Communications

2001 - IFLA (Groupe de discussion sur le Knowledge Management)

Knowledge capitalization in companies: analysis chart and results


Conference IFLA 2001 - Boston - Discussion Group on Knowledge Management

Context and research areas

We conducted a survey from October 2000 to May 2001 in a dozen companies in Rhône-Alpes. This was part of the DEA (˜ Master's degree) research workshop about "knowledge capitalization in companies". Four of these companies were industrial painting firms. This branch of activity shares common set of problems, interests and debates, whether the firms are small businesses, subsidiaries from industrial groups, which are sometimes market leaders, or research laboratories. These companies are grouped under associations, such as the AFTPVA (Accueillir, Former, Transmettre, Participer, Valoriser, Avancer) a regional and national association, under federations i. e. FIPEC (Fédération des industries des peintures, encres, couleurs, colles et adhésifs). All the engineers graduated at ITECH (Institut du textile de Lyon), which is an engineering school located in Ecully (Rhône département). Therefore, all employees share common grounds, as shown by some of the answers obtained for the survey.
We got in touch with other firms (companies from the telecommunication and engineering branches, consultants, tool designers) to improve our survey. We included the results in our survey.

Method: a qualitative approach

We chose a qualitative approach rather than a quantitative approach - time limits for the training period, the time dedicated to interviews, their transcription and their analysis guided the interview. We used a questionnaire to carry out the interview-based survey.

Method: interview-based survey: an approach involving active participation

The interviewee is on equal terms with the investigator. The interview-based survey is essential when some questions need to be tackled. Besides, questions cannot be formulated before the interview, as they depend on the meeting. Somehow, this type of survey is a "planned improvisation" [Bourdieu, 80].

Questions

Before starting the survey, we created a chart composed of a dozen questions, which made possible to guide the interview. These questions were basically about:

  • typology of technical, scientific, administrative information, which is stored by the employee or the firm,
  • the criteria used to choose the information - information selection and storage,
  • information transmission within the company and information media: oral, written media,
  • distribution of the information within teams; information feed-back; problems,
  • aim of information capitalization: Who decided? When? Who are the agents involved ? Essential investments?
  • the use of computers - other tools? What do users use? Do they manage to store information with these tools?
  • Structure of documents: management of documents; formalization; normalization.

As a whole, questions aimed at:

  • analyzing the needs in information, and setting up the typology of useful pieces of information,
  • describing the collection of written information,
  • analyzing the information flows (oral, written information),
  • analyzing the procedures of information capitalization,
  • analyzing the procedures of knowledge and know-how capitalization, which are inherent to companies.

We recorded every interview and used the recordings to fill in a detailed form.

The interviewees

The interviewees did not have the same occupation. It was not possible to interview employees from the same occupation category. However, each interviewee brought information that was complementary to our first objective, although heterogeneous answers were sometimes problematic.
We asked the same questions to:

  • a technical assistance manager
  • a research supervisor
  • the manager of a chemistry laboratory
  • two commercial managers (painting and consulting branches)
  • two commercial engineers (painting and telecommunication branches)
  • two librarians (consulting and engineering branches)

Knowledge capitalization in companies: observations and analysis

From what we first observed, we can deduce that there are two elements, which are part of the life of companies and employees. The first element deals with information, the relationship between information and users, the way information is managed and what it is intended for. The second element mainly deals with knowledge management - how is knowledge capitalized? By whom? Which tools are used? What are the objectives?

Information management and knowledge capitalization

Activity and information are closely related in companies

There is clear evidence that activity and information are closely related in companies. Every interviewee showed that his/her daily work depended on a piece or several pieces of information, whether they were technical, administrative or coming from field experience (information from customers, suppliers) or research. Data crossing could not be clearly detailed in most cases. However, some interviewees formalized intelligence systems.

The activity progresses with the introduction of new information. This shows that every company is open to new information, although data collection is not structured. Information is crucial for activities and its benefits lie in economy. Information is seen as a resource: it can be used as raw material, just like energy or work. It is intrinsically beneficial. This benefit is granted by information recipients but is not easily quantifiable. Information helps take decisions, at the individual or collective level [SIM, 83]. We cannot take advantage from the daily tasks that are not based on information. This creates uncertainty. It is therefore necessary to pass on the information.
Information is of great importance in activities and therefore work - it is vital for the individual.

