by Joanne F. Gucwa
RESEARCH is the process of gathering (or creating) data and information. It is the basic building block of decision-making.
In order to make practical use of this research, we need to ADD VALUE to the information we've accumulated, to make sense out of those mounds of numerical data and conceptual information we've collected. We do this by transforming it into actionable knowledge through sorting and analyzing the data, and then synthesizing important results in ways that reveal meaning behind the numbers...the knowledge base.
Finally, we need to DISSEMINATE THESE RESULTS to the people whose responsibility it is to create and implement the actions that will improve what it is you're in business for: o serve your customers.
In the last issue, Wallie Dayal laid the overall philosophical foundation supporting the rapid growth in knowledge management (KM) processes and technology tools. This time I'd like to provide the rationale and lay the next layer of the foundation you need before you begin building a knowledge management system.
This is a look at the basics - those of you with an established KM infrastructure may find this quite rudimentary. Revisiting the fundamentals is helpful, though, because even organizations with the most sophisticated systems have people who need to be reminded that KM is a vital strategic business asset and not just another tech tool (such as a word processor or spreadsheet program).
Just as it's important to know what it is you want to know when you set about acquiring data and information, it's also vitally important to carefully think through and define the end-point. That is, what information and knowledge do you need to serve your customers...faster, cheaper, better? Once you have answered this question in detail, then, and only then, should you begin to build the structure of your knowledge base.
Why is this preparation so important? You've all heard the warning about not leaping into automating what may be a flawed system...i.e. first fix the system, then automate. The same is true with knowledge bases. There are a lot of software vendors and consultants ready to assist you in building a customer-based KM system, but I've seen very few articles or sales materials that seriously address the issue of designing its structure. By the way, we are focusing on one application of KM here: your customers' values. While a complete KM system covers your entire business operation, focusing on customer values is a sizeable, but more-manageable piece and certainly the most logical...you don't want to spend resources collecting and assessing information that has no direct value to your customers, do you?
Here is what I suggest. If you do not yet have a customer value KM system in place, start by assembling and looking closely at all the customer contact information you DO have. These may include contact management programs such as ACT!, spreadsheets and databases with customer demographics and sales information, surveys of your customers, best practices databases and other files, electronic and paper-based (even sticky notes, Rolodex and index cards), and the knowledge resident in your employees minds and hearts. Yes, hearts too. After all, who is more valuable to your organization, the salesperson who knows all the technical details or the one who builds profitable business relationships?
Next, define a single business objective, perhaps "increase retention of profitable customers," and with appropriate team members classify each item of information by its relationship to that objective, e.g.:
You will have other classifications that are specific to your situation, and chances are there will be information that is missing from your current resources (competitive analysis, for example). Don't make the common error of focusing only on the information you now have. You will need to identify what critical information may be missing and structure a way to obtain it.
Now that you have a categorized list of information and knowledge "points of light" you need to create knowledge maps (or taxonomies, for those familiar with library science) to categorize all the information into structures (or repositories) that will be intuitive enough to allow users to tap into the system according to their own needs. One map may be by department, another by function, a third by people, and so on. Links among the maps allows meta-level searching, ensuring that no resources will be missed, and "drill down" capability narrows the search to focus in on the appropriate information resources.
If you're a small organization or a division of a middle-market company, you need not pop for a sophisticated data mining or KM software system to begin building a customer knowledge system. If you're totally new to this area, you might first want to play with setting up common mini knowledge maps of your word processing, spreadsheet and other frequently-used application files. This is essentially creating nested folders, or mailboxes and folders in your e-mail program.
I use Info Select Version 5.00.14, a modestly-priced (under $100) software program as a linking mechanism among numerous files in multiple applications. It also has a rudimentary neural-type search function, whereby you can enter several key words or numbers when you can't recall exactly a word or phrase contained in a note or file; it offers traditional Boolean searching as well. With a little creativity, a small organization can cobble together a perfectly acceptable KM system at very little cost.
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