To those who know Sandhya Shekhar only as the CEO of the Chennai-based IIT Madras Research Park (http://bit.ly/F4TSandhyaS), it can be of interest to know about her other interest: Knowledge management (KM). For, that is the domain in which Sandhya has done her research.
During a brief meeting with Business Line, at one of the tech events in the city, Sandhya observed that, for long, KM has been associated with IT (information technology), since tools and technologies are important enablers. Cautioning, however, that there can be no greater disservice to KM than to confuse the enabling tool of an initiative with its core function, she avers that the time has come to hand it over to the real users. “This means that KM has to be internalised and integrated into every organisational function.”
And, to KM-aspirants, therefore, Sandhya’s message is simple: “KM is not about one homogeneous set of skill sets or profile. A KM-aspirant has to be educated on the immense possibilities of enriching an activity in his or her domain through a KM-facilitated network.” Our conversation continued over the email.
Excerpts from the interview.
First, a contemporary definition of KM and how it is different from the earlier definitions.
Organisations and individuals have often chosen to interpret or implement knowledge management (KM) in ways that could be vastly different from one another. There are those who have believed that KM is about systems and technologies. Others have viewed it as being all about people and learning organisations. Yet others think it is about processes, methods and techniques, and indeed those who have looked at it as a mechanism to manage knowledge assets. From the point of view of a formal definition, knowledge management has been seen as comprising a range of practices used by organisations to identify, represent, create and distribute knowledge.
However, in recent times, there is a perceptible shifting of gears. The preoccupation with the process and technology aspects of knowledge management that was seen in most early implementations has now moved to exploring how it can be most meaningfully integrated with an organisation’s business. A contemporary view of KM would entail leveraging all sources of knowledge to ensure that any organisation or institution is able to function better and smarter in a sustainable manner.
What are the common myths about knowledge management?
A major misconception about knowledge management, as well as a key concern, arises out of an aspect that is both a strength and a key threat to this subject. One of the key strengths of this subject is that, at a conceptual level, KM is elegantly simple to understand, extremely logical and therefore easy for its protagonists to get a first-level buy-in from people. However, its deceptive simplicity has led to the proliferation of numerous self-proclaimed experts on the subject who while being able to expound on it at a conceptual level have been unable to delve sufficiently into the deeper complexities of what it actually takes to make the implementation of such initiatives successful and yield tangible results in an organisational context.
This in a way has actually led to the other misconception about KM that is based on a doomsday prophecy for KM by ‘experts’ who have been predicting its demise for some time now.
Can you outline some of the developments in KM, in the industry, over the recent past?
As mentioned earlier, different organisations have adopted different flavours of KM. Currently, there is a widespread focus on tapping tacit knowledge through a strong focus on collaboration tools. Hence one sees a proliferation of Web 2.0 and Semantic Web based solutions. There is a great deal of interest in building networking sites within organisations, with the knowledge that may emanate being codified and used.
There are those that have been focusing on more structured knowledge available in data-warehouses and mining them intelligently to discern patterns that may not otherwise be apparent. A plethora of analytics and expert systems based applications have evolved along these lines. Recent developments include attempts to integrate data virtualisation with databases to provide a unified knowledge management portal that can access structured, semi structured and unstructured information, by leveraging text analytics. Advanced visualisation capabilities are also being integrated into some applications.
Then again there are organisations that have started with document management applications and moved them up to create large content-based knowledge management systems. In parallel, there have been initiatives where organisations that have a strong ‘learning organisation’ culture have expanded their LMS (Learning Management Systems) to include customisable knowledge delivery systems.
In which areas is research in KM vibrant / relevant?
There has been an interesting interplay between academic research and developments in the industry, where KM is concerned. KM is probably one of the few areas where adoption and implementation by the early movers in the industry was ahead of a critical mass of research being available. This is probably a very strong proof of the fact that adoption of KM was propelled by market requirements rather than being based on theoretical abstractions.
However, in subsequent years, KM initiatives have branched off into multifarious directions. Research has an important role to play at this stage to gather empirical evidence, create validated instruments to scientifically study these implementations better, understand what the facilitators and inhibitors are, and inform industry on best practices.
What do you see as the immediate imperatives for KM, going forward?
I see three main imperatives.
First, organisations have to move from being creators of ‘knowledge mass’ to becoming generators of ‘knowledge momentum.’ There has been too much of a preoccupation with creating large knowledge bases and a lot of organisational energy has been spent on tools, techniques and processes. Undoubtedly this is a necessary precursor to knowledge harvesting and use. Unfortunately this by itself has been seen as a major milestone and very often it has been left to the users to figure out what they want to do with all these high-tech capabilities. There has to be a renewed focus on working towards tangible organisational results, which means it has necessarily got to be driven by problems that an organisation is seeking to solve, understanding the interplay of knowledge components, developing metrics and instruments to monitor intelligent use of knowledge assets and ensuring a sustained level of momentum by tracking the knowledge from source to sink.
Second, KM has to be woven into the organisational design. It can simply not be viewed as an independent function. If organisations are serious about KM, it has to be driven by people who are not only sufficiently senior but also adequately empowered to architect an organisation’s knowledge strategy alongside its business strategy. The Chief Knowledge Strategist has necessarily got to be directly working with the CEO if it is not the CEO himself or herself.
Third, KM has largely been viewed as an enterprise-wide initiative. Organisations can no longer work in isolated silos. In a globalised environment both business intelligence and domain expertise often reside outside the confines of an organisation. KM has to widen its canvas to straddle the extended enterprise a lot more effectively. This would include value chain partners, customers, technology partners, academic institutions and synergistic industry clusters. Further if KM has to start impacting people in a significant way it cannot be restricted to a corporate phenomenon. It will need to be embraced by and integrated into all government organisations and public institutions.