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A Behavioral Approach to Knowledge Management

A Behavioral Approach to Knowledge Management

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Why have so few knowledge management (KM) systems met or exceeded expectations? Simply put, customers of KM systems are not getting what they want, need or were promised. This article examines the role of KM systems in behavioral change. It presents an analysis of the 'warehouse' model underlying most KM systems today, and contrasts that model with a more 'customer-focused' design that focuses on driving more productive behaviors.
Why have so few knowledge management (KM) systems met or exceeded expectations? Simply put, customers of KM systems are not getting what they want, need or were promised. This article examines the role of KM systems in behavioral change. It presents an analysis of the 'warehouse' model underlying most KM systems today, and contrasts that model with a more 'customer-focused' design that focuses on driving more productive behaviors.

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Published by: William Seidman, Ph.D for Cerebyte on Oct 28, 2009
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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 Why have so few knowledge man-agement (KM) systems met orexceeded expectations?Simply put, customers of KM sys-tems are not getting what they  want, need, or expect. In fact, theidea of having a formal customerfor a KM system is pretty rare inKM/IT circles. Yet, as with all prod-ucts, services, and systems, effec-tiveness at meeting expectations isdetermined solely by the customer. What do customers expect fromKM? Most KM customers expect aKM system to enable them to adoptmore productive and efficientbehaviors, which in turn shouldimprove an organization’s financialperformance. In the customer’s view, better knowledge drives bet-ter behaviors, which drive betterresults. It is an obvious cause-and-effect relationship. Managementofthe knowledge is only importantto the degree that the knowledgebeing managed contributes to aperformance improvement.Unfortunately, most KM systemsfocus more on the managing com-ponent than on behavioral change. As a result, customers of KM sys-tems only occasionally changebehavior, and thus KM systemsonlyoccasionally produce theexpected results.This article examines the role of KMsystems in behavioral change. Morespecifically, it presents an analysisof the underlying “warehousemodel” of most KM systems, con-trasts the warehouse model withacustomer-focused model of KM,and presents guidelines for howtomake a KM system drive newand more productive behaviors.Companies using this behavioralapproach have shown significantfinancial results, including:
 A $2 million per week per facil-ity savings for a semiconductormanufacturing company 
 A $2,000 per week per restau-rant increase in sales at a fastfood company 
 A 66% reduction in trainingtime in a federal agency These results certainly exceed mostcustomer expectations for a KMsystem!
 Where have KM systems gone wrong?Most KM systems are welldesigned, implemented, andsupported. However, most KMsystems are also based on a deeply flawed “warehouse” model of knowledge management (seeFigure 1). By reexamining thisunderlying premise, we can directly and significantly enhance the over-all effectiveness of KM.In a warehouse model of knowl-edge management, there are a setof knowledge inputs, a storage andtransportation capability, and a setof knowledge outputs. Based onthis underlying model, the over- whelming emphasis of knowledgemanagement has been on the stor-age and transportation portion(inthe form of databases, portals,and search engines), with relatively 
Vol. 17, No. 12
 Periodic accessto documentsor people
• Documentsearch engines• Personnelsearch engines• Report writers• Documentsappear• Personnelprofiles arecreatedWhere is theknowledge?Where isthe appliedknowledge?
Data gathering
Figure 1 — The warehouse model of knowledge management.
A Behavioral Approach to KnowledgeManagement
by William Seidman and Michael McCauley
little attention paid to either theinputs or the outputs. As a result,great KM warehouses have beendeveloped.Unfortunately, they suffer frommany of the same problems asolder, industrial warehouses. Forexample, both types of warehouseshave difficulty with quality assur-ance of the inputs. In most KM sys-tems, there is little or no significantquality review of the content postedto a database or added to a com-munity of practice (CoP) bulletinboard. Thus, the customer has no way of knowing if the content isactually correct or useful.Similarly, both types of warehouseshave problems finding the desireditem. This is in part because bothtypes of warehouses try to keep
products or knowledge for
pos-sible need, which produces a huge,essentially unmanageable volumeof products or knowledge. In indus-trial warehouses, this problem wassolved with “pick systems”thatdirect a worker to the exactlocation of an item. In knowledge warehouses, the equivalent of apick system is the search engine.However, in both cases the sheer volume of items to be searchedhinders the searching process.In a lecture at
 KMWorld 2001
