If Only We Knew What We Know; The Transfer of Internal Knowledge and Best Practice

Author: Carla O’Dell & C. Jackson Grayson, Jr. with Nilly Essaides
Publisher: The Free Press, 1998
ISBN 0684844745

Many organizations claim that people are their most valuable resource. But, some enterprises are going further by leveraging their human capital through systematic knowledge sharing programs. With
the help of veteran writer Nilly Essaides, Carla O’Dell and C. Jackson Grayson, Jr., of the American Quality and Productivity Center have distilled the emerging discipline of knowledge management
(KM) down into 230-pages of essentials. In “If Only We Knew What We Know,” this writing team provides an overview of KM including basic definitions, important business drivers, key cultural
factors to overcome, enablers for a successful KM endeavor, case studies, and finally a process for successfully implementing KM in an organization.

The book is divided into five parts. In part one, O’Dell and Grayson lay out their working definitions and build a framework for internal knowledge transfer. The authors define knowledge as
“information in action.” They move on to formally define Knowledge Management as “a conscious strategy of getting the right knowledge to the right people at the right time and helping people
share and put information into action in ways that strive to improve organizational performance.” They further distinguish between the tacit knowledge stored in the minds of employees and the
explicit knowledge that is formally documented in the organization.

From this beginning, the authors move on to identify the following steps as a cycle for transferring knowledge: 1) identify important knowledge, 2) collect the knowledge systematically, 3) organize
the knowledge, 4) share the knowledge, 5) adapt the knowledge, and 6) use the knowledge to solve business needs. Each step in the process has potential problems to be overcome. The authors use case
studies extensively to show how successful enterprises overcome these problems. The authors also establish a framework detailing the essential value propositions, enablers, and management steps
that underpin a well executed KM effort.

In part two, O’Dell and Jackson explain that a well-planned KM effort is designed to support one of three basic value propositions: customer intimacy, product-to-market excellence, or the pursuit
of operational excellence. The customer intimacy value proposition focuses on harnessing organizational knowledge to better sell to and service customers. The product-to-market excellence
proposition focuses on speeding up the product development cycle. The pursuit of operational excellence proposition focuses on using best practices to improve the internal performance of an
enterprise. Each value proposition may necessitate a different overall approach. The key learning behind these value propositions is simply that a KM effort must be designed to help solve an
important business problem.

Part three of the book identifies and discusses four major enablers of knowledge transfer: culture, infrastructure, technology, and measurement. The authors outline cultural barriers that inhibit
knowledge transfer. For many companies, the shift to a culture of sharing and collaboration is not easy. To enable a successful KM program, transfer specific mechanisms must be put into place to
ensure the flow of best practices. In addition, an infrastructure of organizations and people must also be mobilized to make knowledge transfer happen. The authors discuss roles from librarians and
facilitators to chief knowledge officers. The book moves on to discuss technology as an enabler. At a high level, they discuss a variety of success stories using technologies including lotus notes
networks, bulletin boards, and Intranets. While KM technology continues to march on, the authors rightfully argue that technology is an enabler rather than the starting point for a KM effort.
Finally, they discuss the importance of obtaining measurements as a gauge for the success of a KM program. Anecdotal evidence, usage statistics, and documented cost savings are important for
justifying KM efforts and expanding them within an enterprise.

In part four, the authors return to case studies to provide details of successful KM programs at leading enterprises such as Chevron and the World Bank. These case studies provide important
insights into the actual workings of successful KM programs. Finally, in part five, the authors using the metaphorical “Monday Morning” action plan to propose a four-phase approach to KM projects
that includes planning, designing, implementing, and scaling up from initial success.

This book caters to executives, management consultants, and project leaders who are positioned to foster cultural change within an enterprise. Indeed, the back of this book is covered with
endorsements from CEOs and company presidents. However, even readers ranking lower in the corporate food chain will find this book valuable. While technologists may be disappointed at the lack of
technical detail, the enduring value of this to me comes from the technology independent approach and focus on the thinking and strategies behind successful KM programs. This book is an excellent
introduction to the KM discipline. While four years have passed since publication and many Internet sites now cover similar KM subject matter, this well-written team effort remains worthwhile,
inexpensive, and portable summer reading.


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About Lee Spain

Lee A. Spain has been involved with IT since 1990 with experience in the defense and financial services industries. He is currently a data architect with an international financial services firm. Mr. Spain earned a BA in English from the University of Florida and a Master of Public Administration degree from George Mason University.