Harnessing the Flow of Knowledge

Dave Carlson
Ontogenics Corp.
dcarlson@ontogenics.com

Abstract

Statements about the importance of knowledge assets, and the need to share that knowledge more effectively, are commonplace in both academic and trade publications. Building on this frenzy are the claims about how information technology can help organizations to capture and leverage this knowledge. However, little has been written about an explicit knowledge sharing strategy that links business strategy with this enabling technology. This article takes a first step in that direction by describing a future vision for knowledge creation and use within formal and informal communities, focusing that knowledge on improving value through customer service, and deploying knowledge for consultative sales and support within electronic commerce. This future vision is illustrated with specific examples from the telecommunications industry. Telecommunications is a hypercompetitive environment where speed and agility for outmaneuvering competitors can be achieved, in part, by leveraging shared knowledge within and between communities throughout the organization. This explicit strategy for knowledge sharing becomes the basis for continuous learning and adaptation.

A model is presented for guiding organizations through three stages of migration to a knowledge based enterprise: (1) Knowledge Value Networks extend the value chain model for competitive advantage to a highly interconnected web of knowledge flows; (2) Knowledge Empowered Service builds on the value network, enabling customer service representatives to become more effective agents of the organization by giving them better access to the shared knowledge; and (3) Electronic Consultative Commerce creates competitive advantage by taking electronic commerce to the next higher plane, where customers have direct access to the organization’s intelligence.

Introduction

Many organizations are faced with accelerating growth of new product or service introductions, increasing complexity of those products, and the mandate to deliver "mass markets of one." This new market environment requires firms to offer customized consultation, service, and product configuration to each individual customer. At the same time, this broad array of individualized, complex products must be delivered at low prices with increasing competitive pressure. It is no longer an option, but a necessity, to develop an agile organization based on continuous learning and rapid knowledge flow between communities throughout the organization.

Consider a selection of current examples from the telecommunications industry. New switches and intelligent network elements are enabling new products far faster than operational support systems are able to activate and bill for them. Deregulation is allowing niche marketing with focused, short-term product packaging and promotional pricing, making it difficult to keep service representatives abreast of changes. Data communications and electronic commerce are replacing basic voice communications; plain old telephone service (POTS) is a thing of the past.

Knowledge of switch capabilities must be shared between network engineers and product marketing teams, and their combined knowledge must be shared with the information system community. Customer service consultants need to share knowledge with market unit leaders about emerging product and service requirements for business-to-business Internet connectivity. Service representatives need tools and tutorials that capture the knowledge needed to configure the complex, constantly evolving products for data communications. Communities protecting their own islands of knowledge will wither and die.

This article presents an analysis of the current practice for creating a shared knowledge infrastructure and suggests a future vision that harnesses the flow of knowledge within and between communities. The future vision is built on the premise that a sustainable competitive advantage can only be attained through a careful integration of activities in a firm’s value chain. Knowledge can be the basis for this activity integration. The introductory example of knowledge dependencies between communities can be made more explicit through an analysis of corresponding linkages between activities in a value chain. Re-engineering of an organization can be accomplished, in part, by redesigning the flow of knowledge through the value chain. This concept is referred to as a knowledge value network in this article.

By focusing the knowledge flows from the value network on customer service and consultative sales, a higher level of competitive advantage can be achieved: knowledge empowered service. In fact, this is the logical conclusion of an effective value chain. The goal of restructuring a value chain is to increase the product or service value, as perceived by the customer. The idea of knowledge flow goes beyond the narrower notion of shared knowledge. A knowledge flow includes sharing, but also moves toward a goal or purpose that improves customer value.

What if a customer were able to tap directly into the full breadth of an organization’s collective intelligence, by-passing the need to connect with a service representative on the phone? In this case, a potentially significant competitive advantage has been achieved through disintermediation -- removing the service representative as an intermediary between an organization and its customer. The growing use of electronic commerce makes disintermediation possible. However, electronic consultative commerce takes the current practice to a new level of capability, where a firm’s shared knowledge is made available for automated consultation with the customer.

