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Five steps to effective knowledge management.

Intangible assets, such as knowledge and intellectual property, play a critical role in a company's ability to generate and sustain a competitive advantage. Thus it comes as no surprise that Knowledge Management (KM) is a key ingredient in successful R&D organizations (1).

KM has received considerable attention in the business and research literature, as well as in Dilbert cartoons. The latter reflects the fact that "KM" has been used to describe a broad range of techniques across several fields of management and information technology, with benefits that are sometimes difficult to quantify.

"KM is everything and nothing. What is it?" To answer this question, the Master of Management and Manufacturing Program at Northwestern University asked me to develop a course on KM from the perspective of a global technology company, based on my experience as a researcher and manager in Motorola Labs. In 15 lecture hours, we address KM as the integration of people, processes, tools, and strategy, to create, use and share knowledge, to accomplish an organization's goals.

A key challenge for business leaders is the selection of KM initiatives that fit their organization and leverage available resources. A recent survey of 2,073 KM practitioners and managers identified the top 20 issues in developing KM activities (2). These fall into four categories: executive/strategic management, costs/benefits/ risks, operational management, and standards. The essence of my KM course and its recommendations for R&D managers can be summarized in the following five steps:

1: Stay Out of Jail

KM initiatives must comply with existing legal standards for information disclosure or confidentiality. In an R&D environment, export controls require special attention because knowledge export is defined as transmission of knowledge to a foreign country or sharing of knowledge with someone in the country who is a foreign national. Multinational companies must follow the rules of each country in which they do business.

Documentation and compliance with non-disclosure agreements is another area of concern. The Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 has also affected R&D organizations with specific guidelines for increased transparency and financial record keeping.

On the flip side of legal compliance (avoiding lawsuits) is intellectual property management. It is necessary to have systematic processes in place to document and protect proprietary information in order to gain rights to patents and trade secrets.

2: Pick the Low-Hanging Fruit

Organizations should take advantage of "best practices" that are easy to adopt and known to give good results.

Mentoring is one of the best ways to facilitate transfer of tacit knowledge. For scientists and R&D engineers this includes techniques for "selling ideas," finding resources and motivating teams.

A directory of expertise can help connect knowledge users with knowledge sources, and coordinate existing communities of practice. This requires more than a database, though, since lack of trust of peers and/or shared knowledge can be a major roadblock.

Problem-solution repositories, e.g., lessons learned databases, capture "cycles of learning" but require diligent updating and validation. Such databases are beneficial for multi-year R&D programs and should be complemented with face-to-face sessions, e.g., "Lunch and Learn," or Web-based seminars.

Data mining was identified as one of the most useful yet least used tools in new product development (3).

3: Build Synergies with People, Process and Tools

Understanding knowledge transformations within an organization can help identify synergies for KM initiatives. For example, the need to "socialize" tacit knowledge about R&D project selection might suggest that junior researchers review plans with senior team members. Conversely, tacit knowledge about program reviews can be "externalized" via formal written procedures. Explicit knowledge about research results can be "internalized" through individual study and peer reviews. Data from one experiment can be "combined" with those from another to yield new results.

Managers need to find the right balance of people-, process- and tool-centric KM activities. In general, an 80/20 rule applies, with people and process taking precedence. According to the American Productivity and Quality Center (APQC), a company's ability to use technology to share knowledge depends on employee enthusiasm, which is closely tied to the group culture of the employees. Cultural change itself can be used as a KM strategy, e.g., supporting a shift toward open innovation.

4: Establish Sustaining Leadership

KM initiatives achieve their greatest impact when they have sustaining leadership and sufficient resources. For a corporate R&D group, the chief technology officer (CTO) is essentially the chief knowledge officer (CKO). This role includes not only sponsorship of KM-related process improvement projects but also strategic management of knowledge via the selection and staffing of the R&D project portfolio.

Joint research programs with business units, suppliers, customers, and/or university partners present some unique opportunities for knowledge sharing and innovation. Business-unit R&D groups may also have a CTO; however, it is usually the case that few resources are allocated for sharing knowledge with other business units. Efforts to "build bridges" between business units may take the form of technology fairs, working groups, libraries, Web portals, knowledge reuse awards, and employee rotation programs.

5: Measure and Adjust KM on an Ongoing Basis

The final step is to continuously monitor and adjust KM initiatives. In the spirit of Six Sigma, this involves defining relevant metrics and using them to identify areas for improvement in the organization's processes. Competency in change management is required. This step mirrors "Level 5: Optimizing" in the Software Engineering Institute's Capability Maturity Model (4).

One key metric, return on investment, can depend on a wide range of factors reflecting the perspectives of different stakeholders (customers, employees, shareholders, et al.).

The APQC recommends specific metrics for each phase of deploying a KM system. Participation metrics are typically the easiest to obtain, e.g., the number of people using a patent disclosure system. Cost and time savings can usually be measured with respect to a baseline process. Program management metrics include the number of completed technology transfer projects, technology demonstrations, technical publications, etc. Because of the nature of R&D, it is difficult to directly calculate revenue-related metrics. Organizations wishing to institutionalize KM should make it part of their performance reviews and scorecard goals.

In short, effective Knowledge Management requires a holistic approach.

References

(1.) Armbrecht, F. M. Ross, Jr., et al. "Knowledge Management in Research and Development." Research Technology Management, July/Aug. 2001, pp. 28-48.

(2.) King, William R.; Marks, Pater V. and McCoy, Scott. "The Most Important Issues in Knowledge Management." Communications of the ACM. Sept. 2002, pp. 93-97.

(3.) Farris, George F., et al. "Web Enabled Innovation in New Product Development." Research Technology Management, Nov./Dec. 2003. pp. 24 35.

(4.) "Capability Maturity Model[R] Integration (CMMI[SM]), Version 1.1, Systems Engineering, Software Engineering, Integrated Product and Process Development, and Supplier Sourcing: Continuous Representation." Carnegie Mellon Software Engineering Institute, CMU/ SEI-2002-TR-011, pp. 54-56. (http://www.sei.cmu.edu/cmmi/models/)

Thomas Tirpak is a software process program manager/ Six Sigma Black Belt at Motorola Networks in Schaumburg, Illinois. Since joining Motorola in 1991, he has worked in corporate R&D leading the development of methods and tools to improve cycle time, quality and cost Of product realization processes. His current research interests include knowledge discovery and management, with applications in product development, supply chain and business intelligence. An adjunct professor in Northwestern University's Master of Management and Manufacturing Program, Tirpak received his Ph.D. in electrical and computer engineering from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Master's degree in engineering management from Northwestern. T.Tirpak@motorola.com
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Title Annotation:MANAGERS AT WORK
Author:Tirpak, Thomas M.
Publication:Research-Technology Management
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2005
Words:1251
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