It's about search engines. It's about workflow. It's about document management. It's about portals. The definition of knowledge management (KM) varies depending on which software house you're talking to. Or, if you're talking to a practitioner, it's not really about technology at all, but about achieving an organisational culture with people willing to share their knowledge. KM seems to have even more meanings than most of the catchphrases the IT fraternity so loves.
In the circumstances, coming up with an all-purpose definition isn't easy. But in Establishing Business Benefit From Knowledge Management, PA Consulting Group seems to have done the trick: KM is 'the strategic and all-pervasive capability of an organisation to bring all of its relevant experience to any particular point of action.' While it doesn't exactly trip off the tongue, this does seem to encapsulate a theme common to most knowledge management initiatives.
To achieve KM, you need to be able to do two basic things. First, you must be able to record or 'capture' your experience and hold it somewhere where it won't be lost if the relevant member of staff leaves or forgets where they put it. Second, you need to be able to retrieve the captured experience when you need it.
The first aspect, capture, is something that most companies do to some extent as a byproduct of computerising their day-to-day processes. (If they haven't computerised them, then they're likely to be capturing some knowledge in the form of paper documents, which can also be a starting point for KM.) The second aspect, retrieval, is where it gets more difficult, and where technology can come to the rescue, by making it possible to search for knowledge in increasingly sophisticated ways.
Domain, from Knowledge Management Software, is a product that was developed to help users retrieve likely answers to queries input in ordinary English, or another natural language. (Copies of Deskartes, the KMS personal KM system, were recently awarded to all 10 entrants in the ABG KM Survey - see 'Somewhere to start', p54). Domain incorporates-neural networks to help match what's available with what's needed. It is designed to work with existing material such as wordprocessor text, web pages, emails and so forth. It 'learns' as it goes along, using ratings that users can allocate to the proposed answers to come up with better answers next time. The product was recently adopted by the Financial Services Authority. The consumer helpdesk will be using it to manage a knowledge base that pulls together information accumulated by the 11 former regulatory bodies now rolled into the FSA.Early adopters
Not surprisingly, large organisations have tended to be the early adopters of KM philosophy and technology. The largest audit firms, for example, now have fairly mature, often international, KM infrastructures, which they make much of in promoting themselves to both clients and potential recruits. They may have teams dedicated full-time to knowledge management, in charge of tasks such as quality assurance of material put on the knowledge base. 'Before any document goes on the database, it gets reviewed by a specialist for content, quality, usefulness and also checked with respect to client confidentiality and data protection,' says Melanie Goody, KPMG's director of knowledge management operations. 'We also make sure each item is appropriately tagged to fit into our global taxonomy.'
Large corporations often attach similar importance to KM, with companies such as BP, Ford and Unilever in the forefront. But the path to business benefits has not been totally trouble-free. As Suzanne Sheppard, a KM specialist with KPMG's consulting arm explains: 'In the late 1990s, large companies were having some problems with KM, partly because they were focusing too much on technology. Now, they're starting to realise the benefits because they're addressing the issues of process and culture.'
The technology is improving too, with portals and content management systems bringing multiple applications together into single access points. She adds: 'It makes sense to provide access to e-learning resources via KM portals, making KM a tool in the drive towards becoming a 'learning organisation'. This has helped bring support for KM from less IT focused departments such as HR.
Among early adopters, KM is reaching the level of maturity where there's even talk of developing a standard. Lately Simon Levene, director of knowledge management with PwC, has been co-writing a book, produced jointly by PwC and the British Standards Institute (see 'The pursuit of knowledge', p54). As well as providing a practical guide, this starts a discussion about standardisation, to which end the BSI is setting up a committee. KM standards could help to achieve a semi-structured environment that might facilitate communication and sharing of information; tagging content with XML is one possibility Levene has identified.Never too small
How relevant is all this to the smaller organisation? In a professional practice where all the partners are within earshot of one another, it might seem easy to pool information without electronic intervention. But what if someone leaves, goes on holiday, or simply forgets where they've put a vital piece of information?
One of the themes of Levene's work is that KM isn't just for large businesses. To take small accountancy practices as an example, he maintains that KM could be a way for them to compete on more equal terms with the Big Five. 'Small firms may not be able to afford technical departments to keep them abreast of the latest tax news, but a group of small firms could form a "community of practice" and share similar resources.' Another option open to both small and large firms, he points out, is to buy in third-party content, to which they can then add value: they could, for example, buy commoditised tax information and then add their own analyses of its consequences.
