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OFFICE–Companies Embrace Modern Ways of Communicating



Knowledge Management Affects Morale, Competitiveness

When companies are small, workers and managers share information easily. The cubicle, coffee room and production line become places where new ideas emerge about how to do things better, cheaper and faster.

But as a company expands, this sharing of information slows down. The people making decisions have less and less contact with those making the product or delivering the service.

As a result, inefficiencies develop. Time and money are wasted and the firm suffers. As one industry wag described this situation: “If we only knew what we knew, then we’d really know something.”

Hewlett-Packard, Toyota Motor Marketing Europe, 20th Century Fox and New York public relations agency Cohn & Wolfe are just a few companies that have embraced knowledge management to make them more competitive and improve employee satisfaction. (Incidentally, employee dissatisfaction, and not money, happens to be the No. 1 reason talented professionals leave to find work elsewhere.)

The largest firms are aware of this problem and often have special “information champions” whose job is to watch and learn how various teams are solving problems and leveraging those solutions across the company. One worldwide technology firm calls it “management by wandering around.”

But managers of growing mid-sized companies may not even realize a problem exists. They’re too big for the anecdotal sharing that occurs in a smaller office environment and too small for an on-staff professional. That’s where the developing field of knowledge management can help.

– Tools For Embracing

Knowledge Management

Through the use of new electronic tools , internal company Web sites (intranets) and shared documents that allow teams of workers to contribute to individual projects, for example , team members and managers can get invaluable feedback about how they are doing, and what they should be working on.

At first glance, knowledge management may seem a bit obscure (business professors at MIT regularly draft long treatises about it) or expensive (Who wants to hire another consultant, right?). But managers should consider the alternatives: frustrated workers who feel they don’t have a voice, salespeople trying to sell a product they don’t understand, and customers who turn away from an unresponsive company.

In the current business climate , driven by electronic commerce and rapid-fire communication , product development cycles and time-to-market have shrunk from years to weeks. Managers are making decisions faster than ever before, often with less information. It all comes down to this: “What am I going to do?”

The theory behind knowledge management is threefold: capture information, organize it and distribute it. The tools for doing this are increasingly electronic ones, but they all rely on the principle that knowledge has a limited shelf life before it expires.

The first step is to capture information that company employees already have. How? By offering incentives for sharing and penalties for hoarding. This encourages teamwork and collaboration.

Computer systems can be set up so there can be automatic routing of relevant E-mail to joint baskets, for example. The customized use of powerful intranets allows a lot of people , whether they work in San Diego, Des Moines, Iowa, or Beijing , to comment on and revise working documents.

– Software Connects

People For Collaboration

Many companies have installed popular enterprise-wide communication software like Lotus Notes (the “client”) and Domino (the “server”), a leading collaborative platform or environment that enables people to share information and work together on documents, projects and processes.

Of course, certain individuals have greater levels of access to these documents to maintain the integrity of the project. Knowledge management also can involve “information champions” or “data trustees,” people who are assigned to gather the intelligence that falls between the cracks and doesn’t seem to make it into routine corporate memos.

The second step is to organize and filter knowledge. That’s where humans are far better than computers. Each person’s model of organization is different, and subjective analysis becomes a significant factor (“That’s a good idea,” or “That doesn’t work for me.”).

The final step is distributing and navigating through the information, getting it out to the people who can benefit from it most. Perhaps the most innovative tool is an internal corporate Web site , an intranet , that allows broad dissemination and discussion about works-in-progress. Again, Lotus Notes/Domino is the de facto leader in intranet-based applications designed for the capture, management and use of corporate knowledge.

– Facilitating Global

Communication

These intranets can also be turned into “extranets” which allow input from parties outside the company, such as suppliers or customers. For example, with the help of Silicon Space, Hewlett-Packard set up (www.collaborate.hp .com), a Lotus-powered Web site that allows document sharing and action item tracking. With it, teams around the world communicate and coordinate the work they jointly undertake.

This form of electronic outreach also works for customers, helping businesses improve customer satisfaction while erecting barriers to customer exit.

The makers of Weber grills built a site that allows customers to quickly see the best way to smoke a turkey given their grill size. FedEx allows individuals to follow their packages online. Other firms are experimenting with something called “Facetime,” a new software that allows customers and customer service representatives to “chat” online, in real time, to solve problems.

Intranet and extranet sites can be built with security measures that restrict access and allow secure accounting, financial and patent information to be sent across the globe without the fear of someone else looking at it.

– Strategy Not

For Everyone

Knowledge management doesn’t work in all businesses. Some companies and individuals resist openness, perhaps because workers or managers may feel threatened by the ability of others to see what they are actually doing , or not doing.

In addition, when knowledge management goes global, there can be deeply held cultural differences that impede this model. In some countries, the hoarding of information confers power and a certain amount of prestige. These challenges can be overcome when individuals see the benefits of knowledge management to the growth and prosperity of their business, their colleagues and customers.

The return on investment from knowledge management is measured in faster, better decisions. After all, if information isn’t shared, it becomes useless. But perhaps most important is the personal satisfaction that knowledge management gives to workers and customers who feel they have a stake in the company and a forum to express it.

Nelson is CEO of Silicon Space (www.siliconspace.com), a San Diego-based developer of Web and knowledge-management applications for business and corporate clients.

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