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April 07, 2011

Knowledge Management: Still Here after All These Years

By David Sims, TMCnet Contributing Editor

Here’s one thing we don’t have to tell you: Management love fads. Love, love, love ‘em. Try this, do that, here’s the newest things, we’re retooling everything based on this article I skimmed on the flight over from San Antonio, I expect complete buy-in and everybody on board.

Or even worse: “Hey everybody, this is I.M. Smart, a consultant who’s got a great idea...”

Does knowledge management have its share of less-than-stellar fads? Uh, yes. That’s according to T.D Wilson from Sheffield University, who sniffs at knowledge management as one big fad “pushed by certain consultancy companies,” according to the Chartered Management Institute. He confidently asserted that KM would fade, along with other fads.

One thing: He said that in 2002. And here we are today in 2011, talking about KM, the $72 billion-in-America-alone industry. Maybe a paper published last year by Harvard University “on the issue of turning corporate knowledge into better team performance,” as CMI says, might be of more interest.

The Harvard paper seeks to answer one major question: Is the investment in codifying knowledge giving better performance?

In short, the study found that “teams using well-stocked databases may become more efficient, but they often don’t produce higher-quality results.” Analyzing software company Wipro (News - Alert), and how they used knowledge management, the study found that generally -- generally, now, your mileage may vary -- “productivity was up for employees that used the knowledge base, with both time and money saved as a result. Quality however, as measured by defects in software code, was not any different.”

So as CMI put it, KM does let you do more things, evidently, but isn’t a magic quality silver bullet. At least in a centralized structure: “When teams were dispersed geographically, the opposite occurred... they became less efficient, but their coding quality increased.”

Why is that? There’s more of an emphasis on looking busy at headquarters? That may be part of it, but the researchers theorize that “developers were forced to learn the system on their own, but when they had learned it, the database became the glue that held the team together.”

The study also found that when teams had constantly changing tasks thrown at them is when KM systems “really came into their own, delivering both efficiency savings and quality improvements.”

So there you go: KM might be a fad for some, but if you’re in a geographically-dispersed setting dealing with constantly changing tasks, it’s for you.

David Sims is a contributing editor for TMCnet. To read more of David’s articles, please visit his columnist page. He also blogs for TMCnet here.

Edited by Juliana Kenny

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