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Getting wise to knowledge management.

Knowing how to find valuable information and understanding how to turn it into knowledge may be your association's next big challenge - and its best accomplishment.

What you don't know definitely can hurt you if it means missing important information that you can transform into knowledge necessary for critical association decision making and action. That's why understanding knowledge management and its role in your association's future success is imperative.

You already know many concepts and terms associated with knowledge management, because it integrates practices from quality management, organizational learning, and performance management. But knowledge management extends these, bringing new ideas, tools, and techniques. As such, the vocabulary of knowledge management remains unfixed, as practitioners and observers search for the best metaphors for expressing concepts. (See sidebar, "From Data to Wisdom.") For instance, in referring to how knowledge is captured, or where it resides, a person may allude to a vessel, repository, container, or medium.

Where does knowledge reside? What contains it? First and foremost, it's embodied in human brains. It may be embedded in documents, such as journals and forms, and in processes, as diagrammed in a flowchart or turned into routines that are refined and updated. Some knowledge is explicit, easy to express in words or graphics. Other knowledge is tacit or implicit. This knowledge is hard to capture and convey fully to another person, although it may be observed and recognized in action and learned through discussion, copying the behavior of role models, and personal experience - including making and correcting mistakes. Patents, copyrights, and trademarks give legal protection to knowledge products called intellectual property. Together, the knowledge in people, processes, and property constitute an organization's intellectual assets or intellectual capital.

According to James Dalton, CAE, president, Strategic Counsel, Derwood, Maryland, the "downsizing of the 1980s led corporate America to realize that they were hemorrhaging an asset that wasn't on their balance sheets." Today, however, many people deem knowledge-based assets to be the new organizational wealth. Acquisition and enhancement of these assets have become crucial management concerns. Knowledge management, which has no authoritative definition, is distinguished by its activities.

Major knowledge management activities include

* creating knowledge (taking a customer satisfaction survey; using lessons learned from routine work or procedures to improve performance; encouraging and rewarding staff creativity for innovation or incremental, continuous improvement);

* discovering knowledge (reviewing conference session registrations and journal article reprint requests to gauge member interest in specific topics; recording members' expressions of interest in topics not yet offered to assess a developing knowledge market);

* borrowing or buying knowledge (buying a well-targeted mailing list; hiring a subject-matter expert; enlisting the help of a facilitator or consultant);

* capturing knowledge (putting knowledge gained in the fixed form of an e-mail message, database entry, journal article, or job-aid flowchart);

* distributing knowledge for individual and collaborative learning and work (having a database searchable by staff, members, and the general public; having a knowledgeable staff member serve as a mentor);

* adding value to knowledge, information, or data (organizing, illustrating, indexing, or filtering information to enhance its usefulness);

* retrieving knowledge, information, or data (using job aids; searching electronic databases; asking questions); and

* measuring and updating knowledge (assessing staff expertise and skills; routinely discarding superfluous and outdated information; assessing the extent of investment in, and value of, knowledge assets).

Becoming a knowledge broker

Knowledge management activities look familiar. But the speed and degree of precision with which they must be accomplished to meet market demands are new. Many managers and commentators hail knowledge management as the next big thing in management, which it almost surely is. Some people call it the "killer app of the 21st century."

The expression killer app (short for application) comes from the computing industry. The original idea was that when someone develops superior software for wide application, its usefulness rapidly leads to market domination, killing the competition. The term now refers to any such disruptive technology. As the book Unleashing the Killer App: Digital Strategies for Market Dominance explains, these are inventions of products or services that displace older offerings and have the ripple effect of "destroying and recreating industries far from their immediate use." (For information on this and other knowledge management resources, see sidebar, "Knowledge-based Resources.")

Gary LaBranche, CAE, vice president of professional development at ASAE, says that associations may "make a financial killing from knowledge management or be killed by it. The knowledge management revolution won't allow us the luxury of 'wait and see,' or of slow adaptation. The winners will be those with the fastest speed to market - those who gain market share first."

Unprecedented competition from nonassociation knowledge-providing organizations has begun and will likely increase. LaBranche sees associations as well positioned to compete for several reasons: Associations have articulated bodies of knowledge, have developed access to subject-matter experts, and have created processes for staying current. Successful associations understand their customers and have strong brand equity (well-established identities and credibility).

