All Life Is Problem Solving

Joe Firestone’s Blog on Knowledge and Knowledge Management

All Life Is Problem Solving header image 2

What Is A Knowledge Management Software Application?

September 7th, 2008 · No Comments


In my last post, I introduced the problem of evaluating whether something is a KM software application by distinguishing KM and its outcomes, knowledge processing and its outcomes, and business processing and its outcomes. I also pointed out that software applications could contribute to any of the tiers of the Three-tier Model, and that software vendors don’t distinguish among the levels of the three-tier model when they label their software. Then I proceeded to point out that a software application ought to be called a knowledge processing application to the extent that its use cases enhance some aspect of knowledge processing. I also said that if its use cases directly enable enhanced Knowledge Management activity, then, of course, it is directly supportive of KM processing. This blog will discuss how we can decide whether a vendor’s application is properly labeled a Knowledge Management software application.

Knowledge Management

As with knowledge processing, to decide whether an application supports or enables aspects of KM, we need to have a conceptual framework that provides a map of KM. Knowledge Management is the set of processes that seeks to change the organization’s present pattern of knowledge processing to enhance both it and its knowledge outcomes. This implies that KM doesn’t directly manage knowledge outcomes, but only impacts processes, which in turn impact outcomes. For example, if one changes the rules affecting knowledge production, the quality of knowledge claims may improve, or if a KM intervention supplies a new search technology based on semantic analysis of knowledge bases, that may result in improvement in the quality of models.

There are at least 9 types of knowledge management activities:

–Symbolic Representation,

— Building External Relationships with Others Practicing KM,

— Leadership,

— KM-level Knowledge Production,

— KM level Knowledge Integration,

— Crisis Handling,

— Changing Knowledge Processing Rules,

— Negotiating for Resources with Representatives of Other Organizational Processes, and

— Resource Allocation for knowledge processes and for other KM processes.

KM-Level Knowledge Production and Integration reflects the idea that KM may also be about responding to epistemic gaps arising from Knowledge Management operational processes themselves. The Change in Knowledge Processing Rules process, for example, may develop epistemic problems. In that case, KLCs at the level of KM processing will be initiated and will produce and integrate new knowledge about how to change knowledge processing rules to enhance information acquisition, knowledge claim evaluation or one of the other sub-processes of the KLC.

Evaluating Knowledge Management Software Applications

Whether a software application is a KM software application may not, in general, be an either/or matter. We must, then, evaluate applications against each of the types of KM activity and decide to what degree the use cases of the application enable each of the nine types. Some may think that an IT application supports KM if it performs content management, or if it supports collaboration, or if it performs data mining. But, though there is some truth to this claim, I think the connection between these and other types of applications and knowledge processing and KM is at best indirect, and at worst very tenuous, because each such application may or not provide support for knowledge or KM processes, beyond the general support they provide for information processing and information management.

In each case of an IT application, therefore, the connection from the application in question to knowledge processing and KM use cases that are distinct from information processing and information management use cases must be demonstrated. The connection is simply not self-evident because the application in question is a content management or a collaborative application.

I’ll use the example of Hyperwave, once again, to illustrate an evaluation of a software application, this time as a KM application. Hyperwave’s capability for supporting knowledge processing at the level of knowledge management is the same as its capability for supporting it among knowledge workers. To the extent a Hyperwave implementation is successful at the knowledge worker level, it can be equally successful in supporting knowledge management. Let’s look now at the support provided by Hyperwave for each of the other major categories of KM activity.

Symbolic Representation

This activity is about employing symbols to reinforce the organizational authority of knowledge management. It’s about ceremonials and ceremonial communication. Hyperwave provides plenty of opportunity for such communication in the form of broadcast e-mails, published messages, ability to create and publish memoranda of various kinds, and the ability to address others in web conferencing formats.