This article presents an organization-wide strategy for creating a competitive advantage through a shared knowledge infrastructure. Creating a sustainable advantage does not necessarily mean sustaining a particular product or market strategy, but sustaining the ability to leverage knowledge for agility and speed. Firms compete through agility at outmaneuvering competitors and speed at introducing proactive competitive strikes, both based on innovation. A firm must sustain its agility and speed, relative to competitors. An effective shared knowledge infrastructure creates a core competence necessary to win in a hypercompetitive market like telecommunications.

The remainder of this article is divided into four sections. The first section expands on the value chain model for competitive advantage, and extends it to a Knowledge Value Network of communities. Second, Knowledge Empowered Service builds on the scenario from the introduction, describing how customer service representatives can become more effective agents of the organization by giving them better access to the shared knowledge of the communities. The third section, Electronic Consultative Commerce, suggests how competitive advantage can be achieved by taking electronic commerce to the next higher plane, where customers have direct access to the organization’s intelligence. And fourth, Three Stages of Migration describes a model for guiding organizations through the successful adoption of a knowledge sharing strategy.

Knowledge Value Networks

Shared knowledge is not something that can be simply given to communities to empower them, nor can technologies that enable knowledge sharing be implemented with the expectation that strategic benefits will result. The members of interconnected communities are active participants in creating shared knowledge for their mutual benefit. A value chain model is used throughout this article as a way to put structure around the idea of knowledge flow, and to create a strategic focus for knowledge sharing. Organizational units and value chain activities provide focal points for knowledge repositories, and the business processes defined by sequences of activities provide likely paths for knowledge flow.

The discussion of value networks and knowledge is organized around three primary topics, summarized in the following table. Characteristics of current practice vs. future vision are compared for each topic. Each of the three topics is then analyzed in greater detail.

Value Networks and Knowledge

Current Practice

Future Vision

Business processes are represented as sequences of activities in a value chain.

Business processes are represented as knowledge flows through communities in a value network.

Activities are process steps that consume resources and produce outputs.

Activities are steps of the flow through both formal and informal knowledge communities.

Activities are analyzed in terms of their costs and cost drivers.

Activities are analyzed as knowledge-intensive tasks, in terms of the knowledge that must be shared for successful collaboration.

Value Chains and Networks. A typical value chain is shown in Figure 1. Five primary activities define the flow from inbound logistics, through operations and outbound logistics, and on to sales and customer service. Four supporting activities are not directly in the flow of the primary value chain, but provide necessary services for on-going business. Customers are the final recipients of value chain activities. In competitive terms, value is the amount buyers are willing to pay for what a firm provides them.

ValueChain.gif (6655 bytes)

Competitive advantage can be achieved relative to other firms by restructuring the value chain in order to increase customer value. Beneficial restructuring can result from establishing linkages between activities (both primary and supporting) that allow a firm to be more responsive or more agile than other firms. For example, concurrent manufacturing can be understood as a linkage between sub-activities of R&D, procurement and manufacturing operations. This article extends the traditional value model by emphasizing the flow of knowledge as a means for integrating value chain activities and for improving perceived value by customers. The value chain is restructured by modifying the flow of knowledge.

In a typical Baby Bell telephone company, operations activities include capacity provisioning, local network operations, and service activation. Service order processing and service scheduling constitute the core outbound logistics activities; customer service representatives and complex services consultants perform sales activities; and capacity planning and service assurance are supporting activities. Restructuring this value chain could be accomplished by enabling new bi-directional knowledge flows between capacity provisioning and service assurance to improve network performance and repair. More effective communication of knowledge about network capabilities, capacities and reliability to sales and service consultants can improve the quality of service provided to customers. Better knowledge flows between product marketing, network R&D, and capacity planning can lead to higher levels of customer satisfaction.

