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How to Evaluate Knowledge Management Technology

By Mirghani Mohamed, Assistant Director, Data Center at The George Washington University

Because of the recent rapid convergence and the noticeable synergy between technology advancements and Knowledge Management (KM) principles, it is becoming more intricate to choose the right technology for any KM initiative. Most of the standard technology selection models assume that these technologies are conduits for data and information. Further, traditional selection models do not put into consideration features related to human cognitive process and social interrelations.

This is because the traditional selection models for information technology do not put into consideration features related to human cognitive processes and social interrelations. Due to these fallacies, the orthodox technology selection standards may not be appropriate for KM-oriented technology. In addition, due to these deficiencies the first wave of knowledge management tools was not successful in delivering the appropriate KM services in many organizatons.

Furthermore, the first generation of KM practitioners was not enthusiastic about KM technology and considered IT as an enabler that KM can work without. Recently, this tone has changed because KM technology vendors and the second generation of KM practitioners synergistically defined the requirements and translated them into functionalities. In fact, this is one of the reasons that many KM research entities are working tirelessly to investigate this problem. For instance, Enterprise of the Future (EoF) initiative within the Institute for Knowledge and Innovation (IKI) at the George Washington University is not only a pioneer, but also a prominent leader in this area.

In many instances, KM practitioners faced difficulties not only to identify key decision multicriteria for KM technology, but were also challenged by exceedingly intricate adoption options for these tools. This happens because KM tools implementation comprises social activities and requires additional system and political engineering efforts. The misapprehension to these simple facts made first adopters of ERP systems pay a heavy price due to 75% failure in these projects. While Dell is one such example, it also deployed one of most powerful supply chain in the industry.

Technology success in KM initiatives is inimitable to the enterprise's ecosystem; a one-size-fits-all approach, does not work here. The choice of any KM tool must go beyond the typical technology selection standards to assimilate the enterprise socio-cultural environment. This led many companies to cross their borders and consider the customer behavior in their software selection and impelentation. Examples include companies like Cisco, HP and Fedx. The selection team must seriously evaluate software, hardware, and other IT infrastructure within the framework of the environment criteria and requirements. Evaluators must consider applications that offer some behavioral context and add human cognitive dimensions. As an example, these might be applications based on natural language, semantic web, fuzzy logic, neural networks, and other context simulating techniques such as Quantum and K-bus of Entopia which have capabilities such as self-learning algorithm, dynamic profiling, summarization and expertise location.

Due to technology immaturity in the area of cognitive behavior, the situation is still perplexing and elusive. This elusiveness imposes some obstacles in representing the context of tacit knowledge. Hence, codifying knowledge with the power of existing technology and without the support from socio-cultural inputs will result in knowledge de-contextualization i.e. "knowledge dilution." Technology must accompany social networks such as communities of practice and other human interventions to create the requisite synergetic effects required for KM.

In its ordinary progression technology moves from supporting functional systems to process oriented systems i.e. ERP systems; this move, in fact, is a quantum leap towards authentic KM systems. The current technology available in the market provides a great platform for communication with moderate bandwidth for most of the enterprise KM activities. However, having the best technology is almost futile, if it is not implemented in a proper way to leverage the company's knowledge to achieve competitive advantage. This can happen, only when the selection process considers all factors that are associated with the KM process. Companies such as IBM, Cisco, and Boeing have invested heavily in this idea.

The diversity and complexity of KM requirements always adds another dilemma to the selection process. In many cases, the evaluation procedures may enforce selection committees to investigate an array of KM technology types and forms. There is always a trade-off in evaluating and selecting any KM tool in the market today. By choosing off-the-shelf product, you will sacrifice some required features and may even bring on redundant features. On the other hand, by choosing high customizable solution will create a problem during upgrades in the future and may not be cost effective to maintain. In summary, the approach to evaluating KM technology tools is a departure from the traditional way of software evaluation for carrying out regular business process. This requires companies to go out of their way to consider their own specific niche and not blindly follow the rules in the selection process.

The purpose of this article is to layout the milestones for evaluating KM technology for your company. These can be represented by four pillars: conducting initial survey; developing evaluation criteria; aligning KM technology with the business process and development of deployment strategy.

Initial Survey:
The initial survey will gather information necessary for KM tool(s) requirements and provide inputs for the whole system design. The evaluation model follows a systematic approach to examine three interrelated components, namely, KM strategy and processes, existing KM technologies and the human factor. Although some of these factors are not part of the evaluation criteria itself but they have substantial impact on the final decision. We can summarize the four factors as follows:
  • KM strategy and processes: It is imperative to understand the KM strategy concerning different sources of knowledge. This includes not only the identification of critical knowledge that leads to bona fide competitive advantage, but also who has it and where and in what form it exists. This sort of information will determine the functionality of the tool needed. For instance, if most of the information needed is in the heads of people and you cannot document it, then "expertise space" aka yellow pages may be your best bet. However, if most of your organizational knowledge needed is explicit, then robust content management with powerful taxonomical and/or ontological perspective is your solution. Hence, the ultimate decision depends on what you want to do with it, considering your whole company intellectual asset

  • Existing KM technologies: This involves considering how the existing technologies affect the tool under consideration. The survey will help in identifying whether or not another tool or module with similar functionalities already exists in the company. This is common since most KM tools comprise of basic tools such as document management and expertise profile. This information is critical mainly to avoid redundancy and to map the interoperability needs. Furthermore, the investigation includes hardware configuration, scalability, and compatibility. Through this step, you need to make sure that the tool does not form another island of information. The new tool may need to interoperate with existing technologies such as search engines, email, LDAP, web services, ERP systems, etc.

  • The human factor: The essence of almost any KM initiative is to create an environment that promotes innovation and creativity by strategically organizing people in a way that helps them to think and work together. There are KM tools that empower users to control their knowledge capturing and organization such as web parts that permit users to create documents, upload them and put them into the workflow for review and approval without the intervention of a developer or system administrator. On the other hand, other systems in the market perform the same tasks, but may need heavy involvement of IT department to manage them. These may come with rich features, however the price is always prohibitive, and the company can do without them
Evaluation Criteria
In general, the evaluation criteria for KM tools consist of three major steps:
  • Step 1: Classify the criteria in two major evaluation categories:

    • Category 1: consists of criteria related to the business process such as goals, procedures, processes, strategy, automation, catalouging, etc.

    • Category 2: consists of criteria related to KM tool desirable functionality i.e. ontology, auto-classification, searching, expertise space, navigation etc. These criteria are identified from the requirements collected during the initial survey and from the business objectives

  • Step 2: Inventory the multicriteria of each category according to their importance among various groups and their relevancy to the KM process in the company. This is highly specific to the company ecosystem and will reflect what role the KM tool will play in changing the productivity in that environment

  • Step 3: Develop a score matrix on how each tool satisfies the selected multicriteria and objectives. Some of these criteria may relate to the contribution of the tool to tacit knowledge aspects. Hence, subjectivity must be augmented with skill and experience in implementing the wide range of KM tools

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