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Does your firm manage knowledge?

Does your firm manage knowledge?

Knowledge management, a relatively new concept, is one of today's hot business topics. It includes the strategies and processes for identifying, capturing, sharing, and leveraging the knowledge required to survive and compete successfully into the 21st century. It is growing in importance and includes everything from "organizational learning" to data-based management tools.

The full range of information. Knowledge covers a wide spectrum. At one end, the emphasis is on its structured, codified, and explicit aspects. At the other end, the emphasis is on its unstructured, uncodified, and tacit aspects. Knowledge is not easy to manage, especially near the tacit end of the spectrum. In fact, some people might think of knowledge management as being an oxymoron.

Although many managers claim to believe that knowledge management should be highly people based, managers tend to depend upon technology to capture and share the more explicit corporate know-how. Managers may not realize how important the tacit aspects usually are and how difficult they can be to identify and work with.

Sharing tacit knowledge is a social process. People must contribute knowledge to become part of a knowledge network. Expecting knowledge to flow through the organization easily is not realistic. People tend to do what they believe will give the best return on their scarce resources.

Information Technology (IT) alone will not remove the more significant knowledge management barriers, even though technology-only solutions often appear rational, neat, and tidy. IT, per se, will not change people's behaviors, increase management's commitment, or create a shared understanding of its strategy or its implementation. Generating and communicating up-to-date knowledge that will lead to increased efficiency is not easy.

Managers in innovative organizations must look at the way they process knowledge, the transformation of tacit knowledge to explicit knowledge, and the flows and processes of business.

Take three steps. Managers can take three critical sets of actions to move their organization closer to becoming a more knowledge-driven enterprise.

  1. Reflect on knowledge continually, because it is distinct from data and information. Considerable discussion is required to develop a consensus about it.

  2. Obsessively find and correct errors in what they think they know.

  3. Be vigilant about detecting errors in their process of knowing--the generating, moving, and leveraging of knowledge throughout the firm. Such learning processes are often deeply embedded in the way the organization does things and are very difficult to change.

Knowledge is difficult to manage. It does not thrive in captivity, nor survive for long outside its native habitat. In addition, its life span ranges from minutes to years. Yet, many are starting to believe that leveraging knowledge is not only important, but one of the most important tasks management has.

See "The 11 deadliest sins of knowledge management" L. Fahey and L. Prusak, California Management Review, SP 98, Vol. 40.


Ask the Manager

Q: Is obtaining a master's degree in business administration (MBA) worth the time and expense?

A: It depends upon your aspirations. Unfortunately, few of us have any kind of realistic goals for our lives. Our goals are fuzzy: get an education, get a job, work hard, make lots of money, get married, have a family, enjoy life, and retire with enough resources to live comfortably.

We really cannot advance-plan our lives. Planning should really be an iterative process, which modifies the details as we seek our major goals.

Technical gurus are absolutely essential. However, the half-life of a good technical education is perhaps 5 or 10 years. Pursuing the guru path requires continual updating. This worthwhile path can provide a good income for those with motivation.

Many firms believe that technical skills are no longer sufficient. They want professionals who straddle both the technical and business disciplines. Managers in high-tech firms must be versatile. Besides having the requisite technical skills, they are expected to know about quality, sales, finance and marketing, to be able to deal with the big picture, and to work well with people.

If you are an engineer thinking about taking on management responsibilities, obtaining an MBA would certainly be useful.

More than two-thirds of MBA students attend part time. It spreads the expense over time so that you can continue to work full time. Many firms will pay the tuition. Part-timers are usually older, more experienced, and enrich class discussions. You can also immediately apply the knowledge at work.

Earning an MBA will involve much time, some expense, and a lot of sacrifice, but it can also drastically alter the direction of your career.

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