Focusing on knowledge flow between activities creates more significant competitive advantages that are more sustainable than improvements of efficiency within single activities. Building a knowledge repository that helps capacity provisioning engineers share knowledge about switch features or intelligent network elements can improve their ability to design networks. However, it would probably not take a competitor too long to duplicate this knowledge sharing capability. On the other hand, a sustainable advantage is more likely if this same switch and network knowledge is shared with service consultants who design custom networks for large customers. Similarly, knowledge flow linkages can be made between service consultants and telecommunication specialists within these large customers’ organizations, thus establishing knowledge flows between a firm and its customers. The advantages obtained from a complex web of knowledge flows are more difficult to duplicate, and are thus more sustainable.

In order to emphasize the benefits of a complexly woven web of knowledge flows, it’s useful to rearrange the traditional value chain diagram into a value network. Whereas a "chain" implies sequential flow, a "network" carries a connotation of multidimensional interconnectedness. Knowledge does not come from processes or activities; it comes from people and communities of people. So, not only must we reinterpret the value chain as a value network, but the activities become knowledge communities of people who perform those activities. And the activity linkages become flows of knowledge between those communities.

Figure 2 illustrates a few activities integrated into a knowledge value network. Think of the connecting lines in the figure as representing the flow of knowledge. These flows may be accomplished solely through face-to-face, telephone and written communication, or supplemented with more advanced information technology. The goal of a knowledge management strategy should be to understand the presence of knowledge communities and the various channels of knowledge sharing within and between them, and to apply technology appropriately.

Knowledge Communities. The notion of a community is a useful way to think about cohesive groups of individuals who benefit from shared knowledge. Such communities are often not equivalent to formal departments, teams or task force committees. One useful typology of communities is to distinguish formal communities from informal communities. Formal communities consist of established organizational units or teams with canonical work processes, whereas informal communities are composed of members not bound by organizational structures and guided by non-canonical processes and experiential stories. Different processes, and different supporting technologies, may be required to empower these different types of communities with effective knowledge sharing. It’s also likely to overlook the informal communities, even though they may represent some of the most potent knowledge to be shared.

Customer service representatives are crucial members of both formal and informal communities that have direct contact with customers. The formal communities must keep the representatives well informed about new product features and technical specifications, about the sales aids for targeting segments and channels with these products, and about the history of service problems and solutions that help resolve customer inquires. Informal communities of service representatives build shared knowledge resulting from experience occurring outside the bounds of established business processes. These informal communities address problems that were not anticipated by the formal communities and fill out contextual details that are lacking in formal procedures.

Other communities distributed throughout the organization must share their knowledge, both to and from, the customer service representative communities. Engineering teams supply knowledge about the principles underlying product design and product marketing shares knowledge about the rationale for market segmentation strategies. The tangible outcomes and tacit shared knowledge resulting from these team interactions must be made available to customer service representatives, or directly to customers, to increase speed and agility for change. Improved agility is attained through better communication, collaboration and coordination among all communities, throughout the organization.

Knowledge-Intensive Tasks. The value network defines an organization’s activities, and linkages between them. Knowledge intensive tasks define specific, goal-oriented work within these activities. An analysis of what makes a task knowledge intensive requires a far deeper description than can be attempted within the scope of this article. Also, when one digs under the surface to discover what is required for sharing sufficient knowledge to collaborate on a knowledge-intensive task, many additional complexities must be addressed with respect to shared language and meanings. The brief comments here are limited to examples of knowledge-intensive tasks and references for further reading.

Consider several examples of tasks that depend on shared knowledge for collaboration within and among communities. First, product design requires not only background knowledge about the product technology (e.g., computer science or electrical engineering), but also knowledge about the customer’s requirements for the product and the environment in which the product will be used. Telecommunications product design knowledge must be shared by network engineers, advanced technology specialists, and product marketing, among others. Second, product configuration, performed by telecommunications sales and service consultants, requires knowledge about switch features that determine dependencies or compatibilities among products, and configuration parameters for complex products such as ISDN. And third, customer call routing requires knowledge about market segmentation strategies, organizational structures and job responsibilities, and knowledge about who know what (i.e., task competencies), in order to determine the correct classification for serving a customer.

