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Team Knowledge Management: A Computer-Mediated Approach

A Knowledge Ability White Paper

Dr. John Gundry
Knowledge Ability Ltd
Malmesbury UK
and
Dr. George Metes
Virtual Learning Systems, Inc
Manchester NH, USA

December 1996

Published at www.knowab.co.uk/wbwteam.html

A PDF version of this paper is available on request.


"CEOs, when asked how much of the knowledge which is available to the company is actually used, responded 'only about 20%.' (Gottlieb Duttweiler Foundation). Yet, if this figure represented average utilization of production capacity, it would only be acceptable to the most foolhardy CEOs." From the Agility Forum's Agile People Enterprise Development Group Newsletter, Iacocca Institute, Pennsylvania, November 1996

1. The need for knowledge management

The increasing use of electronic group collaboration tools to support team work has fueled interest in the ways by which what goes on when people use those tools can be captured, stored, and re-used by others. Called 'knowledge management', this is important for enterprises whose principal currency is knowledge, rather than physical or financial resources. These are enterprises who have always been wholly devoted to knowledge work, such as consultancies; a growing number of enterprises who discover that knowledge of how to produce products is as salable as the products themselves; and any enterprise who realizes that its knowledge is an asset to be managed.

The ability of enterprises to manage knowledge as an asset (and provide a return on investment and potentially revenue) is seen by strategies such as Agility (1) as the key to survival in a global business environment in which the efficiencies of mass production of commodity goods have been successfully exported to low-wage economies.

The core issue of knowledge management is to place knowledge under management remit to get value from it - to realize intellectual capital. That intellectual capital can be regarded as a major determiner of the difference between a company's book price and the total value of its stock. For a successful company, this difference can be considerable, representing the difference between the way the company is seen by accountants and by the market. For example, there is a great difference between the book price and share value of recently-launched biotechnology companies, whose market value is clearly based on their knowledge assets, rather than traditional capital.

However, while the world of business is experienced in managing physical and financial capital, companies have difficulty in finding cost-effective solutions to simple practical questions concerning knowledge, such as:

  • "We have four people in Boston who know how to solve this problem. How can we get them to help our team in Korea?"
  • "People are leaving the company with a lifetime's experience. How can we capture and re-use that?"
  • "We had a team that did a successful proposal for aerospace five years ago. Why did they make the decisions they did? How did they deal with the customer? What made the team tick?"
  • "How do we start learning from our experiences and help our people stop repeating others' mistakes?"
  • "We're involved in an exciting project with four other companies. How can we all learn how these virtual teams tick?"
  • "Needs change often these days and we're always bringing new people into projects. How can we get them up to speed and contributing quickly?"

While there are no categorical or perfect answers to any of these questions, a powerful set of solutions involves one of the electronic collaboration tools used for today's distributed group work, as will be explored in this paper. These solutions address three current trends that are making knowledge management especially significant today:

  • need (post-industrial, knowledge-based commerce),
  • awareness (growth of interest in virtual teaming and knowledge management),
  • accessible technologies (electronic collaboration tools).

This combination makes now a defining moment for organizational computing. By understanding these challenges, then appreciating the capabilities of available technologies, and then knowing how to build virtual teaming skills and create knowledge management strategies, enterprises can seize this moment and dramatically increase their ability to compete into the next century.

2. Operational characteristics of knowledge

There is no easy way to usefully define a concept as complex as knowledge. One-liners remain feebly abstract ("Knowledge is useable information"), encyclopedic treatises dismay the reader with detail. Here we will pragmatically define knowledge in terms of those operational characteristics that we must appreciate if we are to capture, store and utilize knowledge to sound business ends.

2.1 Knowledge is a human capability

The authors regard knowledge as a human capability rather than a property of an inanimate object such as a book or computer record. We see knowledge as a personal capability like a skill, experience, or intelligence: a capability to do or to judge something, now or in the future. This capability can be acquired by an individual as a result of reading, seeing, listening to, or feeling (physically or emotionally) something. What is read, seen, heard or felt is not the knowledge, rather it is the medium through which knowledge may be transferred. Note that one says "Here's the information you wanted about ....." but not "Here's the knowledge about ...". In our language we recognize that knowledge is the result of a personal transform.

