In 1999, I started my company TacIT in order to focus on knowledge management. The name TacIT came from the term tacit knowledge, the
knowledge an expert has, combining knowledge from different domains and making the right decision, based on his or her experience / intuition? Tacit knowledge is the opposite of explicit knowledge which you can define in rules. In particular, large companies are always looking for ways to capture and share knowledge to raise the tacit knowledge of their employees.
When I analyzed knowledge management in 1999, many businesses thought it was just about installing intranet. At that time, it became in fashion to have an internal website where people were publishing their knowledge. Wikipedia was not yet launched. Some people got excited from the intranet capabilities; however a lot of information remained locked or hidden. What was clear to me at that time was that knowledge management as a bottom-up approach would not work in an organization for the following reasons:
- In 1999 knowledge was power, so voluntary sharing your knowledge was considered more or less reducing your job security. Others might become as skilled as you. A friend of mine was trying to capture knowledge from experts in his domain and only people close to retirement were willing to speak with him. Has this attitude meanwhile changed?
- It takes time to share your knowledge and in particular for the busy experts this is a burden. They want (or need) to go on to the next job and not spend “useless” time to describe what they have learned.
My focus on knowledge management disappeared in 2000 as I got dragged into PLM with the excuse in mind that PLM should be a kind of knowledge management too.
No knowledge management in PLM
In theory, the picture representing PLM is a circle, where through iterations organizations learn to improve their products and understand better the way their products are perceived and performing in the market. However, the reality was that PLM was used as an infrastructure to transfer and share information mainly within engineering disciplines. Each department had its own tools and demands. Most companies have silos for PDM, ERP, and Services, and people have no clue about which information exist within the organization. Most of the time, they only know their system and even worse they are the only ones that know where their data is stored (or hidden when you talk to colleagues)
When PLM became more and more accepted as the backbone for product information in a company, there was more attention for a structured manner of knowledge management in the context of lessons learned. Quality systems like ISO900x provide guidance for processes of quality improvement. Various industries have their own quality methodology, APQP, 8D, CAPA all to ensure quality gets improved in a learning organization. 8D and CAPA are examples of Issue management which are a must-do for every PLM implementation. It is the first step in sharing and discovering commonalities and trends related to your product, your processes, and your customers. When issues are solved by email and phone calls, the content and lesson learned remain often hidden for the rest of the organization.
Still storing all information into one PLM system is not what I would call knowledge management. Also, my garbage bin (I had a huge one) contains all my written notes and thoughts. Would anyone be able to work with my environment? No!
Knowledge Management is an attitude
When organizations really care about knowledge, it should be a top-down guided process. And knowledge is more than storing data in a static manner in a central place. Let´s have a look how modern knowledge management could work:
In a PLM system you will find mainly structured information, i.e. Bill of Materials containing Parts, Documents/CAD Models/Drawings describing products, Catalogs with standard parts, Suppliers and in modern environment perhaps even issues related to these information objects and all the change processes that have been performed on parts, products or documents.
This information already becomes valuable information if companies upfront spend time on planning and creating the context of the information. This means attributes are important and even maintaining relationships between different types of information. This is the value a PLM system can bring beyond a standard document management system or a parts database. Information in the right context brings much more value.
For example, a “Where used” of a part not only in the context of a BOM but also in the context of suppliers, all issues, all ECRs/ECOs, projects or customers implemented. It could be any relation, starting from any relevant information object.
“Do your job as fast as possible and do only what is necessary to deliver now” is often the message from a short-sighted manager who believes that spending time on the “NOW” is more important than spending time on the “FUTURE.”
Managing information to become valuable in the future is an investment that needs to be done in the world of structured data. Once done, a company will discover that this investment has improved the overall performance of the company as time for searching will reduce (from 20 %++ to 5 % –) and people are enabled to reuse instead of reinventing things or worse re-experience issues.
There is more structured information out there.
Of course, companies cannot wait for a few years till structured information becomes usable. Most of the time there is already a lot of information in the various systems the company is using. Emails, the ERP system, the PDM system and file directories may contain already relevant information. Here modern search-based applications like Exalead or Conweaver (for sure there are more apps in the market – these are the two I am familiar with) will help to collect and connect information in context coming from various systems. This allows users to see information across disciplines and across the lifecycle of a product.
Still these capabilities are not really knowledge management increasing the tacit knowledge of a company
How to collect tacit knowledge ?
Static information collection does not contribute to tacit knowledge, it provides some visibility to what exists and might help with explicit knowledge. Tacit knowledge can only be collected by an active process. People in an organization need to be motivated and stimulated to share their story, which is more than just sharing information. It is the reasoning why certain decisions were taken which helps others to learn. Innovation and learning come from associating information coming from different domains and creating opportunity and excitement to share stories. This is what modern companies like Google and Apple do and it is somehow the same way as information is shared at the coffee machine. This is the primary challenge. Instead of an opportunistic approach to knowledge sharing you want a reliable process of knowledge sharing. The process of capturing and sharing tacit knowledge could be improved by assigning knowledge agents in a company.
A knowledge agent has the responsibility to capture and translate lessons learned. For that reasons, a knowledge agent should be somebody who can capitalize information and store and publish it in a manner the information can be found back in various contexts. The advantage of such a process is that knowledge is obtained in a structured manner. In the modern world, a knowledge agent could be a community owner / moderator actively sharing and publishing information. Strangely knowledge agents are often considered as overhead as their immediate value is not directly visible (as many of the PLM activities are) although the job of a knowledge agent does not need to be a full-time job.
I found a helpful link related to the knowledge management agent here: 7 knowledge management tips. The information is not in the context of product development. However, it is generic enough to consider.
Many companies talk about PLM and Knowledge Management as equivalents to each other. It should be clear that they are different although also partly overlapping in purpose. Import to understand that both PLM knowledge and general Knowledge Management will only happen with a top-down strategy and motivation for the organization, either by assigning individual people to become knowledge agents or to have common processes for all to follow up.
I am curious to learn:
- Is knowledge management on your company´s agenda
and if Yes
- How is knowledge management implemented