The challenge to associations, according to LaBranche, is to avoid having too much data and too little knowledge. Currently, he says, many associations lack processes and tools for filtering and evaluating content to provide the kinds of customized products and services now called for. And associations have seldom looked at what they do in terms of knowledge, LaBranche continues. Once they do, a shift to knowledge management requires a substantial commitment of resources, but this commitment may be a matter of survival.

"With the explosion of the Web, associations' lock on information has been pried open, and members increasingly are demanding Net-time knowledge," observes Paul S. Forbes, founder of The Forbes Group, Fairfax, Virginia. So, says Jerry Ash, senior counselor at Forbes, associations have to "adapt by tearing down barriers left from industrial-era hierarchies and replacing them with updated processes for systematic knowledge sharing." Ash recalls when organizations "invested heavily in information technology only to find themselves drowning in meaningless or unused in-house data. Now the inundation includes megatons of information, online and unfiltered."

It's in filtering, organizing, and indexing - in serving as knowledge brokers - that great opportunities await associations. LaBranche anticipates that associations will act as portals do on the Internet. Portals are Web sites that function as metaphorical doors to information and knowledge. They filter out repetitious, trivial, and obsolete data and information, organizing what remains. Portals provide graphical pointers and guides to quickly direct knowledge seekers to focused, practical answers to their questions and problems. Some portals offer personalization that allows for customer choice in material presentation. For instance, a subscriber to an online bulletin may select from a menu of topics what he or she does and doesn't want to see, tell in which sequence to send information, and go back online anytime to change topics or sequencing.

Though evolving into a more knowledgeable organization takes time, the knowledge management basics of human communication and networking are as old as time and always have been key to association work. Economic globalization and capabilities of digital-communication technologies have created new demands along with new possibilities.

Lee VanBremen, CAE, executive vice president of the College of American Pathologists (CAP), Northfield, Illinois, says his group is evolving into "an organization where ideas are more important and there's free flow of information. We're learning to use our members more for the knowledge they have of their profession and to join that with staff knowledge to create better services. It's a significant shift."

An example of how this is playing out for CAP is its recent venture to combine staff expertise in marketing and business development with member knowledge of the kinds of information that the medical community needs to create an international language for computerized medical records. With this new development, the same standardized electronic record can follow a patient wherever he or she may go, explains VanBremen.

To make a successful shift to knowledge management, you have to know your goals. VanBremen reports, "We wanted to provide better customer service and to have the flexibility that [excellent customer service] requires. We went from a mainframe to a client-server environment. We rewrote our computer programs so data could be exchanged among different program areas. Before, we had different computer systems for four parts of the college.

The changes that we've made are based on the assumption that people who deal with our customers directly have to have technology and information at their fingertips. To be marketing-oriented, we have to have good databases from which to extract information - to know who our customers are, who our best customers are, why people are buying from us or not, and what are natural line extensions for repositioning products or developing new ones.

"Technology changes what we can do and how we think," VanBremen continues, "but the point isn't technology; it's technology to achieve a purpose. People issues are fundamental, but if you don't have the technology that people need, you'll be blown out of the water by someone who does have it."

The Strategic Counsel's Dalton finds that associations may approach knowledge management from many points of view. He recommends choosing whichever approach will give you the quickest return on investment: "If that means capturing what the society knows in Acrobat Reader [software for fast downloading of material from the Internet] documents that can be accessed quickly and easily by your members, that's where to start. If it's creating a horizontal communication structure so staff can share information more expediently, that's where you begin. If it's bringing customer-satisfaction measurement methods to your entire staff, that's great. All these approaches lead to handling knowledge better."

Before launching into knowledge management, Dalton adds, top management needs an overall knowledge management plan. Then, he says, "the start that's a modest effort is a subset of the bigger picture." Such a plan is based on the association's particular needs and resources. The plan begins with asking key questions related to current staff and organizational knowledge. (For knowledge management competencies and initiatives, see the sidebars "Knowledge Associations Need" and "Knowledge Management Tools and Techniques.")