2.2 Knowledge acquisition is a dynamic

The above distinction is important. It means that "knowledge management tools" don't really manage knowledge, but help capture, organize, store and transmit source material from which an individual may acquire knowledge. Whether an individual does acquire knowledge from a source depends on a dynamic interaction in which two factors are important here:

  • the similarity between the person's context (their situation, history and assumptions) and the context described,
  • the degree of congruence between how the material is structured and how the structure of the domain appears to the reader.

Hence we see the acquisition of knowledge (and especially business knowledge) as highly dependent on two very subjective constructs: context and structure. A report that transfers knowledge to one person may not transfer it to another if they do not share sufficient context with the author to understand what is described or cannot employ the material in way in which it is structured.

2.3 Knowledge is generative

Having knowledge means having an appreciation at the level of a map or a web, rather than a non-dimensional data point, or a one-dimensional fact. It means one can explain, explore and apply interpolations and abstractions. Most importantly to have knowledge means that one can generate new appropriate statements about a subject, not just reproduce the statements that were received. (To be a licensed London black cab driver, candidates have to pass an examination which takes two to three years' preparation. The examination tests their ability to describe the location of every street and major building in Greater London, and to construct the best route from any place to any other place under different traffic conditions. London cabbies call this qualification "The Knowledge".)

2.4 Knowledge is elaborate

While one talks of "a piece of information", one refers to "a body of knowledge". That "body" is an extensive, organized set of information. It comes in large packets. Knowledge does not come in soundbites. It's transferred through courses or books, or acquired through experience. The expectation is that people acquire knowledge (learn) over days or weeks rather than minutes and hours.

2.5 Knowledge about work is best acquired through work

Knowledge about work can be best acquired (learned) through work itself. A whole field of learning, ethnomethodology, has grown up around the superiority of learning-in-work. Knowledge acquired in work comes without the abstraction and restructuring required to present it in a lecture, book, film or cassette. One less translation means one less layer to deconstruct to map the knowledge to the individual's own perspective. London cabbies learn by driving the streets of London on motorbikes.

2.6 Dialogue is knowledge

For centuries, books have been published for the explicit purpose of letting others acquire knowledge. Today, enterprises publish great amounts of material internally and externally about their methods and products. We call this publication knowledge.

There exists, however, another type of knowledge which is accessible to the modern business: dialogue knowledge. Dialogue knowledge is entailed in what people communicate to each other in the course of their work. It comprises formal and informal communication and includes any accompanying materials. Modern collaboration tools, and especially computer conferencing, allow what people write and send to each other to be stored, and that stored material becomes a rich base from which people can acquire knowledge.

This paper focuses on dialogue, not publication. While published knowledge is important, and indeed dominates current discussions of intranets, it is an information management rather than a knowledge management issue. Today's challenge is to capture knowledge from what people say and do as part of their day to day work and to make it accessible to others.

3. The challenge of team knowledge management

With increasing emphasis on knowledge-based business rather than production-based business, management is seeking ways to get that knowledge under management remit. The goal is to manage this aspect of the enterprise in the same way as its physical and financial assets. Charged with this are the new roles of "knowledge managers" or "chief learning officers," with responsibility for creating the environment and process for dealing with knowledge as a corporate asset.

Typically the knowledge management process involves:

  • Capture
  • Organization and Storage
  • Distribution, or better, Sharing
  • Application or Leverage

Central to current concerns is the issue of team knowledge management. Teams, ascribed as the powerhouse of the effective enterprise (2), are more intractable from a knowledge management point of view than individuals. By their very nature teams create a great deal of new knowledge, which as such is of high value to the enterprise. However, the knowledge of how and why they created what they created is more difficult to get at than an individual's knowledge, since it exists in a number of different people, and also in their continuous interaction, a small proportion of which is usually recorded.

In the following sections we will look more closely at team knowledge management in relation to both a traditional approach, and a new computer-mediated approach.

3.1 Traditional approach to team knowledge management

Knowledge management has always been with us in the sense that enterprises have wished to capture and document process, for purposes of quality, automation, or to create documented methodologies. While routine work may be adequately captured for the purposes of quality or automation, enterprises often set out to capture non-routine work processes in documented methodologies. These are an explicit exercise in knowledge management, getting the knowledge from "people who have done it" documented and available across the enterprise. There are however major problems with documented methodologies: context and dialogue.

