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WSJ on Knowledge Management

The Wall Street Journal addresses the subject of knowledge management in an article written by Scott Thurm entitled “Companies Struggle to Pass on Knowledge That Workers Acquire..” The article suggests that few organizations have figured out how to effectively share knowledge among their “knowledge workers” or pass it on when employees leave or change assignments. Most potential solutions involve technology, but few have produced productive returns. For instance, “last year when consulting firm Bain & Co. asked 960 executives about the effectiveness of 25 management tools, knowledge management ranked near the bottom.” The article continues:

The reliance on technology obscures the crucial human issues in learning and teaching. Consider what happened in the early 1990s, when executives at London's water supplier sought to improve efficiency by giving inspectors hand-held computers and eliminating the central dispatching station. It turned out the depot had been more than a place for the inspectors to change clothes and pick up their trucks. It was also where they learned vital tricks of their trade. Dave Snowden, then a knowledge-management consultant for IBM, found that need was so great that the inspectors soon began meeting on their own at a local restaurant and jotting tips in a notebook they stashed behind the counter. A few years earlier, Julian Orr, an anthropologist then working for Xerox, heard remarkably similar stories from copier technicians. Xerox supplied manuals, but the employees told Mr. Orr they more often relied on tips gleaned from colleagues. Backed by Mr. Orr's research, Xerox gave the technicians radios so they could confer while confronting a malfunctioning machine.

The article concludes with the quote “Managers keep trying because the notion of sharing knowledge remains as captivating as it is elusive. Despite their discontent with the results, the executives surveyed by Bain actually increased their use of knowledge-management systems last year. ‘We don't necessarily understand enough yet about optimizing the conditions for knowledge work, even though we've been doing it for 25 years,’ says Hadley Reynolds, research director for the Delphi Group, a consulting firm. ‘Most organizations are still managing as if we were in the industrial era.’