Significant effort has gone into methodologies and conceptual frameworks for task-oriented knowledge acquisition and modeling. Generic, domain-independent task descriptions are defined for design, configuration and classification tasks, in addition to other tasks such as diagnosis, identification, verification, assessment, etc. Although these efforts are focused on modeling knowledge for the purpose of designing knowledge-based computer systems, many of the concepts can be applied to gain a better understanding of what knowledge is required and how it is used to solve problems. Some of the knowledge analysis methodologies include explicit consideration of the organizational context in which the knowledge is applied.

The process of harnessing the flow of knowledge is not complete after an organization is successful in identifying formal and informal knowledge communities, nor after knowledge value networks are established to connect core activities. In fact, the real value has not yet been reached. These knowledge flows must be leveraged to improve the value perceived by customers.

Knowledge Empowered Service

The goal of knowledge empowered service is to focus shared knowledge on satisfying the needs of customers. Or, conversely, on making customer service more effective by drawing on the shared knowledge created by the organization’s communities. Refer back to Figure 2 for an illustration of knowledge empowered service. Customer support draws on the shared knowledge resulting from the collective community of communities, and must be an integral part of the knowledge value network.

Consider the ways in which an organization’s shared knowledge, resulting from product design tasks, is focused on its customer service representatives. The following table summarizes common current practices for customer service, and a future vision for knowledge empowered service.

Sharing Knowledge with Customer Service Representatives

Current Practice

Future Vision

Customer service representatives are primarily order takers.

Representatives are consultants, recommending products based on customer requirements.

Extensive training (e.g., 12 weeks) is required to teach new representatives details of current products, configuration parameters, and order processing.

Teach representatives general problem solving skills, plus ability to search and apply shared knowledge repositories.

Introduction of new, complex products requires significant retraining and may delay product roll-out.

Continuous learning is enabled by shared knowledge repositories, plus electronic discussion groups for dynamic and unexpected customer situations.

Consultative Sales and Service. A common example of effective (or not effective) consultative sales at a Baby Bell telephone company occurs when negotiating service with a small business owner. If the business owner operates a telemarketing business, he or she may have some idea of what is possible for automatically rolling calls over to the next available operator, but have no idea of what is required to install and run such a service. An effective consultative sales representative needs to understand the small business owner’s environment and to discuss the possible telephone services in terms of business solutions, not in terms of technical telephony jargon and product names.

Too often, sales representatives are trained to be order takers, filling out forms and following a rigid script for interviewing the customer. Consultative behavior in customer contact situations requires representatives to establish a relationship with the customer, to understand their business problem so that complete solutions can be recommended, or to diagnose service problems. Service representatives might be organized into either formal or informal communities that specialize their knowledge of particular customer industries or large accounts.

Informal communities can be especially effective in this case to share knowledge in terms of stories and experiences. Shared stories add a richness to the consultative context that is difficult to attain with formal job procedures and product specification sheets. In addition, when new products are introduced, it’s difficult for marketing specialists to anticipate all of the ways that customers will try to use the product, or the ways that creative service representatives are able to apply the product to customer situations. Again, the informal communities can contribute critical knowledge, particularly when assisted by a knowledge sharing technology like discussion databases or electronic conferences.

Buckman Labs, a specialty chemicals manufacturer, is noteworthy in their effective use of CompuServe forums for knowledge transfer among sales representatives distributed across ninety countries. Buckman Labs is well underway in achieving its goal of having 80% of its entire workforce "effectively engaged on the front line." In their case, informal knowledge communities are supported through world-wide use of CompuServe forum discussions, allowing any employee to help create customer solutions. They have segmented their discussion groups along at least three dimensions: by industry (they serve three primary industries), by product line, and by major customer account. Their sales representatives are empowered with the knowledge shared within these informal communities, from chemical engineers in the lab at headquarters and from other representatives with similar experiences across the globe.