3.1.1 Problem of context

If the methodology is too strongly related to a particular context then it may fail to be seen as relevant to another context. For example, many development process innovations are applicable across a wide set of products. But if the development process is documented wholly within the paradigm of, say, hardware development, it may not be useful for teams developing software. If the author moves too far in the other direction, however, the methodology becomes too abstract and too generic, and it becomes hard to relate it to any practical situation.

3.1.2 Problem of dialogue

The second problem with methodologies is that they typically only document the explicit, or formal task elements of a process. Rarely is the tacit, or informal, process which actually took place documented. Hence they do not capture the dialogue, telling of the dynamics, uncertainties, insights, interactions and deliberations which made the process successful. While they may set down the 'what' of a process, they usually fail to set down the 'why' of its steps. Even if authors try to capture the 'why', such methodologies are written after the event, when people have forgotten the informal process and the 'why'.

Thus they fail to capture the reality of 'how'. The subsequent user of a methodology then either needs to spend time with someone who was involved in the documented process, or get that person into the new team. Much of the hardest-won and highest-value operational information about the process still resides in the heads of people who were personally involved, and remains uncaptured, unshared and unapplied by others.

3.2 A computer-mediated approach to team knowledge management

Against this picture of the problems of post-hoc, documented methodologies successfully to manage knowledge, we want to discuss another strategy for knowledge management. This is based on capturing as much as possible of the reality of the work as it was done by the team who did it. In this approach, the knowledge is captured as it is created using the same tools as used in the work. Knowledge about the work can be used as soon as it is shared in the work. And it is immediately applicable to any other work where it fits.

3.2.1 Knowledge management and computer conferencing

Our background is over twenty years' experience in equipping enterprises to adopt and make the most effective use of electronic collaboration tools: email, voice mail, and computer, audio and video conferencing. We address the behaviors, methods, approaches and protocols which are required if these tools are to support the work of distributed groups and teams. The application has always been the creation, capture, sharing and application of organizational knowledge.

Recently, our companies partnered to develop the WORKING BY WIRE SM TM program, a true "virtual service" delivered electronically world-wide, that equips distributed team members to "work together apart". Going beyond the usual level of tool skills, WORKING BY WIRE addresses the behaviors, methods, approaches and protocols required to support distributed team work. A full description of WORKING BY WIRE is viewable at http://www.knowab.co.uk/wbw.

Our central focus has always been the process historically known as computer conferencing. Invented roughly twenty years ago, computer conferencing has an impressive history of supporting work, social and educational activities. Today this technology-based process is mature as a key enabler of the virtual, online team work undertaken by today's distributed, knowledge-based enterprises. This tested communications capability is also known as online conferencing, bulletin boards, discussion forums, and threaded discussions. [List of alternative names for computer conferencing updated March 2002.]

Computer conferencing has special significance for knowledge management for the simple reason that when a team uses computer conferencing to collaborate, a permanent, shareable, record of what they write and send to each other is created. That record captures the knowledge that the team created and applied to its work, and is the basis for managing the team's knowledge. This permanent shareable record is not created when people use collaboration tools such as telephone, email, or audio and video conferencing. As one experienced user said- "These tools leave no footprint."

Use of computer conferencing to achieve team knowledge management is described in the following case example.

3.2.2 Team computer-mediated knowledge management: case example

Five years ago we were involved in a major proposal made by an international information and communications systems company to a US aerospace manufacturer. The proposal covered all the office, design, manufacturing and support systems for the life-cycle of new commercial aircraft. New integrated, concurrent development techniques were to be applied to its development. We were involved in the proposal in two roles. Firstly, we were recruited to create proposal material showing how online, distributed work could accelerate the customer's concurrent development process. Secondly, we took on the role of creating process for the concurrent working of the proposal team itself, which eventually numbered 140 people across eleven US states and six countries.

3.2.2.1 Role and use of computer conferencing

We chose computer conferencing as the process to integrate the proposal activities, which lasted four months. We designed the conferencing and collaboration environment (the electronic, virtual workspace) to achieve the following.