In some respects, KM could be easier for small firms to achieve. Their decision-makers are typically closer together geographically; they often have more of a 'family mentality', which may make people more disposed to share knowledge. But firms still need to make sure that their financial structure rewards sharing. Levene warns: 'If your profit centre is completely separate from mine, there isn't much incentive for me to share my knowledge.'Packaged solutions
Meanwhile, software vendors are starting to produce products intended to make KM more accessible to smaller firms. Solution 6, for example, sells Singleview, a product that helps organise documents, whether scanned or downloaded. The documents are stored in a structured library and can be searched. Charles Verrier, Singleview product manager for Solution 6 (UK), estimates that the product has been sold to 25-30 practices in the UK.
It works with documents that you're likely to produce in the course of your normal work, rather than demanding that you prepare material specially. 'We recognise that if you put in a system that demands you do extra work, it tends not to happen,' Verrier says. 'You can search through files of correspondence to see if a colleague has already written to a client about a problem similar to the one you're tackling.' Companies don't need a dedicated knowledge manager to start using this type of product, though Solution 6 typically offers some consultancy at implementation time to help prepare policies for using Singleview.
Vendors are also incorporating knowledge management-like features into existing systems. Ken Rozier, a director of Transaction Technology, sees client databases within accounting products as the foundation for future knowledge bases. 'A client database,' he says, 'accumulates knowledge automatically as people key in information about jobs, particularly if you're using something like our IRIS Global Practice Management product'.Bright future
Over the next two or three years suppliers will be adding increasingly sophisticated ways of accessing the wealth of knowledge held in practice systems, predicts Rozier, such as search engines that incorporate 'fuzzy logic'. 'Then you won't need precise keywords to find what you're looking for,' he adds.
Some of the same knowledge that large firms accumulate in their knowledge bases is being engineered into off-the-shelf products used by smaller ones, according to Rozier. 'For example, knowledge about FRSs and FRSSE is built into our system to enable it to generate the right accounts and make the right disclosures. We issue four or five software updates a year to keep up with new rules and regulations.'
Another way in which vendors say they're addressing KM is by improving the way they deliver financial information to users. Tim Baugh, senior consultant with Maconomy Corporation, says the company's new portal aims to give people the information they actually need for decision-making, rather than a flood of irrelevant facts. 'We use workflow to route information to the right people at the right time based on pre-defined roles.' For example, you can determine that a purchase order request has to go either to person A or to person B for approval depending on its value. Or you can stipulate that person C must be made aware if a particular type of expenditure goes over budget.Words from the wise
The products are proliferating, but anyone contemplating a foray into KM should keep in mind that it needn't involve a massive investment in technology. Elements of knowledge management are already likely to be present in most organisations. Ken Rozier suggests that anyone using electronic versions of reference texts from the likes of Butterworths Tolley and ABG already has some of the makings of a knowledge base. If you've got an intranet, so much the better. Nor should we overlook skills databases, or even the humble telephone directory. 'The most important knowledge management systems,' Melanie Goody says, 'are those that connect people with people. You can often learn more from a 10-minute conversation with an expert than from hours of reading.'
She offers a final word of advice to those embarking on KM: 'Think big, but take small steps. And always think about the business value of what you do, rather than implementing technology for its own sake.'
Somewhere to start
Keeping up to date has never been more difficult for the profession - or more necessary. Recently, 93% of respondents to a survey for ABG Professional information said they were either concerned (53%) or very concerned (40%) about providing out-of-date information. In common with many other professions, accountants are also troubled by information overload. The survey (of 100 accountants) found 81% of respondents either concerned, or very concerned, by it.
So, where is all of this information flooding in from? Magazines, newsletters, books, and the internet. As anyone with an email address will testify, you can't read every single communication you receive thoroughly, unless you're prepared to give up on the rest of your life - not to mention your work. In the last year alone, use of email in the UK has rocketed by 74%, according to a report by Rogen and Goldhaber Research Associates. But it's done little to reduce the amount of information being distributed by more traditional methods.
Many professionals have reached the point where they feel the only way to deal with the deluge is a change of perspective: most of us are actually more concerned about knowledge than information. Anything that helps distill the latter into the former is bound to be appealing. Hence the growing interest in specialist services such as abgweb.com and the increasing availability of specialist knowledge management systems.
Although ABG's survey found a mere 29% of respondents with a knowledge management strategy in place, many thought they could benefit from a change of emphasis. Almost half (48%) felt that the profession was not taking knowledge management seriously enough.The pursuit of knowledge
Knowledge Management - A Guide to Good Practice, £95, or £75 for BSI members, plus p&p. Telephone 020 8996 9001 or email enquiries firstname.lastname@example.org.
Exploiting Knowledge Management is available from the Institute's IT Faculty. Faculty members can view the 28pp guide free online. Non-members can buy it for £12 . Telephone 020 7920 8481 or email mailto:email@example.com. iRevolution is offering a free two-month evaluation of a new knowledge management product, 80-20 Discovery. For details visit http://8020discovery.irevolution.com/.