,DaveSnowden, a distinguishedresearcher with IBM’s KnowledgeManagement Institute, statedthatauser of a typical KM searchengine can only find the correctdocument if he already knows which document he is looking for well enough to narrow the searchto that document [5]. So why bother with the search engine?Even if the content is good, thecustomer of a KM system has ahard time finding it. Ask people who have used a KMsystem about their search experi-ences. They almost always have astory about entering a common word or phrase into a KM searchengine and being “rewarded” withthousands or even tens of thou-sands of search results. From atechnical perspective, finding somuch related information showsthe “power” of the KM system.From the user’s perspective, how-ever, the overwhelming volume of the information renders that infor-mation almost useless.The volume problem is made worse by difficulties with contentthat becomes obsolete. Naïve users will naturally assume that a docu-ment in the KM system is correct,even if in reality the content is outof date. After all, how are they toknow the difference? In industrial warehouses, many of the storedproducts are no longer in use, butthey still take up valuable shelf space and capital. In this situation,most companies have sales ormarketing promotions intendedtoclose out items and get rid of excess warehouse stock. In knowl-edge warehouses, however, obso-lete material just clutters searchesand is rarely removed. How muchof the content of a typical KM sys-tem is obsolete? How often is itpurged? What criteria are used topurge the content? Organizations will need to find the right answersto these questions or run the risk of undermining user confidence inthe quality of the content.Knowledge warehouses also haveproblems with outputs. Most itemsretrieved through a knowledgemanagement system have minimalcontext associated with them.“When should a document orpiece of data be used?” and “Howshould it be used?” are questionsthat the user must answer for her-self with, at best, minimal supportfrom the KM system. This meansthe customer has to figure out whatthe retrieved content actually means. For example, a professionalservices firm had a huge store of sample project proposals andreports. Unfortunately, they were virtually useless because wheneverthe staff tried to use one of them,they had to make significant modifi-cations to it so that it would apply totheir particular situation. Thecontent lacked sufficient contexttomake it useful.In summary, the very model under-lying most KM systems is funda-mentally flawed and is thereforeunlikely to meet customer expecta-tions, let alone exceed them.
Fortunately, many of the problems with traditional warehouses wereeventually resolved with the adventof “just-in-time” manufacturing. By applying similar just-in-time princi-ples to KM, it too can become sig-nificantly more productive.
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How can the just-in-time conceptbe applied to KM? To answer thatquestion, let’s first look at how man-ufacturing environments applyit. Just-in-time manufacturing begins with a thorough analysis of aspe-cific station on the production line. All of the work processes and flowsare identified for optimal perfor-mance. This analysis includes spec-ification of exactly which part isneeded from the warehouse, whenit is needed, in what form itisneeded, and how it is delivered.The warehouse is then modified tomeet those specific requirementsby emphasizing efficient delivery of the more frequently utilized and/orcritical items. As a result, the num-ber of items kept in the warehousedrops significantly because the warehouse isn’t expected to coverall contingencies. Instead, the ware-house’s operations can be stream-lined and focused on meeting thekey manufacturing priorities. A similar model can be appliedtoKM using the customer astheequivalent of the manufac-turingworkstation. This customer-focused KM (see Figure 2) begins with a complete understanding of the customer’s function, includinghow he uses knowledge, when heuses it, and what form optimizesbehavioral change. Once this isknown, the leadership and KMteams, working together, can iden-tify and qualify the best sourcesofthe knowledge. The requiredknowledge is then gathered fromthese highly qualified sources in a way that promotes realism andcredibility, thereby creating cus-tomer confidence in the content.Once known, the knowledge isstored and transported to the userin a form that is consistent withsubstantial behavior change. As with the application of just-in-time to the traditional warehouse,customer-focused knowledgemanagement significantly reducesthe volume of content required andsubstantially increases its utility.The KM system is no longer tryingto provide everything to everybody.Instead, it is focused on the mostfrequently utilized and/or criticalknowledge. By delivering focused,trustworthy knowledge in a timely and efficient way, the KMsystemoptimizes behavioral change.
Defining the Customer’sKnowledgeRequirements
Is all knowledge of equal impor-tance to an organization? Theassumptions behind typical KMsystems seem to say that theanswer is “yes.” The real answer isthat some knowledge is far moreimportant to an organization thanother knowledge. In order to havecustomer-focused KM, the organi-zation must identify which knowl-edge is most important to thesystem’s customers.The following process has been very successful in identifying theknowledge that most requiresmanagement:
Identify a group of key execu-tives and managers across var-ious functions.
 Ask them, “Which of theprocesses of the organizationas a whole are most critical to your success?” They will typi-cally mention only two to threecore processes, even if theexecutives are in differentfunctions. If the cumulative listhas more than two or threeprocesses, ask them to priori-tize the list until you have twoor three that everyone agreesare the most important.
Suppose there were a new,improved method available foreach identified process. Askthese executives and man-agers whether it would it beimportant enough for them,under these circumstances,toallocate two hours of 
time to learn and apply the new knowledge andimprove the organization’s
Vol. 17, No. 12
Some knowledge is far moreimportant to an organizationthan other knowledge.
• Only transportcontent when itis needed• Minimize centralcontrol
• Only gatherwhat is needed• Only gather itin the form itis needed• Provide local control• Determine whatpeople really need• Determine whenand how they need it• Provide local control 
Figure 2 — Customer-focused knowledge management.

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