it will go about capturing and sharing it. A key deliverable of Stage I is the identification of key knowledge assets that the organisation wishes to improve. At this stage some basic ideas are captured into the Know-Net tool about how the knowledge assets are to be defined and measured.
Stage II of the Know-Net method identifies and defines at a deeper level the knowledge assets and objects that need to be better managed in the organisation. At this stage two results are accomplished:
These results are accomplished through the execution of eight available modules presented schematically in Figure 8 Modules of Stage II: developing the knowledge organisation , and outlined in Table I Modules of stage II of the Know-Net method and Table I Modules of stage II of the Know-Net method .
Each module is a self-containing, value-adding entity and therefore not all modules are mandatory in an assignment. Ideally, however, just as the knowledge object is the common unifier of our holistic approach, Module 7 (develop the knowledge asset schema) acts as the frame of the Know-Net method that is being constructed with input from the “audit” Modules 1, 3, and 5, while it supports the consistent execution of the “design/implement” modules, 2, 4, and 6. All “audit” modules among other issues aim to identify in detail the knowledge assets, and corresponding knowledge objects and their attributes. Module 1 (analyse business processes) for instance produces processes maps that depict key information, tacit and explicit knowledge that is being used or created in selected business processes. Module 7 (develop the knowledge asset schema) collects this information, along with similar information from Modules 3 and 5, arranges possible overlappings, logically groups content, and creates the formal schema (knowledge asset schema) on which the “design/implement” modules are based. For instance Module 4 (leverage knowledge networks) designs and organises communities of practice and interest around the core knowledge assets of the organisation and proposes the already specified knowledge objects as information units for knowledge creation and sharing within these communities.
Table I broadly describes each module while it presents how each module relates to the integration of the process and product approaches and to the Know-Net tool.
Know-Net is an innovative total solution for leveraging corporate knowledge that is built around a knowledge asset-centric approach which offers a unique fusion of the knowledge- as-a-product (content) and knowledge-as-a-process (context) perspectives to knowledge management. The knowledge asset-centric approach underlies the framework, the method and the tool that comprise the Know-Net solution.
The early application of the solution in three professional services organisations – a bank (Sonnenberger, 1999), a consultancy, and a chartered surveyors firm (Manders and Topintzi, 2000) – has revealed that the approach is generic enough to support organisations in different industries. Nevertheless significant customisation of both the method and the tool is required to support specific business needs. To this end future work will include the development of a Know-Net API to allow external applications and be linked to the knowledge server.
It is important to stress that our approach aims to ensure that both the process-centred view and the product-centred view can inter-operate, in the sense that they are not isolated from one another and one can make use and add value to the other. It does not mean that all organisations should follow and excel in both approaches. In fact, targeting both the process and product views at equal proportions could be overwhelming (in terms of resources and organisational and cultural changes needed) for newcomers to the KM area (see also Hansen, 1999).
Further refinement of the solution will be achieved though further pilot-testing and feeding back of requirements. An implementation in a group of software companies will follow. Real-world experience has also revealed the need for a reference model for knowledge management: a set of predefined and proven solutions covering all aspects of KM (strategy, structures, people and technology). The Know-Net tool for instance contains a library of KM applications/processes covering most usual business areas. The tool could be enhanced with predefined knowledge assets, objects and their attributes, from which the user could select as appropriate. Furthermore, the method could include indicative structures of business processes that could serve as templates. Such a predefined KM infrastructure is particularly appealing to SMEs that do not wish to invest heavily in consulting and customised solutions.