frontlineLast week I suggested that IT and KM (Knowledge Management) departments need to get together and refocus themselves on enhancing individual front line worker effectiveness and productivity.

Since then I’ve knocked this around with some IT and KM people both online and in person, representing a variety of different industries, and they’ve helped me refine these ideas considerably. The first thing I’ve concluded is that for pragmatic reasons KM should be organizationally part of IT, rather than a separate department or a part of HR or Sales & Marketing. IT has the resources and the budget, understands the function of infrastructure, is less vulnerable to full outsourcing, and has objectives that are so synergistic with KM’s that sometimes they step on each other’s toes. Besides, as I explained in that previous post, KM has a lot to offer IT as well, to get it past the major challenges IT is facing today.

The new, combined TechKnowledgy department would have not only the traditional responsibilities for managing the financial, HR and sales systems and the centralized and desktop hardware of the organization, but also these new responsibilities:

  • Development of new social software tools for front-line employees, including:
    • Expertise locators – to help people find other people inside and outside the organization they need to talk with to do their job more effectively
    • Personal content management tools – simple, weblog-type tools that organize, access and selectively publish each individual’s ‘filing cabinet
    • Personal collaboration tools – wireless, portable videoconferencing and networking tools that save travel costs and allow people to participate virtually in events where they cannot afford to participate in person
    • Research bibilography and canvassing tools – technologies and templates that enable effective do-it-yourself business research and analysis and facilitate the preparation of professional reports and presentations, and
  • Hands-on assistance to front-line employees — helping them make effective use of technology and knowledge, including the above tools, one-on-one, in the context of their individual roles. Not training, not wait-for-the-phone-to-ring help desk service — face to face, scheduled sessions where individuals can show what they do and what they know, and experts can show them how to do it better, faster, and take the intelligence of what else is needed back to HO so developers can improve effectiveness even more.

Why should management pay for these new tools and services that they don’t directly benefit from? Because improvements in the effectiveness of front-line workers increases profitability, and because the above tools will also make some management tasks easier: appraisal of employee performance, identification of internal and external experts, knowledge hoarders, and (as these tools begin to cross organizational boundaries) the quality of potential recruits, contractors and suppliers. And some of the personal content management tools could replace centralized content tools and repositories that, in most organizations, have produced more pain than gain.

When we talked about this, it also occurred to us that this second category of new responsibilities — hands-on assistance to front-line employees — might lend itself right out of the gate to outsourcing. This might create a huge opportunity for all the un- and under-employed IT consultants out there — as front-line productivity consultants. There are certainly plenty of value propositions for such a service — lousy return on IT and death by e-mail overload come immediately to mind.

So, infrastructure lovers everywhere, there are two opportunities here: One to save both KM and IT from attrition and irrelevance by joining forces and doing some new and desperately needed things, and the other to create a host of new entrepreneurial businesses that will allow business- and tech-savvy people to solve what Drucker called the greatest business challenge of the 21st century.

Now all we have to do is convince management.

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  1. judith says:

    when i was with sbc communications’ internet company, we called our group the “TechKnowledgy” group… the concept and practice – to embed knowledge into all of our technology initiatives… our charter was as outlined in your post here dave… spooky, and yet validating… we created an expertise locator, personal content management and collaboration tools, and we maintained a centralized bibliograpy or repository of tools and templates to effect solutions more quickly and with high quality… we did this for the front-line organizations and won a landslide of awards and praise from our customers, employees, industry pundits and publications… we presented our “TecKnowledgy” vision to most of the c-level executives of sbc, with positive feedback… the challenge in socializing this vision more widely was in penetrating the more rigid operational silos of this large organization. cio magazine did a piece on some of our initiatives that you might find interesting:

  2. If the CIO is a visionary who considers his job as IM rather than IT, and who has the full support of the CEO, I agree with you. Indeed, the CIO is the most likely senior exec to comprehend the big picture of KM as a management practice. Unfortunately, in many companies, and in mine in particular, the CIO is chartered to reduce the costs of IT infrastructures. Period.

  3. mrG says:

    In my (albeit limited) experience, I agree with your KM/IT merger only in the sense that IT has wandered from its roots and therein is 90% of the problem.When I began in all this (IBM370 days) we didn’t call it IT or even ICT, we called it IS, we called it “Information Services” — at some point, I’m not sure where, the wool was pulled over everyone’s eyes to say that computing was a technology, thereby implying something mysterious, arcane and not for the general lay public to understand. It was the biggest boondoggle in enterprise history.If we return to that can-do notion of using computing infrastructures to supply a service, the whole game changes, CIO’s are no longer demi-gods to be appeased, but they become what they should be, plumbers that make sure the plumbing works, and we all know the purpose of plumbing. As Alan Cooper points out, we in fact have come to expect more from our plumbers than from our IT professionals, and that shows some sense of the value the average enterprise places on both sorts of effluent flows ;)So IT should work with KM, IT should also work with HR, with accounting, with shipping, with the company nurse, with the social committee, with the cafeteria, they should be out there, cruising the hallways ring a bell, welcoming all comers and chanting “Give us your problems!“But what’s the chance of that happening?

  4. David Jones says:

    If I had to put KM in a department it would be any department but the IT department.At least, that is my thinking of the moment.

  5. Lee Bryant says:

    Carry on with this – it is a good train of thought, and I agree with the previous cooment that the problem with IT is it slipped its moorings some time ago.We have blogged this at

  6. Jon Husband says:

    I’ll bet a big part of the issue – for both IT and HR – is the career trajectory, and thus the large possibility of “legacy mindsets”, on the part of senior practicioners in both domains.Becoming a senior CIO or a senior HR person in an organization of any size and scale pretty much guarantees, I think, that the incumbent will be steeped in thinking and models that would take a fair bit of “soak time” in thinking about, and experiencing, new integrative possibilities.Referring back to your post of a month or two ago, “How To Change Anything”, what would be the first steps on an action path towards the mental model and supporting framework of practices and relationships you set out above as possible?

  7. Dave Pollard says:

    Judith: Nice writeup. And you’re right — the silos are a key problem. Solution may be outside the organization — when people are collaborating better across org boundaries than between depts within the org, that may make people take notice.Martin/David: A lot depends on the culture and the qualities of the CIO — although technology is, I think, the logical place for KM, an unfriendly or indifferent CIO can make it almost impossible to get the possible synergies. I think/hope that Jon is right, and in time most CIOs will be not only sympathetic and knowledgeable, but true allies in KM.Lee: Thanks. Agree we’re on to something — it will be a rocky road but unless we do something I fear both IT and KM are heading for a wall.

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