A little knowledge could be a good thing

Skilled workers plus communications technology equal a startling vision for the future, says Roger Trapp
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If you have heard about the "learning organisation", you are probably also aware of "knowledge workers" - those people with special skills who will supposedly be in the forefront of business in the years to come.

But it is one thing for companies to accept that their employees are largely knowledge workers and quite another to give them the means of building on that knowledge and sharing it with their colleagues.

Dealing with this facet is known as knowledge management, another vogue concept that happens to be the subject of a conference being organised at London's Park Lane Hotel next month by Business Intelligence, a consultancy. The Design Council is planning a similar event next year.

Though it does not provide all the answers, the latest communications technology can be of great assistance. Indeed, it is no accident that the explosion of interest in knowledge has coincided with a period of unprecedented development. Thanks to increasingly powerful and cheaper computer systems, organisations can communicate within and outside themselves with growing ease as well as constantly adding to their databases. Besides the Internet, methods of internal communication include the Intranet, e-mail, voice and voice mail.

Databases help the knowledge-creation and management processes because employees no longer have to search through files in physical libraries to find out how something has been done before or is even being done in in some other part of the organisation.

Often without having to leave their desks, they can make use of increasingly detailed information that is becoming more and more easily accessible as a result of the development of more powerful "search engines". Though many are compiled from purely in-house materials, others are also making use of increasingly sophisticated information gained from suppliers and customers through such means as Electronic Data Interchange and Electronic Point of Sale systems.

This area has developed so quickly that many considered knowledge management to be an extension of IT. But many companies are having second thoughts about this because they have not been convinced that their investments have paid off in extra knowledge.

Among the problems is the fact that Notes and other forms of groupware (as the software that links groups of personal computers is known) are not all-persuasive. Robert Hiebeler, partner-in-charge of Arthur Andersen's Global Best Practices initiative, points out that his firm is one of the few to have the same computer system throughout its operations.

There are also security fears, while the problem with databases is that they can simply contain too much information and be difficult to gain access to. Conversely, they rely upon individuals adding information to them and, at this early stage in the acceptance of knowledge creation as a legitimate activity, not everybody will feel it worthwhile doing that.

However, Jane Carmichael, intellectual capital director for Europe at Booz Allen & Hamilton, a consultant, points out that the establishment of a computer system can help encourage people to sign up for the knowledge concept. Her firm's system, known as Knowledge On-Line (KOL), is "available 24 hours a day and is the most tangible element of the knowledge programme", she says.

Just about all the large consulting firms and growing numbers of industrial groups have these systems. As with Arthur Andersen's Global Best Practices system, they are usually based on software developed by Lotus Notes, an IBM subsidiary. However, KOL is based on the Worldwide Web-based system, Netscape. By not using a groupware approach, Booz Allen consultants cannot work on a document together, though they can exchange messages.

"It is a vehicle for the exchange of knowledge rather than its creation," says Ms Carmichael, who nevertheless argues that using the Net is a superior solution that enables the firm to link into the outside world more easily. The signs are that Booz Allen may be in the vanguard of a new trend. Intranets are booming as businesses realise that they offer a swift way of streamlining organisations.

They use the infrastructure and standards of the Internet but are cordoned off from the public areas by software programmes known as "fire walls". Employees can gain access to the main Net but unauthorised users are supposed to be prevented from getting in. A particular attraction is that because Web browsers run on all types of computers the same electronic information can be viewed by any employee. Ford used an Intranet to link design centres in the United States, Europe and Asia to help engineers come up with the latest Taurus car.

All these developments, along with those in telecommunications that aim to make the world a smaller place, are helpful in the building and spreading of knowledge. But as one commentator has said: "A lot of companies are mistaking technology as the driving force. It's a major enabler, but it can't be the driver. The driver has to be the human factor within the organisation."

Though he says machines cannot innovate yet, that possibility has occurred to Marc Demarest, the chief knowledge officer at Sequent Computer Portland, Oregon, a designer of complex IT systems.

Having created the infrastructure for knowledge sharing and then set about packaging it and linking it to processes and tasks, he claims some companies are in a position to contemplate replacing smart people with smart machines.

However, his company has shrunk from what he calls the "level three challenge" on the grounds that such a policy is against the culture of nurturing smart people.