General Problem Solving Skills. In current practice, customer service representatives are often taught by memorization of specific skills and process steps. If their jobs are designed primarily around performance of those specific skills, then the knowledge that they share with one another will be rather uninteresting, focused on structured procedures and skills. Continuous on-the-job learning required for the rapid growth, change and competition in the telecommunications industry is difficult to achieve unless jobs and tasks are designed around general skills that depend on a continuous flow of shared knowledge.

Analysis of general problem solving skills is closely related to the discussion of knowledge-intensive tasks in the last section. And, like that discussion, a detailed analysis is beyond the scope of this article. One approach to be considered is using the generic task types and problem solving methods from the KADS knowledge acquisition methodology as the basis for teaching general skills, independent of specific domain knowledge. These skills would be more transferable across problem solving situations, but would require greater effort and different skills to apply them. Further investigation is necessary to evaluate this potential.

Recommendations for successful adoption of knowledge sharing in organizations often emphasize the need for creating a culture where knowledge is freely shared. Senior management must support use of knowledge sharing technology and allow time for this activity in otherwise structured jobs. Although a culture for sharing is undoubtedly important, leadership support is of equal importance in other areas. The need for sharing knowledge is contingent on the way job tasks are designed, on the way training is designed and delivered, on the skills expected of employees when they are hired, and on the incentives and measures used to evaluate employees. The success of a knowledge sharing strategy is integrally tied to all aspects of creating a learning organization.

Continuous Learning. The only constant in current telecommunications industry is change. Changing competitors, changing technology, changing regulations, changing cost structures, and changing strategies and tactics for marketing to a restless and dissatisfied consumer. Based on the two foregoing requirements for knowledge empowered service -- consultative sales and general problem solving skills -- the future must be built on continuous learning. Effective consultative sales requires representatives to be well versed in all of the changes just listed. Developing continuous learning organizations in such a turbulent business environment is more likely to be successful if representatives are grounded with general skills for learning. Continuous learning makes maximum use of all communities and knowledge flows in the knowledge value network.

If an organization has successfully focused its knowledge flows on empowering service representatives with all knowledge necessary to provide world-class service, an important question follows naturally. Why can’t we put some of this knowledge directly in the hands of customers so that they can help themselves?

Electronic Consultative Commerce

How can the flow of knowledge be used to achieve a radically new concept of electronic commerce? Most current examples of electronic commerce on the Internet are little more than electronic catalogs displaying product descriptions and pictures on-line, and allowing the user to place orders via electronic forms. Granted, there are some useful benefits resulting from immediate updates to the electronic catalog, immediate access to available inventory quantities (in the most advanced electronic catalogs), and keyword search capabilities. But few significant competitive advantages are being achieved here. At most, these current attempts at electronic commerce gain some benefit from an additional sales channel. With the rapid expansion of Internet access, it may soon become a competitive disadvantage to not tap into the Internet sales channel; on-line catalogs will become the norm rather than a distinctive competitive edge.

The challenge, and opportunity, is to allow the customer to harness the flow knowledge for his or her own benefit. Although there are clearly situations where involvement of a human service representative is necessary or desirable, an electronic commerce channel can become a consultative interaction. Figure 3 illustrates the situation where customer service representatives have been removed as intermediaries, and the organization’s shared knowledge is made available directly to the customers. The table below lists some general characteristics prevalent in current practice, and the future vision for electronic consultative commerce.

Current Practice

Future Vision

Customers purchase from on-line product catalogs.

Customers interact with the organization’s community memory to select and configure products based on knowledge of products’ capabilities and a customer’s needs.

Customer service and problem diagnosis require direct telephone support.

Routine service support is available on-line, 24 hours per day via the corporate shared knowledge base.

Service representatives act as a conduit for sharing product use stories between customers, possibly facilitated by an internal company knowledge base.

On-line forums allow customers to directly share stories about product use and ideas for future product enhancements.

