The 2000 Conference Board Conference

Article excerpt

The definition and uses of knowledge management are broadening

The Conference Board held its annual meeting, "The 2000 Knowledge Management and Organizational Learning Conference," in San Francisco on March 6 and 7. So what was new this year? What trends could be observed? Well, the trend toward more emphasis on the human-factors component of knowledge management (KM) continued, as did the greater proportional attendance by human resources professionals that was evident during the 1999 meeting. Note that the tag line of the conference was "Leadership, People, and Cultural Imperatives." Another trend was that KM's industry base appears to be broadening. There was less attendance by representatives from the obviously information-intensive areas such as the accounting/consulting firms, and more from the heavy end--the sectors that not so long ago were fashionable to call "rust belt" industries.

A new theme that cropped up repeatedly was KM's role in retaining talented people. What is intriguing is that this is now appearing in a positive, proactive sense, not a reactive sense. Some of the first interest in KM came from executives who belatedly realized that, as a consequence of over-enthusiastic downsizing or "right-sizing," a great deal of the corporation's knowledge base and intellectual capital had departed right along with the middle managers who'd been let go. Those executives hoped that KM would be a replacement for that knowledge and those salaries, or that at least a good KM system would make future right-sizings more boomerang-free.

That view of KM is one that Larry Prusak, executive director of the Institute for Knowledge Management at IBM, has railed against for sometime. At the 1998 Conference Board conference, when business process re-engineering was still riding high, he startled some attendees by stating bluntly that "reengineering is the enemy of knowledge." Now, the emphasis has shifted Prusak's way; it's no longer on how to protect yourself or your organization if your employees and your knowledge is lured away, rather it's now on using KM to retain and motivate your best employees. The rationale is that your best employees are your best contributors, and your best overall contributors are likely to be contributors to the KM system and therefore its beneficiaries--not only in terms of job satisfaction but also financially.

This gets back to the mantra that you know you truly have a KM system when you have changed the compensation method to explicitly reward contributions to and participation in the system. Thus the proposition goes beyond the fact that the organization should modify its compensation scheme to facilitate KM and thereby enhance organizational performance. The proposition has now expanded to include the argument that you should adopt KM because it provides a rationale and a structure that enables the modification of your culture--including your compensation scheme--in a fashion that rewards your contributors and that enables you to retain your best talent.

This theme was in fact never stated so explicitly by any of the speakers, but it was inherent in much of what they said. While this article may be perhaps the first to focus exclusively on this new theme, I'm not the originator--it was in the air at the conference.

An obvious corollary is that KM can be used as a tool to recruit the best employees. Rick Martino, vice president of talent for IBM (the very title suggests a new emphasis on human resources), pointed out that IBM had hired some 37,000 employees last year and that an active KM environment was important in recruiting the best workers. This retention and recruitment theme is in one sense an outgrowth of the "trust" theme, the awareness that emerged in 1998/99 that KM won't flourish without an atmosphere of trust in the organization. …