Creating "personal" information systems

Employees create various types of "personal" information systems as there is no global information system. Engineers who graduated at the Institut textile de Lyon (ITECH) are the perfect example of such an initiative. They form a strong, lively and dynamic professional network. Engineers organize seminars on a regular basis, and every engineer knows that he/she can trust the network to get information. Employees from all grades, and especially executives, form information networks. Executives were trained to new technologies. They have started using the Internet and have shown genuine interest in this technology. However, traditional information resources still play a role. They include subscriptions to specialized journals, article searches. As library structures are rarely developed, it is essential for executives to create their own information system.
The more "advanced" engineers in terms of information management use either external intelligence systems, or powerful intelligence systems on the Internet.
In addition to personal information systems, employees may use collective information systems. The strategy of the company is clear and everything is done to pass on the information. Most of the time, the company uses computer tools, such as Intranet networks.

Both individual and collective systems are interconnected and aimed at a better work planning.

Nevertheless, we noticed that in most cases, information practices highly differed from one company to the other. They are also rarely formalized and developed in a "scientific" way. We found out that companies were negligent, could not afford information practices, or did not pay much attention to information and the culture of information. A number of management strategies and articles from the literature are dedicated to information, but information practices, which are linked to decision taking and strategies are rarely formalized and are often based on individual practices.

Information management: information practices and power that is at stake

When there is no information system available or when this system is not much developed, employees develop various information practices. They aim at improving organization. It takes quite a long time to find useful information and information loss is quite considerable. We can wonder why information systems are sometimes not available or why information does not pass on. Some companies overtly say that there is not a free flow of information whereas others do not.

Who manages information in companies?

Small businesses do not consider information as a strategy. Employees, such as engineers in particular manage information. They gather internal or external information through traditional means, select the pieces of information and classify them, using conventional means such as thematic files or archives. These management systems are simple but the information they contain is of great importance.

In companies where information is considered as a help in decision taking, several categories of employees share information management:

Librarians deal with information by using documentary techniques (information is referenced, stored in a documentary software program and classified so that it can be easily found). A consulting firm, which works on engineering and writes technical reports and prototype studies is one of the best examples. This firm has 12 agencies in France and around the world (Egypt, Thailand, and China). Since its creation in 1913, a genuine system of memory storage and storage of know-how has been available. A copy of every single study that is carried out is stored in the archives, in addition to the document, which is sent to the customer (this is a proof). Every archived study is accompanied by a bibliographic note, which has been recorded in the documentary program software "Texto" since 1976. The Intranet was implemented two years ago.
Engineers and experts use the means that are made available by technology, such as intelligence systems on the Internet in particular. In a company that designs tools for knowledge management, the expert plays a major role because he is the one who validates the collected data. He will either use public databases of information or databases that are validated by experts. He will then write down a note, which reviews all data that may be useful later. An expert in the field in question must check every database. The procedure varies with the customer. If there is a recurrent question, the expert writes a review for the "know-how" database, which is available on the company Intranet.
Expert networks were created. A management counseling firm, which was founded in 1926 and has 80 offices and more than 6000 consultants from 89 countries, thinks that knowledge management is a key factor for success. A world network of specialists in knowledge management was created to support the counseling activity conducted by consultants. This network aims at helping the consultants with their research of external or internal information/knowledge. Thirty areas of development were identified. These areas require very advanced techniques of problem solving and experience. Expert groups develop problem solving models, approaches, tools, and distribute them throughout the company.

There is clear evidence that internal information, external information, crossing data, validation and distribution are closely related. We can state that some companies have developed a genuine culture of information, which associates information management and knowledge management.

Conclusion: from information to knowledge

Information and knowledge are closely related. A company that develops efficient information management has increased power. The implemented system will be used for the development of the company's knowledge. How is knowledge capitalized?

Devices used for knowledge capitalization

Knowledge capitalization is not clearly formalized in all the companies. There are two groups of companies:

  • Some did not consider this activity as a strategy but developed a few capitalization tools.
  • Others think that capitalization is a strategy characterized by precise aims.

The size of the company and the area of activity are not determining criteria.

