CIOs, who for years have assumed responsibility for helping their companies get smarter, are bemused to learn now that their efforts have a name, and a trendy one at that: knowledge management.

"The whole field is still a puzzle to me," says Robert P. Dallesandro, vice president of information services at Parsons Brinckerhoff Inc., a global engineering firm based in New York City. "I read this stuff about knowledge management, and it doesn't ring any bells for me. I can't connect it to my business. Maybe it's that the definition keeps changing."

Nevertheless, while he may not call it knowledge management, Dallesandro says his number-one challenge is giving employees and managers access to the information they need. "Whether it's through an intranet or some other system, they want to turn on the computer and find what they need fast," he says. "They know there's information they need some place in the company, and they'd like to be able to find it."

He's not alone. Of the 419 respondents to our survey, 25 percent have either implemented a KM system or are in the process of doing so, and another 23 percent are planning one. And their ranks would no doubt swell if others defined their own activities as knowledge management.

Kathy Harris, vice president and research area director at Gartner Research in Charlotte, N.C., agrees there has been confusion about KM. "Many don't call it knowledge management, but they recognize that they have these intellectual assets, and they're asking, 'What are we going to do with them? Why aren't we managing them better?' "

At Parsons Brinckerhoff, Dallesandro's challenge is to link the firm's 5,000 employees in the U.S. and about 5,000 in other countries so that they can collaborate on proposals and engineering designs. "In the last couple of years we've become a lot more global through a variety of acquisitions," Dallesandro says. "We don't even know where all the people are at any particular time. Someone you need may be in Singapore for three weeks, for example, and right now it's a struggle to get that type of information."

Collaboration, information access and expertise location—all part of Dallesandro's agenda—are, along with e-learning, among the most common types of knowledge management initiatives, Gartner's Harris says.

Kelly Bissell, a senior manager in the IT strategy group at Arthur Andersen LLP, has looked at IT issues from several angles—as CIO of a national services company, as CTO at an Internet startup, and as an Andersen consultant. "KM is a term that's kind of vague," he says. "So people start taking that term and devising either components of what it is, or they create their own definition."

One reason it's difficult to define, he says, is that KM has a different look at different companies. "If you're talking about an energy company, KM might involve pricing trends. In a customer-focused, brand-based sales organization, it would be the customer. In health care, it would be completely different. In the consulting world, KM is understanding and sharing the information consultants have about an industry and the tools and techniques they have used."

Bissell was involved in setting up the architecture of Andersen's KM program, a distributed system on multiple databases. Via a Web-based tool, consultants can access everything they've previously done for a client. In addition, they can see the techniques, methodologies, work plans and product deliverables used by other consultants, which they can then customize.

Nearly 76 percent of our respondents with a KM system in place or in progress say the primary purpose is to share information relevant to operations. And 73 percent say the information generated by the system will be used to make strategic decisions.

That's the goal at Edgen Corp., a supplier of carbon and specialty pipe to the energy industry, based in Baton Rouge, La. Randy Harless, vice president and CIO, will install an Oracle applications suite over the next year that will capture financials, order entry, inventory, purchasing and other information. What his current pieces of software couldn't give him, he says, was a comprehensive view of the firm's seven wholly owned subsidiaries and 20 locations nationwide.

"The current system generates a lot of information, but it's difficult to use," he says. "For example, we'd like a salesman in one subsidiary to be able to see the inventory in another subsidiary." On top of that, he wants management to have the information it needs to make informed decisions on purchasing and inventories. "Today, they end up calling someone and saying, 'What does this number mean?' Typically, the other person says, 'I don't know; I'll have to research it and get back to you.' So now two or three people are involved for two or three days getting that one answer," says Harless. "That's something the software could do in two or three hours."

Speed, Harless says, is a competitive weapon. "Every month we close our books in five to seven days. When our new system is in place, that will shrink to three to five days—and every minute counts in this global market." Eventually, the system will link with key suppliers and customers.

Harless is suspicious of buzzwords and management fads. He likes to cite something that has been said about every new IT enthusiasm of recent years: "Knowledge management is like teenage sex," he says. "Everyone is talking about it all the time, everyone thinks everyone else is doing it, almost no one is really doing it although everyone is bragging about it, and those who are doing it aren't doing it very well."

When asked to wrestle with definitions of "data," "information" and "knowledge," he puts it this way: "Data is what our order entry clerks key in all day. Information is what our current systems do with that data. When we are able to take that information, and quickly act on it to our advantage, then we've got knowledge. The more knowledge I have than my competitor, the bigger my advantage."

These are common themes in the conversations we've had with CIOs—unlocking information they know is buried in their organizations, getting it to sometimes far-flung employees so that they can work better together, and doing it fast. KM is at the core of their businesses, and it's strategic.

Indeed, says Gartner's Harris, you must start with the business need and the overall strategy—not the technology—if KM is to succeed. "Managing intellectual assets is big and sprawling, so you have to start with a strong vision of how you want to operate, how you want people to work together. Then you pick a manageable set of your information to work with. Where people make mistakes is to believe that all knowledge is equally valuable. It's harder than it seems." —Terry A. Kirkpatrick

This article was originally published on 11-01-2001
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