The Future of Knowledge Management

Ross Dawson
Originally published in Australian Financial Review

In the much vaunted “hype cycle” of business trends and fads, knowledge management has already plumbed the depths of disillusionment. However as it edges towards maturity as a business discipline, it is spawning successors that are more relevant to our times, and that offer more direct business traction. The original premise of knowledge management was that if the most valuable resource of organisations is knowledge, then it should be leveraged and made more productive. This absolutely still holds. However the hype around knowledge management over the years has made what was always an amorphous and slippery concept even harder to grapple with and convert to business results. Today, managers need more focused frames, first to think about these issues, and then to take pointed action.

The rapid evolution of our intensely connected global economy means developing knowledge capabilities is a business imperative. The pioneers of knowledge management developed valuable tools and approaches. What they learned is now being applied in a range of emerging business disciplines. In the course of my travels and speaking and consulting engagements around the world, I have found that there are five key frames for leveraging knowledge in organisations that are emerging as the successors to knowledge management, and that executives find relevant, compelling, and actionable.

Social networks. Traditional organisational charts and business process maps tell you very little about how work is actually performed in an organisation. The reality is that work and knowledge flow in often highly informal patterns, based on who people actually communicate with in doing their work. Social network analysis is being applied by many leading companies around the world to gain insights into this “invisible organisation,” and to design interventions that enhance the productivity and effectiveness of knowledge work.

Collaboration. In an economy based on highly specialised knowledge, collaboration is essential. Many of the approaches pioneered in knowledge management, such as communities of practice, are extremely relevant and useful. However what is critical now is a focus on fostering collaboration between individuals, teams, divisions, and organisations. Collaboration tools such as video conferencing and web conferencing are becoming standard. Now companies are working as a top priority on developing the skills and culture that enable high-value collaboration. However implementing a whole new set of businesses processes is also required to unlock the full potential of collaboration.

Relevance. In a world of massive information overload, we want to see only information that is highly relevant to our work and interests. Among the many evolving technologies that support this, there are two key practices that will be central to enhancing information relevance. Implicit profiling learns from what we search for and look at, when, and for how long, to improve over time at understanding what we find useful. Collaborative filtering allows us to draw on the insights and discoveries of people who have similar profiles and interests to us. Amazon.com uses similar approaches in a basic form to point us to books and CDs we might like. The future lies in finding relevance for individuals from vast oceans of information.

Workflow. Knowledge work literally flows through an organisation. The next decade will see companies shifting their business processes to platforms that enable smooth and efficient workflow. Once this shift is made, you can reconfigure at will how work is done, and even allow clients and suppliers to participate in your processes, creating powerful lock-in. The emerging discipline of “workflow learning” integrates access to every type of learning-whether it is information, elearning modules, or human experts-into the everyday flow of work, so these are available as and when they are needed.

Knowledge-based relationships. In our global hyper-connected economy, the drive to commoditisation is relentless. What this means is that an increasing proportion of business value resides in trusting, knowledge-based relationships, that allow companies to create value with clients, suppliers, and alliance partners in ways they could not do otherwise. Organisations are realising that outsourcing and offshoring only work if there are effective flows of knowledge between companies. Professional firms are finding not only that clients are increasingly demanding knowledge transfer, but also that engaging in knowledge-based relationships increases customer loyalty and profitability. Relationships are the future of society and business, and rich knowledge exchange will be at their heart.