  • Enable cross-functional collaboration amongst the ten specialist skill groups comprising the proposal team (e.g. Project Management Group, Technology Groups, Training Group, Work Process Group, etc.), allied account teams, and (our) partner companies.
  • Demonstrate to the customer that conferencing would support concurrent development (in their context, development of an aircraft, in our immediate context, development of a proposal) in an extremely compressed timeframe.
  • Co-ordinate a team activity which was geographically distributed and reduce the cost and inconvenience of contributors' travel to the proposal HQ. (Only about 25% of the team ever traveled to the proposal HQ and we calculated that the electronic workspace saved approximately $150,000 in travel costs.)

Arrangements for computer conferencing were specifically designed and implemented to support these goals in accordance with principles and protocols for managing distributed online work, structuring conferences, and creating appropriate user expectations and behaviors.

If you had looked at the electronic workspace at the height of the proposal development, you would have seen:

  • On the Project Manager's instruction and example, over 90% of the team's communication was taking place within computer conferences, or copied into the computer conferences. Person-to-person email within the team was restricted to exceptional circumstances.
  • Everyone was using the overall Project Management computer conference, in which all major events, positions and issues were reported, as well as all notes of meetings with people in the computer or the customer company.
  • Each of the ten skill groups was working virtually within its own computer conference but browsing other groups' conferences.
  • Members of each skill group were cross-posting notes they felt they were important to other groups' conferences.
  • Material from all conferences was being used to create the emerging proposal document.
3.2.2.2 Concurrent use of knowledge

What we helped to create for this proposal was a system for concurrent knowledge management. The team generating the knowledge was the team that used the knowledge in their work, managing it as they went (borrowing terminology from electronic publishing, the team was the "prosumer" (producer and consumer) of its knowledge).

  • Specialist knowledge from within the ten skill groups was created by individuals, from their individual locations across the USA and Europe, and shared concurrently with the rest of their group and the team as a whole.
  • That knowledge was immediately reviewed and applied within the particular skill group and was available for impact assessment across the whole team.
  • Discussions about how to proceed at critical points was team-wide, and final decisions were recorded for all to read.

However, no-one on the team would have recognized the term "knowledge management" at the time. There was no concern about the specter of "knowledge sharing", since they needed to share knowledge to get the work done. All they knew was that the electronic workspace helped them progress their work and remain connected to their colleagues, without continually having to travel.

3.2.2.3 Later re-use of knowledge

What happened after the proposal was submitted is a telling story. Senior management created a task force (mostly of people not previously involved) to take the final proposal document and genericize it into a proposal template for aerospace bids - similar to the process of documenting methodology discussed earlier.

This was not a success. The resulting document was more of a testament to the efficiency of the Replace All word processor function than an item of usable intellectual capital. The result of the proposal work was still there, but it was not on its own accessible. It contained little context for the proposal (which in fact had a two year history); its structure was set for the original customer and could not be made generic without losing its logic; and nothing in it gave any clue as to why the team had chosen any of the solutions they proposed.

Soon after, however, we ourselves became involved in an engagement with another aerospace customer, this time in Europe, as part of a team proposing the means by which online work could support a concurrent development strategy. One of the first things we did was to open the computer conferencing archive that had been created by the earlier proposal team. The following happened:

  • The new team read the conferences. They understood not only the details of the proposal the original team had created, but why they had done it, and what went on while they were doing it. From the captured dialogue they could identify with the decisions, the dialogue, and the emotions that were flowing at critical points.
  • They were able to abstract key points from the captured process of the earlier proposal. These were both points that they already knew they needed answers to, and also points they didn't know they needed answers to.
  • They were able to contact people whose expertise was apparent from the recorded conferences, and consult with them about the new proposal.
  • They were able to place the genericized aerospace proposal template in context, and were able skillfully to pick and modify items which were relevant to their proposal.

4. Managing team knowledge through computer conferencing

In the preceding section we contrasted the traditional approach to team knowledge management with a computer-mediated approach, illustrated by a case example. We have also indicated the importance of computer conferencing in team computer-mediated knowledge management. In contrast to teams using the telephone, audio conferencing, video conferencing or even email, teams using computer conferencing create a permanent shared record of all their communications. We can predict that soon these records will not just be text and word-processor or graphic files, but also video and audio clips.

