Friday, 19 November 2010

The Knowledge Supply-chain and its Management

NHS Supply Chain FG58EVT
Originally uploaded by didbygraham
I was at a meeting yesterday with an engineering client, musing about KM while a discussion was going on about supply chains, and it suddenly struck me that we could also usefully think about KM in terms of a supply chain.

I don't know if you have heard the US Army Hurricane Support story - if not, I will blog the story shortly - but its a story about an Army Colonel who needs knowledge on a topic which he is unfamiliar with, and is able (through the centre for army lessons learned - CALL) to find all the knowledge he needs to do a great job. He can only do this, because there is an entire supply chain devoted to creating, organising and shorting the knowledge and information to provide it to the user, at the point of need.

We also discussed this topic in the NATO lessons learned conference, where I used the analogy of a "lessons conveyor belt" (an idea I had picked up in the Moscow KM conference), but the idea of a supply chain is actually a better analogy, and one that might fit well into the thinking of an engineering company.

Firstly, we think of a supply chain as giving the engineer or the chef or the pharmacist what they need, when they need it, in a form that works. When they are constructing an aeroplane or preparing a bouillabaise or prescribing a remedy, they need the parts and components, and these have to be good quality, and available when needed. It's the same with knowledge. If you need to make a decision, then the knowledge to make that decision has to be good quality, and available when needed.

Secondly, a supply chain should be "just in time".  You don't want parts littering up the workshop - but you need them just in time. It's the same with knowledge. You need it when you need it. You don't want to have to remember everything all the time, but when you need to know something, you are at you most receptive.

Thirdly a supply chain may need to be organised. Most engineering organisations have a PSCM organisation (procurement and supply chain management) to ensure the correct flow of parts and materials to those who need them. The PSCM organisation manages both the stock and flow of material - the stock of parts in the warehouses, and the supply and transport of new material to replenish the stock. Maybe we need a KSCM organisation for Knowledge Supply Chain Management (this is the role of the central KM team). One of the reasons why the US Army KM process works so well, is that there is a KSCM organisation who manages the knowledge supply chain (CALL). This organisation manages both the stock and flow of knowledge.

Fourthly a supply chain is concerned about quality. Parts are useless if they aren't up to the job, so there is quality control and quality assurance built into most supply chains. Similarly, knowledge is useless if it isn't up to the job; if it's wrong, or just Opinion, or if its out of date. There should be quality control and quality assurance and validation steps built into the knowledge supply chain.

Now there are also many ways in which the flow of knowledge is not like a supply chain, the primary reason being that knowledge is both created and consumed in the same place; the projects and operating units of the organisation. It's more a supply loop than a supply chain.

However the analogy of the supply chain is one way of thinking about KM, and has the benefit of thinking about it from the point of view of the knowledge user. You can think "If a person in this organisation were in need of a specific piece of knowledge to make a specific decision, what chain is in place to make sure that this knowledge a) gets to the person on time, and b) is of the correct quality?"

With this particular company we used the analogy in discussion, and decided that their supply chain worked as far as the identification of lessons, but these lessons vanished into a complexity of databases and systems, that there were some key supply chain links missing (validation, verification, compilation, broadcast), and that there was no KSCM organisation in place to fix this. The supply chain analogue gave us a focus for discussion and a way of looking at knowledge flow that enabled a quick diagnostic, and enabled us to identify some key missing items in their KM approach.


Jens Øjvind Nielsen said...

Hi and thanks for this new thinking.
Our Leadership and HR knowledge center (LeadingCapacity) is characterised by our rigid proces of knowledge developemnt and maintenance as well as a targetted delivery of updates to subjects, which the individual user or usergroup has identified as important for them at the time being.
This is our KSCM. Good for communicating the issue of Knowledge Sharing.

Nick Milton said...

Thanks Jens Øjvind

Yes, your company LeadingCapacity is an excellent example of a knowledge supply chain for companies that wish to oursource this service. In your case, the supply is of Leadership and HR knowledge;
provided just-in-time and with rigorous quality control.

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