Purchase and Configuration. Many firms are expanding the role of consultative customer interaction beyond sales to include consultation in every customer contact. These consultative opportunities might include, in addition to sales, product service, questions about product use, queries about order status and release dates for new products, and others. Many of these roles can be supported, at least partially, with an electronic commerce design that includes an underlying knowledge base and a consultative interaction.

Some firms simply place product catalogs or software files on-line without any supporting knowledge about how those products would benefit a customer. However, a number of firms already provide some consultative support on the Internet. Microsoft and Lotus have put their software support knowledge bases on the world-wide web for customers to answer product support questions for themselves. Such knowledge bases were developed within these companies to support knowledge empowered service by their telephone representatives. Later, they put these knowledge bases on CD-ROM and sold them to customers or development partners. Now this same customer support knowledge is available interactively on the web. Similarly, with "SunSolve Online," Sun Microsystems has saved over $4 million in Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) since they "reengineered information processes around the WWW".

More advanced solutions are being developed that employ knowledge-based system technology traditionally found in expert systems. Applied research is underway at Stanford University, in collaboration with CommerceNet, to build "smart catalogs," i.e. knowledge-based software agents that search product catalogs and configure product combinations, all accessible via a world-wide web browser. These software agents hold promise for making the repositories from knowledge communities available to customers. But, software agents also require greater rigor in representing knowledge more formally than is usually found on the web.

Problem Diagnosis. Beyond sales, a depth of shared knowledge is required to respond to customer questions about product use and problem diagnosis. Post-sale service is the fifth primary activity in the generic value chain. Technological solutions do exist in some cases for partially or fully automating problem diagnosis, or even preventive detection.

Through the recently released Microsoft Network, the end-user’s hardware and software configuration can be automatically uploaded to the Microsoft server. With that precise information, a human representative can more easily diagnosis faulty configuration parameters. In the future, software agents can automate many routine diagnoses, and forward only the more complex situations to a human agent. Given the future installation of television set-top boxes for accessing broadband telecommunication services, a similar semi-automated customer support service will be possible.

For mainframe computer peripherals and high-end photocopiers, designers have built-in preventive diagnostic knowledge. Through either periodic or continuous data communication with the vendor’s server, status data is automatically uploaded and processed. If potential errors are detected, a human service technician is dispatched to the site, and repairs are made before a problem occurs.

During design of these products, knowledge had to be shared between communities from service, R&D and manufacturing activities. Ideally, knowledge flows will span the entire value network, making these types of innovations the norm rather than an exception.

Customer Communities. Customer service representatives often provide an undervalued benefit by being the broker between customers who help one another with questions about advanced or innovative use of product features. This is often the case with software products or software development tools, where customers may know more about the products than do service representatives.

By connecting these customers in an informal community via electronic communication channels, the service representative is removed as an intermediary. Unlimited members of the vendor’s organization can now participate in the informal customer community. Knowledge flows both in and out of this community, contributing to the vendor’s corporate-wide integrated knowledge value network. Informal communities that span a world-wide customer base are already commonplace on the Internet news groups and on proprietary forums such as CompuServe.

Sharing knowledge among communities within a firm’s knowledge value network is only the beginning. Knowledge empowered service moves this knowledge closer to the customer, but still within the firm’s virtual walls. However, by removing these virtual walls and expanding the value network to include, where appropriate, customers, suppliers and distributors, the knowledge flows to all activities in a vertically and horizontally integrated business.

Three Stages of Migration

A company without a business strategy is likely to scatter its efforts and fail to achieve any worthwhile goals. Similarly, a knowledge sharing effort without a strategy is less likely to contribute significantly toward the business goals. Also like a business strategy, a knowledge sharing strategy should define long-term goals, and short-term tactics for implementing the strategic goals. The previous three sections described strategic goals and opportunities for knowledge sharing, this section develops some tactics for achieving those goals.

