Scholars and observers from disciplines as disparate as sociology, economics, and management science agree that a transformation has occurred — knowledge is at center stage.1 Knowledge is information combined with experience, context, interpretation, and reflection. It is a high-value form of information that is ready to apply to decisions and actions. While knowledge and information may be difficult to distinguish at times, both are more valuable and involve more human participation than the raw data on which we have lavished computerization during the past forty years. Given the importance of such an asset, it is not surprising that organizations everywhere are paying attention to knowledge — exploring what it is and how to create, transfer, and use it more effectively. Knowledge management, in particular, has recently blossomed.2
Unfortunately, however, abstract musings on the importance of knowledge, or on the emergence of knowledge-based economies and organizations, too often dilute discussions. Conceptual analysis is of little use to practitioners faced with questions about what specifically they should do as managers of knowledge.
In this article, we address the practical realities of the sometimes heady subject of knowledge management by focusing on a tangible, pragmatic entity, the knowledge management project. Such projects are attempts to “do something useful” with knowledge, to accomplish organizational objectives through the structuring of people, technology, and knowledge content. It is through projects and initiatives, however disjointed, that most significant change happens in organizations. Knowledge management projects are changing businesses today, and we believe it is time to examine them and learn from them.
Of course, by selecting the knowledge management project as the unit of analysis, we gain some benefits while forgoing others. None of these projects is optimal. Some beg the question of whether it is really “knowledge” that is being managed, and many are quite limited in impact. Very few contribute to the much touted goal of “organizational transformation.” As one might expect, it is proving far easier to talk and write about organizational transformation than it is to achieve it. Nevertheless, for many industries, the importance of knowledge as the basis of future competition is an established fact. Hyperbole and fantasies aside, the question remains: How can organizations use knowledge more effectively?
To understand how companies are managing knowledge today, we studied thirty-one knowledge management projects in twenty-four companies. Where possible, we mention the names of the firms; some sites requested anonymity.