According to Dalton, one approach an association executive could take is to "expose the entire management staff to knowledge management ideas and tools. The executive director could introduce the different angles from which knowledge management could start, and bring energy to bear on getting started on one piece" that fits with your particular plan.

Leading roles

These days, all people involved with associations - executives, staff, members, and vendors - can contribute to association knowledge. VanBremen says that at CAP, knowledge management involves a cultural change to less centralized power, yet leadership at all levels is vital.

Here are some essential knowledge management roles.

* Executives establish the knowledge management strategy and promote development of a knowledge management environment. This includes leading by example in the often difficult step of sharing more knowledge with staff and accepting candid feedback from others while encouraging them to make changes, too.

* Information managers - some with a technical focus and others with a content focus - enable many knowledge management activities. These managers may help assess the value of software for collaborative work and for decision- and performance-support systems. Information managers may help establish software requirements for, and oversee content organization in, highly detailed databases. They may also help assess how others view the association as a knowledge resource.

Dalton recommends a quick assessment: Go to the people who handle most content-based questions from members - typically customer service and information center staff. Ask how many questions they receive (by phone, fax, or e-mail). The answer may suggest the extent to which members consider the association knowledgeable.

* Financial managers help assess the knowledge management payoff. Accountants have a history of accounting for intangible asses - such as good will or a brand name - and knowledge assets come under this category, which is gaining new respect and attention.

* Human resource managers continue to help maintain and develop people's knowledge. Many traditional human resource activities are clearly an investment in knowledge acquisition and development. VanBremen reels off desirable qualities for knowledge workers: "bright, alert, willing to change, able to learn, thoughtful, having the best ideas." That's a tall hiring order, especially in the current labor market. If current staff have those qualities and add the value of experiential knowledge of your particular association, retaining these staffers is important. Education, training, and more generalized professional development help to update and upgrade knowledge. But, sooner or later, people leave organizations, so it's important to ensure a legacy of implicit knowledge through intern or mentoring processes. It's also important to capture institutional knowledge - for example, in orientation materials and job aids - that helps new employees get up to speed fast.

"To exploit what we have invested in computers, we have to get everybody at every level to increase their computer skills," says VanBremen. "Also, by December 31, every employee will have a learning contract with the college for the coming year. The contract may be for learning a skill for doing their jobs here better, or be in terms of management skills or attitudinal things like emotional intelligence courses. It can involve participating in a session we conduct on site, going to a university course or an ASAE program, or whatever is appropriate."

* Knowledge managers coordinate knowledge management plans and activities. Some organizations have an executive-level CIO, a chief information officer; fewer organizations have CLOs, chief learning officers, or CKOs, chief knowledge officers. Other positions are being created in the shift to knowledge management.

"We're creating new positions called business analysts," says VanBremen. "They sit in the business areas, literally. They translate the needs of the business users to the computer people and back. The goal is to get at the most effective way to do what users really need done." CAP's business analysts aren't necessarily computer-trained individuals. For instance, a business analyst within CAP's education area may be an education professional who also has the skills required to translate that area's computer needs to CAP's centralized information services staff and who can then teach others from his or her area the new knowledge they need.

Beyond in-house leadership, an association may seek outside help. Consultants who specialize in knowledge management, some of whom are also versed in association management, help associations figure out what information to gather. They also can help you determine how to convert that information to knowledge; whether and how to share knowledge; how to protect knowledge (for example, through computer security measures or nondisclosure clauses in hiring contracts); and when to update, discard, or destroy information.

Outside help also comes through print media, Web sites, seminars, and conversation among colleagues. Communities of practice is a knowledge management concept that harks back to medieval guilds. People who share work interests and wish to explore ideas and tools for improving performance agree to share knowledge - only now, besides meeting periodically, community members often have online forums.

Integrating knowledge as a mind-set

As a shift to knowledge management is implemented into association systems and activities, its purposes may change and may need restating. Although knowledge management may begin as a project or two, before long it must become a mind-set that spreads knowledge management thinking, structures, and activities throughout the association. Among early considerations are possible systemic changes in several key areas.

* Communication. From a knowledge management perspective, informal chats about work are valuable and should be encouraged. That may mean putting a few more benches around. It may mean having optional-attendance lunchtime presentations about programs and projects. More formal staff communication can become more timely through e-mail and intranet exchanges or searches. In short, think about how to offer more convenience, speed, and customization for human communication.

