Chances are that you hear the phrase “knowledge management” every day of the business week. But what does it mean? Where did it come from? We sat down with Bill Ives, a partner with the Merced Group, who’s been working in the field of knowledge management since the 1980s, including for Accenture, and who has written the blog Portals and KM for ten years.

What’s your history with knowledge management?

I didn’t even know the word. In 1992, I was doing consulting for a large casualty insurance company. They were hemorrhaging money because they didn’t know how to underwrite. They laid off a lot of middle management, which was where the wisdom was stored. For every $1 they collected, they paid $1.60. We came in to try to change that around.

The underwriting process is very knowledge-intensive. How you underwrite a movie theatre is different from a racetrack or Laundromat. We created a system that virtually defined how it should be done. They were pricing, not underwriting – they were getting the bad risks and losing the good ones. We created a process for people to do the steps and share expertise. What are the critical issues around underwriting a Laundromat? We provided knowledge in transaction software for that step. We also provided access to experts in that particular topic, so someone could call and get the expert on Laundromats. We were mimicking Lotus Notes, which was in its early stages then. The word “knowledge management” came out and we said, “Oh, that’s what we’re doing.”

Where do you see knowledge management going?

Knowledge management is giving people the knowledge/information/wisdom/content/whatever that they need to do their job, and giving it to them while they’re doing their job. Training is what you do before you start your job; knowledge management is what supports you while you’re doing your job. It’s a very simple distinction. It’s archiving and creating this information in an accessible way so everyone else can benefit. Knowledge is one of the assets of a company that gets better, instead of declines, the more you use it.

It also needs to be process-aligned. But it’s always needed to be process-aligned. It needs to be part of workflow. It should be captured without workers having to do much more. When it’s a separate thing, a collaboration space, a portal, or whatever, it’s not going to work. The hard part is integrating it into work processes.

Knowledge management can play a leadership role in social business. If you don’t capture content, you’re losing half the value of the system, with archiving and the ability to search for things. It’s critical that knowledge management remain an active player. McKinsey projected a trillion dollars in business for the connected enterprise, and there are documented, significant quantitative benefits for companies that have successfully created this connection.

Some people say it’s not about the technology, but about the people. It is about the people, but that’s a dangerous oversimplification. Technology is in some ways even more important. When it’s standalone, it has to have all the features and capabilities. You really need technology integration, with systems of engagement and systems of transactions. If you just focus on people and adoption and business process management, and don’t deal with technical integration issues, you’re not going to be successful. If you forget the technical piece of it, you’re not going to be successful. Just like if you forget the people, you’re not going to be successful.

What are you doing now?

I’m switching careers. I don’t like the word “retirement.” My day job now is a painter. I had been writing several blogs for software companies and consulting companies. I’ve stopped doing that temporarily to focus on painting. I’m going to continue to do the blog, but weaving in more art and information about New Orleans.

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