It’s unlikely that most firms can jump straight to the future vision of dynamic knowledge value networks, knowledge empowered service and electronic consultative commerce. So, in conclusion, consider a few possibilities for migrating to these future goals by building the flow of knowledge, one step at a time. Figure 4 illustrates a progression of knowledge flow through three stages. Each stage contributes to, and benefits from, the shared community memory. Progression through the three stages serves to create and strengthen the infrastructure supporting the flow of knowledge among formal and informal communities, service representatives, and customers. Each stage identifies clear business benefits realizable in that stage, so that results are obtained before completing the adoption of these strategies. The community memory and knowledge broker are not so much stages in the migration, as they are facilitators of the three stages. After summarizing each of their contributions, the three stages are reviewed with an eye toward identifying one or two specific tactics in each stage.

Shared Community Memory. A community memory includes the knowledge that is typically shared by members of a particular community. It’s not realistic to expect all members to know all the same facts and explanations, so a community memory also includes knowledge of who knows about some problem domain. Every community has a memory of some kind, existing in a variety of forms. From the broadest perspective, it has been suggested that an organizational memory consists of six different retention facilities: individuals, culture, transformations, structures, ecology and external archives. It remains an open research question as to how computer-based support can help store and retrieve these different types of memory. Most community memories can clearly benefit from support by technology, but lack of technology doesn’t have to be a roadblock to starting down the migration path.

A repository for shared knowledge might be as simple as a file cabinet of paper documents, or as complex as an artificial intelligence representation in a computerized knowledge-based system. A file cabinet probably requires a knowledge broker to share its records, either to interpret its organization and contents or to support remote community members. An effective knowledge based system could be accessible by all members and guide them through its representation with a question and answer dialog or a natural language query interface. The more likely scenario probably lies somewhere between these extremes, and employs a combination of approaches. An examination of technology choices will be addressed in a future article.

Knowledge Broker. Research and experience has underscored the importance of an identifiable role, variously referred to as a knowledge broker, mediator, or cybrarian (cyberspace librarian). A principal role of the knowledge broker is to create and maintain an active, viable knowledge community. Other research on computer-based community memories has identified three distinct stages in their growth and maintenance: seeding, evolutionary growth and reseeding. The "seeds" placed in the knowledge base define an initial structure for the memory and spawn growth and discussions based on their roots. The community as a whole enhances this memory, but at a later stage the topics become exhausted or the structure no longer fits the evolving content, and the community memory must be reseeded.

Many knowledge communities already include a person who serves this role, albeit informally and unrecognized. He or she typically "knows everyone" and is good at solving a broad range of problems. These individuals should be recognized explicitly, supported and rewarded for the important roll that they serve.

Knowledge Value Networks. A basic capability for creating and sustaining knowledge value networks is required as the foundation for all future stages. Effective long-term collaboration on specific goals often requires the structure of formal teams, while innovation requires the insights of informal communities. A knowledge value network should allow formal teams to work within broader informal communities. Ultimately, firms need to create and sustain communities of communities, with knowledge shared effectively across the entire organization.

A methodology can be defined that guides organizations in the tactics of implementing knowledge value networks. One useful approach is to build on the work of activity-based management, developed within the management accounting field. A tentative list of steps in this methodology is defined as follows:

  1. Identify the activities that are critical to your business.
  2. Identify the knowledge that is required to excel at those critical activities.
  3. Identify who has, or creates, that knowledge.
  4. Identify who needs that knowledge (e.g., activity linkages).
  5. Identify the formal or informal communities in which that knowledge is typically shared.
  6. Design the best means for facilitating the flow of knowledge from those who have it to those who need it, within and between communities.
  7. Provide a means for sharing knowledge in opportunistic or unpredictable problem solving situations.

This methodology should pay particular attention of identifying knowledge flows between communities, as well as within communities. Also, when companies are redesigning their organizational structure or business processes, be careful not to reorganize informal communities out of existence. Although computer-mediated communication can help preserve these communities, their viability can be destroyed by unwittingly laying off the human knowledge broker.