Oral-written media and individual-collective notion: knowledge transfer

Most companies consider knowledge transfer as an important activity. But they must think of a means to capitalize the company's knowledge and know-how. Individuals of a same team may exchange information orally. However, managers of research laboratories have noticed that oral exchanges are no longer possible when the team expands or when some of its members leave. Laboratories had then to develop capitalization systems not to loose any important information for the laboratory. These systems may be simple. Written media become vital - the main technical pieces of information must be recorded in a notebook.

In a telecommunication company, employees also exchange information orally, using technology systems such as the company Intranet. Every engineer is in charge of one portfolio of clients. Client files, which include contracts, forms, bills and accounts are available from the Intranet. When an engineer leaves, two weeks are dedicated to the transfer of files to the new one. This is done orally, using the Intranet as a medium. This telecommunication company is one of the few that is based on a real information exchange and transfer.

These two companies shifted from the oral to the written medium and from an individual approach to a collective approach. The first company uses a conventional system whereas the second one uses a technology system.

Capitalization media: typology

There are numerous capitalization media. The simplest ones are technical supports, such as notebooks, files. Technology media are based on the new information technologies, such as the Intranet. An expert network that relies on technology constitutes what can be called the "human medium".

Technical media: first capitalization tools

Data archiving is the most frequently used technical medium. It makes it possible to store written information, which is classified according to categories. An ink research laboratory uses this system to store components and plans. Before that, information was based on the knowledge of a single engineer. Detailed specifications of the system were then created. Ink formulas are recorded in an Excel Table that indicates their characteristics and progression. These indications used to be recorded on a "form about the global specification of the product". The history of products is available at the laboratory. All these papers are very valuable, as you do not have to rebuild the product life and above all its chemical composition. First, engineers validate important information, which is then stored. Data archiving on a routine basis makes it possible to collect know-how over a period of 25 years.

A company, which is specialized in industrial painting (and is related to a major world industrial group) routinely records know-how in documents called "technical information", and distributes them throughout the various laboratories of the group as publications. They are translated into several languages (German, English, Spanish...). The clients of the company can access information, which is therefore not confidential. This company aims at spreading the know-how of the group as much as possible. The difficulties lie in the international dimension of the group and in the language aspect. To cope with these problems, the company set up European work teams to collect and coordinate the different results.

Technological media: tools of collaborative work

The present technology
ffers numerous media, which make it possible to save and store information and know-how that are very often scattered about. It is necessary to determine whether these media are efficient and whether they can work in the future, in particular when teams change.

The internal local network (linking up several computers in the same company) makes it possible to store, create and consult quite a number of files (projects, suppliers, products). Meeting reports are also recorded. The local network is a first step towards the company network.

The company network i. e. the Intranet links up the various employees by the so-called "cooperative panel". This network uses the Internet technology but is only available from the company. This cooperative panel includes electronic mailboxes, internal databases, document bases (texts, images and sounds), groupware software programs, and sometimes know-how and knowledge bases. A navigator makes it possible to query the Intranet.
Every service can create its own Intranet, which will be included in the Intranet as a whole and made available for everybody or part of the employees. Publishing consists in publishing the document on-line. All additional data are called metadata, which are attached to the document, and make it possible to follow a file through and help with its research.
We observed that more and more companies create an Intranet site, even before they have an official web site. They aim at facilitating information transfer and knowledge transfer in some cases, such as a manufacturer of wood-preservation products (ISO 9001). The laboratory of this company conducts 4 product studies per year on average; these products are then tested by a salesman and a laboratory member. Results are recorded in files, which include experiment planning and its codification, control planning, product data (a file is composed of about 17 pages). As these results are processed by computer, they constitute a database. The Intranet was associated with an ERP and makes it possible to query other internal databases, does statistics and records the clients' claims. A search engine makes it possible to do queries. Search engines are key elements of knowledge management [OU, 00]. The speed and relevance of answers depend on them. The present search engines make it possible to do advanced searches on the metadata that characterize information.

An engineering company (see above) has been collecting data since its creation in 1913 by archiving all studies that had been carried out, that is thousands of files. In the library of this company, librarians have been recording the references of the files in the documentary software program Texto since 1976. The Intranet was created in1999 and makes it possible to search studies by querying the documentary database with the web interface to Texto.

