The issue of knowledge management systems has probably always been the most discussed and debated topic within knowledge management (KM). Even though knowledge management systems are not the most important part of KM (with some arguing that they are not even absolutely necessary), this is still the subject that generates most interest.
On this site, I have considered the impact of IT in all the knowledge management strategy subsections, with particular emphasis on its role in knowledge sharing. From this point on, the discussion will be organized as follows:
- This subsection will discuss the theoretical implementation of knowledge management systems and its impact on the organization.
- The section titled "KM Tools" will look at some of the main categories of systems available.
What are Knowledge Management Systems?
Knowledge management systems refer to any kind of IT system that stores and retrieves knowledge, improves collaboration, locates knowledge sources, mines repositories for hidden knowledge, captures and uses knowledge, or in some other way enhances the KM process.
If my explanation above makes the definition of these systems seem vague, that is because there is no consensus as to what constitutes a knowledge management system, much like there is no consensus regarding KM. Furthermore, since KM is involved in all areas of the firm, drawing a line is very difficult.
James Robertson (2007) goes as far as to argue that organizations should not even think in terms of knowledge management systems. He argues that KM, though enhanced by technology, is not a technology discipline, and thinking in terms of knowledge management systems leads to expectations of "silver bullet" solutions. Instead, the focus should be determining the functionality of the IT systems that are required for the specific activities and initiatives within the firm.
I fully agree with his reasoning. However, for the purpose of this site (intended to be useful for those people that do search for terms like knowledge management systems), I will break these down into the following general categories (adapted from the work of Gupta and Sharma 2005, in Bali et al 2009):
- Groupware systems & KM 2.0
- The intranet and extranet
- Data warehousing, data mining, & OLAP
- Decision Support Systems
- Content management systems
- Document management systems
- Artificial intelligence tools
- Simulation tools
- Semantic networks
These categories will cover the vast majority of the systems that people will normally link directly to KM.
Problems and Failure Factors
Too often, the effects of technology on the organization are not given enough thought prior to the introduction of a new system. There are two sets of knowledge necessary for the design and implementation of a knowledge management system (Newell et al., 2000):
- The technical programming and design know-how
- Organizational know-how based on the understanding of knowledge flows
The problem is that rarely are both these sets of knowledge known by a single person. Moreover, technology is rarely designed by the people who use it. Therefore, firms are faced with the issue of fit between IT systems and organizational practices, as well as with acceptance within organizational culture (Gamble & Blackwell 2001).
Botha et al (2008) stress the importance of understanding what knowledge management systems cannot do. They point to the fact that introducing knowledge sharing technologies does not mean that experts will share knowledge - other initiatives have to be in place.
Akhavan et al (2005) identify several additional failure factors including: lack of top management support, organizational culture, lack of a separate budget, and resistance to change.
Building upon all this, and incorporating previously discussed elements, failure factors of knowledge management systems are as follows:
- Inadequate support: managerial and technical, during both implementation and use.
- Expecting that the technology is a KM solution in itself.
- Failure to understand exactly what the firm needs (whether technologically or otherwise).
- Not understanding the specific function and limitation of each individual system.
- Lack of organizational acceptance, and assuming that if you build it, they will come – lack of appropriate organizational culture.
- Inadequate quality measures (e.g. lack of content management).
- Lack of organizational/departmental/etc fit - does it make working in the organization. easier? Is a system appropriate in one area of the firm but not another? Does it actually disrupt existing processes?
- Lack of understanding of knowledge dynamics and the inherent difficulty in transferring tacit knowledge with IT based systems (see segment on tacit knowledge under knowledge sharing).
- Lack of a separate budget.
Promoting Acceptance and Assimilation
According to Hecht et al. (2011) the process of successful implementation has three stages: adoption, acceptance, and assimilation. Based on recognized models and theories, the authors identified three comprehensive sets of factors affecting these three elements. The resulting model organized the KMS implementation factors into the following categories:
- Influenced by design: Innovation characteristics, fit, expected results, communication characteristics.
- Not influenced by design: Environment, technological infrastructure, resources, organizational characteristics.
- Influenced by design: Effort expectancy, performance expectancy.
- Not influenced by design: Social influences, attitude towards technology use.
- Influenced by design: social system characteristics, process characteristics.
- Not influenced by design: Management characteristics, institutional characteristics.
Some of the key factors identified by Hecht et al (2011) are: characteristics, commercial advantage, cultural values, information quality, organizational viability, and system quality. To promote KMS adoption:
- Start with an internal analysis of the firm.
- Evaluate information/knowledge needs & flows, lines of communication, communities of practice, etc. These findings should form the basis of determining the systems needed to complement them.
- Make a thorough cost-benefit analysis, considering factors like size of firm, number of users, complexity of the system structure, frequency of use, upkeep & updating costs, security issues, training costs (including ensuring acceptance) etc. vs improvements in performance, lower response time, lower costs (relative to the previous systems) etc.
- Evaluate existing work practices and determine how the systems will improve - and not hinder - the status quo.
- One very interesting rule of thumb presented by Botha et al (2008), is that "the more tacit the knowledge, the less high-tech the required solution". For example, expert knowledge is often best supported by multimedia communication technology and by expert finders. Beyond that, it is about human interaction and collaboration.
Some of the factors outlined by Hecht et al. (2011) include: anxiety, ease of use, intrinsic motivation, job-fit, results demonstrability, and social factors. Promoting acceptance can be improved by:
- Involve the users in the design and implementation process when possible (Liebowitz 1999).
- Involve the user in the evaluation of the system when applicable (Liebowitz 1999).
- Make it as user friendly and as intuitive as possible (Frank 2002).
- Support multiple perspectives of the stored knowledge (Frank 2002).
- Provide adequate technical and managerial support.
- Use product champions to promote the new systems throughout the organization.
Some of the factors identified by Hecht et al. (2011) include: knowledge barrier, management championship, process cost, process quality, and promotion of collaboration. Assimilation can be improved by:
- Content management (Gamble & Blackwell, 2011): In order for the system to remain useful, its content must be kept relevant through updating, revising, filtering, organization, etc.
- Perceived attractiveness factors (Gamble & Blackwell, 2001): This includes not only the advantages of using the KMS, but also of management's ability to convince users of these advantages.
- Proper budgeting: i.e. planning expenses and implementing a KMS that is cost efficient.
- Focus on collaboration. In particular, consider the adoption of enterprise 2.0 / KM 2.0 systems, which by design promote collaboration while generally being inexpensive and often quite popular.
- Management involvement: The system must be championed by management at all levels.
Naturally, these factors do not apply to all systems. Some are fairly straightforward and accepted in today's society (e.g. email). However, the strategic implications of implementing knowledge management systems that significantly aim to change the way things are done in the organization requires proper consideration and careful planning.
Alan Frost M.Sc., 2010 - Updated 2015