Knowledge Empowered Service. By leveraging the shared knowledge attained through a knowledge value network, and making that knowledge readily available to customer service representatives, knowledge empowered service can be implemented. The principal challenge here is to incorporate that knowledge effectively into on-the-job performance of representatives. A useful tactic is to adopt design suggestions for electronic performance support systems (EPSS). Performance support can be decomposed into four roles; each of these roles can be partially or fully automated with computer-based support, and supplemented by human assistance.

A librarian organizes persistent community memory and other supporting reference material, and makes it readily available to service representatives at the point where it’s needed in their jobs. The librarian should also include facilities for information search and filtering.
A teacher provides guided instruction on a particular topic. The teacher may be implemented as computer-based training modules that explain job procedures or background knowledge.
A coach provides expertise for solving specific types of problems; for example, the knowledge intensive tasks and general problem solving skills described in previous sections. The coach might be implemented using expert systems technology, embedded within the performance support system.
An assistant contributes tools that automate or support routine job tasks, such as computing price quotes and approving a customer’s credit.

Electronic Consultative Commerce. Once the shared knowledge of organizational communities has been focused on creating customer solutions, efforts can be started to remove the customer representative as an intermediary. One might argue that the second stage can be omitted; customers can be given direct access to the community memory without having first empowered service representatives with that knowledge. However, the second stage is still accomplished implicitly. Knowledge communities are focused on the tasks associated with serving customers, even if a human service representative is never involved.

A key tactic for bringing consultative sales directly to the customer is through use of software agents that provide assistance to users. "Instead of user-initiated interaction via commands and/or direct manipulation, the user is engaged in a cooperative process in which human and computer agents both initiate communication, monitor events and perform tasks. " Such agents can be used to automate functionality similar to the performance support systems described for knowledge empowered service, and bring that functionality directly to the customer via the world-wide web.

Knowledge enabled service and electronic consultative commerce are not mutually exclusive. It’s often appropriate, and necessary, for firms to supplement an electronic commerce strategy with human involvement. A system architecture is being designed where there is a continuum of support between a fully disintermediated electronic commerce system and a telephone-based service model. A software agent underlying the customer’s system interface determines when human assistance is necessary, and automatically establishes a telephone connection with a service representative.

Conclusions

So, how can we make this future vision reality? The problem cannot be solved with technology alone. It requires leadership, appropriate problem solving skills, a culture that embraces knowledge sharing, a team and community oriented work process, and lots of hard work and commitment. The organizational design, learning environment, and human-to-human communication and collaboration are as important as the enabling technology. Although the emphasis is often placed on enabling technology, one should always keep in mind the balance between people, business processes, and technology.

Although not intentional, this article resulted in groups of three: three stages in the migration path, and three key ideas for present and future vision within each of the three stages. These topics are certainly not exhaustive, but represent some core principles for moving forward. This strategic framework is based on many conversations with consulting clients from several organizations. Further, more formal, empirical research is required to refine and validate these claims and to make the lists more complete. Additional papers are being drafted in several areas; two of them are briefly outlined here.

Computer-Mediated Knowledge Communities. This article intentionally avoided discussing the possibilities for technology that supports knowledge value networks, knowledge empowered service and electronic consultative commerce. However, a broad range of interesting choices are available. For example, electronic mail, discussion forums, Internet chat, video conferencing, electronic meeting systems, document management systems and the world-wide web all provide a means for computer-mediated knowledge sharing within and among communities. Rather than viewing these technology choices as competitive their complementary nature must be emphasized for a complete integrated solution.

Activity-Based Knowledge Analysis. A specific, operationalized methodology is being written that guides organizations through steps for defining and implementing knowledge value networks. This methodology builds on previous work that extended activity-based costing methods for use in improving organizational effectiveness. The five primary phases include: project planning, data collection, synthesis, data analysis, and recommendations. The complete process spans approximately three months, excluding implementation of the recommendations.

 


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