Those examples show the various possibilities, which are made available by technology. These different tools (local network, the Intranet, databases, search engines, ERP) facilitate information research, publishing and distribution. Telecommunication networks play a central role in the systems of a virtual world [LIN 99]. Choosing a tool for knowledge management does not play the major role in knowledge management, but it is a key element - this combines research, collaborative work, project management and competence management [OU, 00].
However, there are other tools, which are not used by companies:

  • systems for the electronic management of documents
  • the company portal, which is the starting point to the company's knowledge and the Internet. The user can add personal elements to the portal, such as relevant information channels. He can be warned of the latest news in his areas of interest. Connections to mobile phones are now possible to make the company knowledge always available.
  • XML language (eXtensible Markup Language), which should replace HTML language. XML language is a markup language that stands between HTML language, the Internet language and SGML language, which is the language of the electronic management of documents.

There are other tools that will be developed later on.

Users generally find the Intranet useful. This is why companies are presently very interested in setting-up Intranets. The main benefit of this system lies in the distribution of knowledge and information. This system is also beneficial because it makes it possible to manage projects, take part in remote work groups, receive and send information. According to Brigitte Guyot, it is most frequently admitted that collecting data from the various services and placing them into the same medium (the Intranet) will result in a quasi-universal operating system. This interpretation comes from a myth in which a common base of resources would encourage individuals to share information. Solution suppliers? are the main holders of this interpretation. However, studies show that the ones who supply information are also the main users of the information. In fact, various information systems are placed into the same medium. In order to capitalize information, it is necessary to pay attention to the difficulties met to build a coherent system, to organize information [GUY, 99]. We cannot say that these different systems make it possible to exchange and transfer competence on their own. Oral exchange associated with a high-performance technology tool is apparently the best solution in terms of knowledge management.

Human media: competence management, expertise and information assessment

It is first necessary to describe technology tools that are complementary to human abilities.

The first example is about a company that designs technology products dedicated to intelligence systems and management. These products aim at giving clients results from intelligence systems on the Internet. These results appear in personalized profiles (or selective distribution of information (SDI)). According to the themes chosen by the client, the result consists of syntheses and analyses. Experts use various technology tools: Lotus Notes groupware includes documentary databases, mailbox and configuration tools that enable personalized applications. This program also accepts the definition of forms, which can be distributed throughout networks to retrieve data and record them in a base. Several people can then use the copy of the same document or of the same base simultaneously; the system updates the information. The final product, which the clients of the company buy includes this program associated with a configured product called "knowledge management". This company uses the pull and push technologies that make it possible to get or receive information from the Internet to do profiles. Once information is obtained, the expert of the area in question validates the information according to its relevance, uses public information databases or bases, which are validated by experts. He then writes a note that synthesizes the information. If the expert finds the same piece of information several times, he writes a synthesis for the "know-how" base included in the company Intranet.

The second example is about an international management counseling firm. Knowledge management is considered as a key factor for success to manage a world-scale establishment. Consultants conduct a counseling activity, which is supported by a network of specialists in knowledge management. This network helps the consultants with their research of information and knowledge, whether they are external or internal to the company. Employees designed areas, which are attributed to one or several managers. Clients' queries are managed by a Research and Development Bureau. Lotus Notes makes it possible to create electronic forms that include queries to the database. The system indicates the progression of the recorded queries.

These two firms use the development of information search tools (or search engines), which make it possible to query heterogeneous and multiple information sources, such as the Internet or internal databases (documentary and/or knowledge databases). They also control the relevance of the collected information, to combine different sources, to know the expertise areas of the company. The expert plays therefore a major role because he uses high-performance technology tools and has a thorough knowledge of a specific area.

Knowledge management requires technologies but also competence management [OU, 00]. Competence management aims at choosing the person who is the most qualified to carry out a specific task in a company or at obtaining relevant information.

Therefore, the success of the present media in management knowledge is based on the combination between "human media" and technology media. Jo Link-Pezet has shown that the notion of information was closely related to that of inscription and memory. This notion of information is indeed materialized through storage, processing and communication systems, which are complementary to human intelligence thanks to intellectual technologies [LIN 99].

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Cop. Jean-Philippe Accart, 2002.

 

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