* Incentives and rewards. CAP's new training and education efforts have "a twofold goal: to make us more effective and efficient, and to help each employee grow," says VanBremen. "When people come here I say, 'We hope you're going to have a long, successful career here, but we can't promise that to anybody. So, we hope that if you were to leave the college, you would do so as a better educated, more employable person.'" Learning objectives relate to CAP's formal performance reviews and rewards, but offer intrinsic reward as well. If people are to learn and to share their knowledge, to avoid hoarding, they'll need incentives. Only the bold few might ask out loud, "What's in this for me?" Still, it's a question that needs to be answered from the outset.

* Accounting. Metrics is knowledge management's current growth area. Determining how your association might measure and account for knowledge assets deserves thought and discussion. Some corporations assign dollar values to intangible assets; some corporations don't, but refer to intangible assets in narratives, such as annual reports.

Choices for how to treat the official balance sheet are bound by laws and generally accepted accounting standards. But these don't limit options for taking a knowledge audit, which asks certain critical questions:

* What do we know, and how do we know it?

* How useful is it? To whom?

* How often is this knowledge used?

* How critical is it to have this knowledge? For how long? At what cost? With what updating?

A knowledge audit results in a knowledge map, which records answers to questions including these:

* Where is the knowledge?

* How is it screened, verified, organized, and distributed?

* Who is responsible for these activities and for eliminating unnecessary and outdated information?

Building information equity

VanBremen cites an example from Unleashing the Killer App about having customers do more. He says his group is a "data-rich enterprise," to which members and customers send considerable data on paper: registrations, orders, address changes, and so on. Someday, members' and customers' computers may enter that data directly into the association computer, a one-step process that VanBremen notes will be faster and should be cheaper and more accurate.

Dalton speaks of conferences: "Each is a huge knowledge exchange, but when the tent comes down, how much knowledge and information has been captured? With all due respect to audiotapes and copies of handouts and overheads, it takes too long to go through them to get to a specific answer." This is especially so if you didn't attend a session and don't have a rough idea of where the answer resides. Modern technology allows materials to be digitized and coded for fast retrieval of specific information.

Dalton says that associations need to build information equity - a stock of captured, readily retrieved data, information, and knowledge - to respond to member questions with quick, precise, answers most of the time and for no extra fee. Fees, he says, could be applied to time-consuming searches for answers to nonroutine questions. And, fees - at higher-than-member rates - could be applied to searches for nonmembers if they're a possible market for association services.

If your association's leadership isn't already grappling with the role of knowledge management for your organization, now is the time to start. But avoid "the smart-talk trap" that Jeffrey P. Pfeffer and Robert I. Sutton describe in the May-June 1999 issue of Harvard Business Review. This trap occurs when an organization falls into a knowing-doing gap, compiling information and knowledge, but always finding reasons not to use them to make any changes. As always, knowledge must ultimately serve as your guide to productive and sound decision making and action.

From Data to Wisdom

Advice about acquiring knowledge and wisdom arose in the philosophy and religions of antiquity. The word philosophy means "love of knowledge." If you review knowledge management literature, you'll find many definitions for points on the spectrum of data to information to knowledge to wisdom. Here's a set to start with.

* Data: observations about states of the world; easily structured, often quantifiable.

* Information: data endowed with meaning and purpose (according to management guru Peter Drucker); meaning depends on interpretation by people, who may not agree.

* Knowledge: information connected in relationships.

* Wisdom: understanding how to use knowledge to make sound judgments and decisions.

Knowledge Associations Need

According to James Dalton, CAE, president, Strategic Counsel, Derwood, Maryland, associations need knowledge in three primary areas.

1. Customers. Each person in an association must understand how his or her work contributes to fulfilling customer needs and how association products and services enhance members' accomplishment of work. People with direct customer contact need to know how members want information and knowledge organized and presented, which may vary by groups or individuals.

2. Processes. Each person in an association must understand how his or her work fits with the work of others in the association. Each person must also be conscious of the need for systematic pursuit of higher quality at lower costs.

