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Much has changed in the 10 years since knowledge management jumped from academic computer science to the mainstream of business technology.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s knowledge management initiatives were largely the preserve of very large companies such as Shell, or government departments such as the UK’s Department of Trade and Industry. Only very large organisations could afford the time, resources and high-performance hardware needed to deliver a knowledge management project.

Companies’ experiences with Year 2000 readiness programmes and the dotcom bust meant very large IT projects fell from fashion. Moreover, a number of large knowledge management programmes failed to deliver value, often because the systems were too slow and cumbersome to use, or too expensive to deploy to enough people to make them effective.

None the less, Gartner, the market research company, believes “most leading organisations have implemented KM to support at least one critical business process, and many have enterprise-wide KM programs,” according to a note published on the outlook for knowledge management technology.

The way companies think about, and implement, knowledge management, however, has changed considerably in the past couple of years, and it continues to evolve. Early knowledge management initiatives were almost always centred around large databases, often based on mainframes.

Groups of knowledge management experts – sometimes known as “cybrarians” – would control what went into the knowledge management system, design keywords and meta tags to index the data, and often determined who could carry out a search.

Although some companies benefited from such systems, many did not.

“Large companies have spent a lot of money on knowledge management but one would question how many have shown a return on investment,” suggests Robert Gordon, chief executive of software company Mindjet. “A few years later people ask: ‘Whatever happened to that knowledge management system?’ It is a question of how you get the information down to individual knowledge workers so they are more effective. Often, you find people have been putting the data into the knowledge management system for five years but getting nothing back.”

The solution, according to a growing number of business software vendors, is to bring knowledge management tools to employees’ desktops, rather than locking information away in a mainframe or central database. This is being reinforced by a trend among individual users to adopt their own search tools, such as Google, either because they do not have access to the central knowledge management system or because it is cumbersome to use.

“There are companies that have achieved an immersive knowledge management experience,” says Whit Andrews, a vice-president for research at Gartner. “But other companies are approaching knowledge management in a much more opportunistic fashion. Perhaps the perfect example is desktop search.” He points out that younger knowledge workers used to technologies such as Google want tools to manage their information at their fingertips.

Technology, though, offers ways to solve some of these problems. One intractable issue for most knowledge management systems is the need for users to place meta information and keywords in their documents, either as they create them or before they store them in the knowledge management system. Both are time consuming, and can mean busy employees do not keep the system up-to-date.

Advances in database and content management software have gone some way to solving the problem. Modern systems can index documents in close to real time, helped by more powerful and cheaper server hardware.

“When you upload a file to content system it is indexed by a text engine and keywords are extracted. It goes through an automated categorisation cycle,” says Rich Buchheim, senior director of product development for collaboration software at Oracle. “I don’t have to go through those extra steps. Fifteen years ago we didn’t have the capability to do that. It would have taken hours to do auto indexing. You had to shift the burden to the user.”

Better software and faster hardware also makes it easier for knowledge management systems to handle data held across a range of computer applications, such as CRM and ERP, as well as as text or other documents on file servers. Rather than duplicating data into one single – and complex – knowledge management database, companies can build systems that pull together information from a range of sources.

Such federated knowledge management systems will be vital in driving uptake of the technology, as well as improving the return on investment for companies that already use knowledge management, says Gartner’s Andrews. He also expects to see companies turn to simpler, “lighter” knowledge management technologies, possibly based around desktop search.

Knowledge management is also likely to integrate far more closely with business intelligence software, for analysing the information, and with data warehousing and information lifecycle management software, to handle the data companies need to keep.

And if companies want to gain the benefits of knowledge management, including capturing information held in the minds and private notes of the baby-boom generation, they need technology to provide staff with knowledge management through familiar tools.

Andy Hayler, founder and chief strategist of data warehouse software company Kalido, points out that companies with effective knowledge management systems, such as consultancy firms, also have a strong collaboration culture. People used to working in multi-disciplinary, and often geographically disbursed, teams will take the time to learn a knowledge management tool.

But companies that want to drive wider usage of knowledge management need to use technology to tie it in to the average user’s computer desktop.

“A lot of this software struggles because people really want to be using email, or Google, or Excel,” he says. “If it is a system they are not familiar with, it is another barrier.”

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