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The Role of the Knowledge Centre in Knowledge Management
The failings of decentralised knowledge facilitation. Choosing the opposite direction.
Boyd Hendriks

Decentralised knowledge facilitation
The Knowledge Centre
The work of the Knowledge Centre
Knowledge service levels
The first steps


What would it mean to you if, needing knowledge for your work, a project, or to develop an idea, you just had to step through one door to have your wishes made reality? Can you imagine this door being open for you not only during office hours, but it being virtual as well, reachable via your companys intranet, even from home? Would it be of help to have your personal knowledge requirements accurately updated on a daily basis with a precision that gets better and better over time?

Having had the opportunity to visit a great number of knowledge intensive companies, it is fair to state that only a few have a door like that! It is the door to the Knowledge Centre, the one-stop shop to all your knowledge requirements. In fact many companies have chosen to do the opposite, placing the responsibility for individual information needs at or near the end-user. In the process they effectively decentralise knowledge management as well. In this article we examine these two opposite approaches to practical knowledge management: both have their strengths and weaknesses, but I believe the centralised approach has had less discussion than it deserves.

decentralised knowledge facilitation

Over the last few years information vendors have offered companies access to well-structured, easily searchable on-line databases. Through user-friendly interfaces, windows and lately even Internet browsers, information end-users have been able to log on and search through huge amounts of information from thousands of sources.

In the decentralised model of knowledge facilitation (Diagram 1) often each department, or core competence, is provided with its own access to several of these on-line databases. With the help of free-text searches and well-defined, source- independent filters the information can be reduced to only the most relevant material. Successful search criteria can be saved and easily re-used. Some databases allow searches to be active for an unlimited time, regularly prompting the user (often via e-mail) when new information fitting their knowledge profile has arrived.

In many cases, within an hour of their first access to an on-line system, users will be able to set the search criteria sharp enough to get the best response to their knowledge need. kennis1.gif (9898 bytes)

Diagram 1. Personalised information supply, supporting decentralised knowledge facilitation.

But there are obvious disadvantages as well. If knowledge facilitation by individual information focus has become integrated in the core competencies of your organisation, it will become difficult to establish a knowledge management structure based on a culture of pro-active and disciplined sharing. Also, it is likely that many users working in the same market might be requesting the same knowledge on a regular basis leading to duplications

the Knowledge Centre

Let us look at the alternative, where knowledge management is exercised as a central role from a central point, namely the Knowledge Centre. In this model knowledge is discovered, mapped and evaluated within the Knowledge Centre. This unit can play a key role in the new opportunities of the knowledge age. It will be involved in addressing the following questions:

  • What and where are the resources of my organisations knowledge?
  • Who uses them, who generates them, why or why not?
  • At what cost is this taking place, and with what result?

The Chief Knowledge Officer (CKO) should be found here, leading the Knowledge Centre. The staff of this centre must play a combination of different roles: knowledge manager, librarian and project manager. Besides involvement in the flow, handling and use of knowledge, the centre must actively monitor and connect all sources of knowledge.

In a simple knowledge cycle as presented in Diagram 2, the Knowledge Centre is playing a managing role where it concerns embedding and distributing knowledge, and a monitoring role applies with respect to knowledge (re-)use or creation. Total quality management must be allocated a role in quantitative measurement of the full knowledge cycle statistics.

kennis2.gif (4567 bytes)

Diagram 2. The managing and the monitoring roles of the Knowledge Centre in the knowledge cycle.

But there are obvious disadvantages as well. If knowledge facilitation by individual information focus has become integrated in the core competencies of your organisation, it will become difficult to establish a knowledge management structure based on a culture of pro-active and disciplined sharing. Also, it is likely that many users working in the same market might be requesting the same knowledge on a regular basis leading to duplications

the work of the knowledge centre

Let us now look at some aspects of how a Knowledge Centre can facilitate knowledge processes. From all entities in the organisation surrounding the core competencies (departments, knowledge workers, specialist groups, virtual teams etc.) knowledge needs are mapped and subsequently information filters are generated based on the knowledge profiles. kennis3.gif (11540 bytes)


Diagram 3. The Knowledge Centre is positioned between the Internal Knowledge Base and the External Information Base.

The Knowledge Centre is supplied from the External Information Databases as well as Internal Knowledge Sources, preferably concentrated in a well-structured Knowledge Base (see Diagram 3). On a day-to-day basis the individual entities are supplied with "near knowledge" tailored to their specific needs. At the outset knowledge demands are responded to individually, but all requests are carefully registered in order to create an accurate "near experience" map, making the "Who Knows What" explicit for the organisation.

On this basis people searching for certain experience will not only be connected with the appropriate internal and external knowledge sources; they can also be connected with the experienced people in their own organisation. This connecting of people might be an automated link into expert discussion groups on their Intranet.

Another aspect of the work of the Knowledge Centre is in running knowledge audits. Only a few companies tend to conduct regular information audits, normally executed by their Research & Information (R&I) department, the Documentation Centre or the Corporate Library. Knowledge audits need the same routines and instruments in place. Organisations wanting to start knowledge audits will look in vain for handbooks on this subject. However, literature on information management covering audits will be found helpful. Some of the measurements derived as outcomes of routine knowledge audits can be used as knowledge performance indicators, and as input for the quality management system.

An issue often highlighted by such audits is that the R&I department, the Documentation Centre or the Corporate Library stores "grey" literature such as reports, dissertations, electronic discussion lists and other less-disclosed sources. Well stored and indexed this can be of considerable value to the knowledge base. Care must be taken that, when a transformation of information services into a Knowledge Centre is undertaken, this category of information does not become inaccessible.

This also leads to a consideration of the issue of scope of library content. Modern organisations have such a wide spectrum of activities that a full library collection to reflect the whole range will often end up not being economical. Therefore many organisations have chosen to opt for a collection that is only a reflection of their needs on an "as-required" basis.

knowledge service levels

With the start of a Knowledge Centre a more sophisticated question handling process must be put in place, where a Service Level Agreement is drawn up to describe the knowledge service to be delivered, and under what conditions. This is necessary not only to correctly set expectations, but also to allow a consistent growth of users and departmental knowledge profiles.

kennis4.gif (4323 bytes)

Diagram 4. Example of a basic question handling system.

The logical flow of a basic form of Service Level Agreement (SLA) is shown in Diagram 4. Typically the SLA might include requirements such as:

  • The need for users to document submitted questions fully
  • A commitment by the Knowledge Centre to respond within eight hours with an answer or other pro-active response
  • A commitment from the Knowledge Centre to follow this up within two days and offer extra support if required.

Equally, it might be necessary to state clearly what the Knowledge Centre will not do. For example it may not be prepared to undertake purchases of specific publications in response to enquiries.

the first steps

Most professional organisations do have a department which has the potential to be transformed into a Knowledge Centre. Look around your organisation to spot this unit, staff it with the right skilled people, connect it to the right information technology and give it the right status and visibility on the corporate intranet. With some effective internal "PR" and management support, this department can become, in time, the treasurer of your corporate intellect and manager of your knowledge cycle.

Boyd Hendriks is Knowledge Management Practice Leader
for Cap Gemini Telecom & Services in the Netherlands.

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