3. Body of knowledge. Each person in an association must understand, to varying degrees, something about the subject matter with which members deal. For some people, this simply means developing a mental glossary of key terms. For others, it requires knowledge extending to awareness of current trends and market conditions in particular fields.

Knowledge Management Tools and Techniques

No template exists for making knowledge management easy, because it ultimately requires complex interrelated changes in organizational culture and systems. However, by investigating knowledge management more deeply - perhaps with a knowledge management team - you'll be able to choose which characteristics best fit your association. For starters, consider the following tools and techniques suggested by various knowledge management proponents.

* Information or knowledge audits to survey the data, information, and knowledge that your association has or takes in and then processes and distributes for use by members or staff.

* Information or knowledge maps to record, track, and monitor the knowledge that your organization creates.

* Organizational structures, such as teams and cross-functional meetings, and architectural design to promote information sharing and collaborative learning or work.

* Intranets with software to support collaborative communication and work and to support decision making and other aspects of performance.

* Larger, more detailed databases and related software to provide faster, focused search capabilities.

* Filtering, organizing, and indexing schemes and tools, whether simple matrices or complex coding systems, to convert information into working knowledge. (Note: Technical filtering tools exist and are improving, but people remain the most advanced form of filter.)

* Human resource management and development strategies for updating, upgrading, and sharing knowledge. Strategies include training, education, professional development, mentoring, and use of cross-functional meetings and teams.

* Competitive-intelligence strategies that range from benchmarking studies to reviewing trends reported in general business, association, and industry periodicals.

Knowledge-Based Resources

Listed here are some of the best knowledge management books, available from ASAE and elsewhere, and Web sites worth your visit.


* Building a Knowledge-based Culture: Using 21st Century Work and Decision-Making Systems in Associations, by Glenn H. Tecker, Kermit M. Eide, and Jean Frankel (1997, ASAE Foundation), provides a framework for developing a knowledge-based orientation in associations. This book (product AMR213560) is available at $42.95 for members and $51.55 for nonmembers, plus shipping, through the ASAE Member Service Center. Phone: (202) 371-0940; fax: (202) 371-8315; e-mail:

* Intellectual Capital: The New Wealth of Organizations, by Thomas Stewart (1997, Doubleday). Stewart, a Fortune columnist who coined the expression "intellectual capital," provides an economic view at the organizational and career levels.

* The New Organizational Wealth: Managing and Measuring Knowledge-based Assets, by Karl Eric Sveiby (1997, Berrett Koehler). Sveiby, the godfather of knowledge management, began thinking about knowledge management in the 1970s and writing about it in the mid 1980s. This book summarizes and updates his practical advice.

* Unleashing the Killer App: Digital Strategies for Market Dominance, by Larry Downes and Chunka Mui (1998, Harvard Business School Press). This book, with a foreword by Nicholas Negroponte of MIT, covers some history then gets into how digital technology has changed the marketplace and marketing.

* Working Knowledge: How Organizations Manage What They Know, by Thomas H. Davenport and Laurence Prusak (1997, Harvard Business School Press), provides a knowledge management overview. Davenport, who's known for work in process innovation, and Prusak, both formerly with Ernst & Young, are now respectively at the University of Texas, Arlington, and IBM. This book (product AMR250110) is available at $29.95, plus shipping, through the ASAE Member Service Center. Phone: (202) 371-0940; fax: (202) 371-8315; e-mail:

Web sites

* CIO magazine has articles and practitioner commentary about knowledge management:

* American Productivity and Quality Center includes a knowledge management topic area on its Web site that presents full articles and synopses of reports about best knowledge management practices within corporations:

* American Society for Training and Development provides knowledge management research information: In addition, its knowledge management "community of practice" pages present practical knowledge management articles and tools, many of which are archived:

For still more knowledge management information, check out these additional Web sites:

*, the BizTech Network:

* Institute for Intellectual Capital Research:

* KMC International, the Society of Knowledge Management Professionals:

* The Learning Organizations:

* Special Libraries Association:

Diane E. Kirrane is a business writer and policy consultant in Washington, D.C.
COPYRIGHT 1999 American Society of Association Executives
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1999, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:includes related articles
Author:Kirrane, Diane E.
Publication:Association Management
Date:Aug 1, 1999
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