In this section we look more closely at two aspects of computer conferencing as a knowledge management tool. We look first at how computer conferencing conveys context and structure. We then look at the issue of one team using a computer conference structured according to a previous team's view of its knowledge.

4.1 Context

Context is important to knowledge management because knowledge is highly contextual. Context binds messages and pieces of information together to form meaning and thus provides infill to a map or body of knowledge. It includes situations, relationships, assumptions, expectations and prior events. We might say that adding context to information is one of the transformations from information to knowledge.

One of the great advantages of computer conferencing as a knowledge management process is that it superbly retains context. Within its major structuring by subject, a computer conference lays out in chronological sequence the history of a project or program - providing excellent clues as to what is going on or what went on, in the words that people used as part of their work. No other communication tool conveys the context of communication as well as computer conferencing.

4.2 Structure
4.2.1 Structuring of knowledge by the team that created it

As a team creates and populates its own computer conferences, emergent knowledge is placed within a structure of its own making. That structure - the mapping of subject-matters to conferences and groups - is designed at the outset to reflect the team's intended work, and is continually iterated. Assuming that the team is alive to the need to design and re-design its electronic workspace, the structure of the team's computer conferences is by definition always a good approximation to the structure of the team's knowledge.

4.2.2 Structuring of knowledge for later teams

While computer conferencing creates the requisite knowledge structure of and for a team which is using its own conferences (as "prosumers"), that structure need not necessarily be suitable for any later team or individual ("consumers") who want to learn from those conferences. Hence a knowledge management strategy based on computer conferencing needs to address the issue of the later re-use of conference records by people with a different viewpoint.

For example, in the aerospace proposal described earlier, the team proposed that the client use the computer company's established phase review process. The way in which the phase review process would be applied was discussed in a number of the conferences, since it was applicable to a number of different aspects of the proposal. There was no one conference called "phase review process". Hence someone interested in learning how the phase review process was presented in this proposal would not have found that laid out in one conference, and would have to browse all the conferences to find mention of it.

4.2.3 Hyperlinked structures

We believe that the answer to the re-structuring of knowledge in computer conference records is hyperlinking. In order to make the knowledge base that a computer conference record represents accessible to an unknown variety of future viewpoints, the content of the computer conference should be hyperlinked: that is, turned into a web of knowledge.

Hypermedia protocols are now widely available in HTML tools, and these allow the creation of new links across the content of computer conference records. The fact that these tools may also permit the publishing of those records on internal networks serves to increase their utility in sharing knowledge within an enterprise. It may also be that those computer conferences are in fact web conferences (conferences run on intranets), increasing the ease of sharing the conference record.

Specifically, therefore, we believe that in order to make computer conferences reusable as knowledge bases for later study, an important task is to identify the substantive items of content in computer conference records, and link them together. That knowledge base should then allow the following views to be taken of it:

  • the original view, reflecting the original team's structure - which includes a chronological view of communication within conferences, plus
  • a hyperlinked, web view, allowing navigation to conference items which address the same subject-matter.

Through this hyperlinked structure, the later reader wishing to learn how the previous team dealt with a particular subject may serendipitously find that it is already the subject of a conference, but may alternatively have access to a set of hyperlinked messages within separate conferences. Once the user has alighted on an item linked as relevant to a particular subject-matter, the conference record has preserved the context of that note. That is, rather than being presented with a bewildering array of mentions of a particular subject, the user has the opportunity to understand the context in which each item was written.

We recognize that it may not be necessary to go to the lengths of hyperlinking in every case. There may be sufficient commonality of knowledge structure throughout an enterprise that computer conferences generated by one team can be used by others without re- structuring into a web. However, if that is not the case, then hyperlinking conference records is a relatively simple and cost-effective process for knowledge management.

4.2.4 Hyperlinking policies and skills

Enterprises will need to create appropriate policies if what people write to their team colleagues is made available enterprise-wide. Further, best practices will need to be developed to hyperlink and edit conference records (giving rise to such questions as who does the hyperlinking, and what material can safely be edited out). Policies and practices for hyperlinking are under development by the authors for the WORKING BY WIRE program.

