Leveraging Knowledge May Be Our Foremost Challenge

Article excerpt

"We can no longer compete on the cost of labor with countries like China," said Olivetti chief Carlo De Benedetti. "What we have to leverage is our know-how."

Right on. Unfortunately, we don't know how to do it.

Seventeen thousand Price Waterhouse consultants and accountants are using Notes, Lotus Development's new work-group technology system, CIO magazine reports. But most applications of the software have been mundane. Why? "Fostering the shared work-group vision that lies behind Notes has proved elusive," reporter Thomas Kiely concluded.

Devising the right sticks and carrots is the issue, said Sheldon Laube, the $3.8 billion firm's national director of information and technology. The following question must be answered affirmatively by a cast of thousands: "Was it worth their time to enter information _ for someone else's benefit _ on the gamble that somewhere down the road information would appear in Notes that is useful to them?"

Laube has sidestepped this issue so far and settled for practical uses of the system. Case in point, per CIO: "A banking consultant in Washington picks up regulatory gossip, and sensing an opportunity, broadcasts a message to the 200 or more Price Waterhouse banking consultants throughout the nation, who immediately broach the subject with their clients." That boils down to an e-mail use of Notes, according to MIT Professor Wanda Orlikowski, who's studied Price Waterhouse. "It isn't the same thing as collaboratively working together on a joint project," she added.

Brook Manville, co-director of information and technology at consultants McKinsey Co., understands the distinction Orlikowski makes. He's also overseeing a major implementation of Notes _ but McKinsey's avowed emphasis is fundamental transformation of the company's professional practice.

McKinsey has typically thrown very bright, energetic folks at a client project. Manville calls it the "we're smarter than everyone else and that's enough to maintain our advantage" strategy. But competitors are catching up. McKinsey's next step, according to Manville, is to leverage its collective experience by systematically developing and sharing institutional knowledge.

Knowledge development at McKinsey orbits around 30-odd "practice centers" _ voluntary, virtual communities of consultant-specialists who offer their expertise to colleagues. Getting these centers to view knowledge development in marketing terms is the first step. …