Building External Relationships

Building External Relationships is about collaborating with Knowledge Managers in other organizations. Hyperwave’s Team Workspace, e-mail, and eConferencing modules are equally applicable to inter-organizational collaboration and provide the same features for that as for intra-organizational collaboration. External relationship building therefore can be supported by a Hyperwave Portal simply by incorporating the appropriate roles and providing appropriate access to external parties.


Leading is a category encompassing many activities. Here’s a brief list: consensus building; project management; persuading, compelling, incenting, informing, obligating, hiring, evaluating, delegating, meeting, and writing memoranda. Of course, this only illustrates the variety of activities involved in leading. Hyperwave’s content processing and management, and collaborative processing capabilities can certainly enable most of these activities; but also specifically targeted support for many of them is not available. There’s some support for project management, in Hyperwave Team Workspace and Workflow. But the sophistication of project management functionality present in an application such as Primavera or R-Plan is not provided.

Crisis Handling

Crisis Handling involves such things as meeting CEO requests for new competitive intelligence in an area of high strategic interest for an enterprise, and directing rapid development of a KM support infrastructure in response to requests from high level executives. There are no special predictable requirements for crisis handling; only the ability to do the same things more rapidly. Insofar as a Hyperwave portal facilitates efficient collaboration and content processing and management, it supports crisis handling because its effect will be to reduce the cycle time of adaptive initiatives.

Changing Knowledge Processing Rules

The knowledge process sub-processes of information acquisition, individual and group learning, knowledge claim formulation, knowledge claim evaluation, broadcasting, searching/retrieving, teaching, and sharing are all composed of tasks, some of which are rule-governed. Knowledge workers execute these tasks and knowledge managers produce the process rules. Knowledge managers also change the rules once they produce new knowledge about them.

Hyperwave provides substantial support through its content processing and management, and its collaboration capability to change rules, publish new ones, and train people in the organization to apply these rules. However, it cannot provide support for modeling rule changes and their likely impact on knowledge processing because it cannot access analytical modeling and simulation applications to forecast impact, nor statistical analysis applications to measure impact after the rule changing interventions are accomplished. Moreover, Hyperwave also doesn’t support applications that allow value interpretations of descriptive impact measurements, so that non-monetary costs and benefits can be assessed from within portal-based applications.

Negotiating for Resources with Representatives of Other Organizational Processes

Negotiating agreements with representatives of business processes over levels of effort for KM, the shape of KM programs, the ROI expected of KM activities, etc., is an essential knowledge management function. Hyperwave’s content processing and management, and collaborative capabilities provide all the support needed for the communication aspects of portal-based negotiations. But successful negotiation for resources requires clear ideas about the resources one is negotiating for, and as we shall see just below. Hyperwave doesn’t provide effective support for that.

Resource Allocation for Knowledge Processes and for other KM Processes

Allocating resources includes allocations for KM support infrastructures, training, professional conferences, salaries for KM staff, funds for new KM programs; in short, all KM interventions for enhancing knowledge processing.

Hyperwave provides little support for planning resource allocations, except resource allocation planning using Excel. This, again, is due to Hyperwave’s lack of connectivity to the structured data-related applications that support resource allocation planning. In particular, Knowledge Managers need Portfolio Management application programs to plan programs and interventions. They also need support for measuring the likely impact of planned resource allocations and their likely non-monetary benefits and costs. Hyperwave provides no connectivity to these types of applications. So it can provide little capability for supporting resource allocations for KM programs.

An evaluation of this type can be performed with any software application. It can be made more detailed by breaking down the categories of KM activity further, if it turns out to be too difficult to match the use cases of the software application to the nine types of KM activity. I’ve developed an Expert Choice software template called the Open Enterprise Template that has a very in-depth breakdown of the KM activities and that can be used for work like this.

As with my remarks about knowledge processing software, social computing, Web 2.0, and even “Web 3.0,” also need to be evaluated in the way I’ve just illustrated. That is, claims that such applications are “KM 2.0” applications, need to be evaluated against a framework such as the one I’ve outlined above in order to settle the question of the degree to which a particular application is a KM application.

Tags: KM 2.0 · KM Software Tools · Knowledge Management