5. Team knowledge management and Working by Wire

From our experience with projects such as those recounted in this paper, we have developed the WORKING BY WIRE program. Within this program, we interact with users online, helping them to migrate to online work. We help them design their online work processes and the online workspace. And we further help users understand and overcome the psychological and cultural barriers they may be facing in working online, working online in teams, utilizing knowledge and sharing knowledge with others.

WORKING BY WIRE creates the environment and competencies for effective distributed team work. WORKING BY WIRE is at the same time a powerful intervention for enterprises who are concerned with knowledge management. If a team's knowledge is to be managed and shared within a computer network or intranet, then the bottom line is that there needs to be some process to get a team's knowledge into the computer in the first place. WORKING BY WIRE greatly assists that process. It helps to ensure that

  • everyone on the team uses computer-mediated communications,
  • all their team dialogue takes place in the team electronic workspace, and not through private email, even when that dialogue is informal,
  • a culture is formed online which reinforces knowledge sharing and continuous communication,
  • team members are encouraged to learn from each other and from outside the team,
  • the structure of that electronic workspace remains tuned to the emerging structure of the knowledge that the team is handling.

Hence WORKING BY WIRE addresses the issues of knowledge management head-on, providing sound design and operational bases for both concurrent and later use of knowledge.

When a team's knowledge is being used concurrently by its own members, wherever they are located, WORKING BY WIRE helps teams:

  • capture their knowledge
  • organize their knowledge
  • distribute / share their knowledge
  • apply their knowledge to their work.

When a team's knowledge is being used by a later team or set of individuals, WORKING BY WIRE helps:

  • capture knowledge from previous teams
  • reorganize the knowledge for their own viewpoint
  • distribute / access the knowledge in archival conferences
  • apply the knowledge to their own work.

WORKING BY WIRE is an essential part of an enterprise's knowledge management strategy. Through equipping people with the competencies and skills for online work, it allows distributed teams to accelerate their online work and achieve their goals. A significant part of this is enabling the team to manage its knowledge for its own concurrent use. A team adhering to WORKING BY WIRE principles will also create, in the stored record of its communications, the knowledge which can be made available to later teams and individuals.

6. References

1. Agile Networking: Competing Through the Internet and Intranets by George Metes, John Gundry and Paul Bradish. Prentice Hall PTR, Upper Saddle River, NJ., 1997
2. The Wisdom of Teams by J. R. Katzenbach and D. K. Smith. Harvard Business School Press, MA., 1993


Please cite this paper as:

Gundry, John, and Metes, George, "Team Knowledge Management: A Computer-Mediated Approach". A White Paper from Knowledge Ability Ltd, Malmesbury UK and Virtual Learning Systems, Inc., Manchester NH USA. Published at www.knowab.co.uk/wbwteam.html. December 1996.

About the authors

Comments and inquires regarding this paper are welcomed. Please contact either of us.

Dr John Gundry is Director of Knowledge Ability Ltd, a UK-based company that provides international training and consulting on virtual teams, remote working and flexible working. Contact: www.knowab.co.uk - gundry@knowab.co.uk - +44 (0)1666 824644

Dr George Metes is retired Director and Principal Consultant North America for Agility International, a company that provides education and consulting in the Agility / Business Agility paradigm for organisational adaptability. Previously George was President of Virtual Learning Systems, Inc.

Knowledge Ability Ltd offers WORKING BY WIRE training and consulting services on virtual teams, remote working and flexible working, viewable at www.knowab.co.uk/wbw.html

Notices

Working by Wire is a trademark of Knowledge Ability Ltd.

This paper is copyright Knowledge Ability Ltd 1996, 1997, 1998, 2001, 2002 and copyright Virtual Learning Systems Inc., 1996, 1997, 1998, 2001. All Rights Reserved.

Permission is granted to copy and distribute this paper provided that it is copied and distributed unaltered and entire, including this entire Section 'Notices'. No permission is granted to exploit the information in this paper for any commercial purpose whatsoever.

The information in this paper may contain errors. This paper does not constitute an offer or sample. Neither Knowledge Ability Ltd or Virtual Learning Systems Inc. warrant the accuracy of the information in this paper. This paper is provided "as is" without express or implied warranty.

Version 1.10 minor non-content revisions October 2013