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Golden Rule of KM: Know Your Users 

 May 7, 2002 | KPMG Consulting Inc., a $3 billion global professional services firm, has a large practice in biotechnology and the life sciences. The technology group run by Robert Webb, managing director of workforce solutions, designs and implements knowledge management systems for those clients. Bio·IT World contributor Anthony Strattner spoke with Webb about the challenges and benefits associated with implementing knowledge management solutions in the life sciences.

Q: One of the biggest technical challenges in implementing a knowledge management system is integrating many different kinds of data. How does KPMG tackle this problem?
A: We make liberal use of the technical standards like XML that have recently been adopted by the industry. XML's adoption rate has been very rapid because it does answer, for the most part, the metadata questions that arise when you start linking both structured and unstructured data sources.

But I don't think integrating multiple data types is knowledge management's biggest challenge. Technology is the enabler, but only when it follows a very detailed assessment of people and processes related to a specific business need. You can have the greatest tools in the world, and they won't do you any good unless you've done your homework to answer some pretty basic questions: What kinds of knowledge do you want to manage? How is it organized? When and where do users need that knowledge?

People simply aren't going to use a knowledge management system that makes them work to get the information they need.

Q: How do you help life science customers identify the information they need to capture and communicate?
A: First we help companies determine the vision, strategy, and goals for their organization. In this context we define what kinds of knowledge — internal and external — they need. Then we map out the processes and enabling technology to locate that knowledge and get it to where it's needed.

We also put metrics in place to help determine the system's effectiveness, but it's quite difficult to capture [the effectiveness] with any precision. Metrics don't necessarily tell you anything about who, exactly, is using the knowledge and how. Is the person who's accessing the system just looking to get ideas? Or are they satisfying a short-term need by repurposing information that already exists? Distinguishing between different kinds of activity and measuring their relative value to a company is tough.

Q: Isn't a good metric for knowledge management's value a reduced time-to-market?
A: Sometimes, but value can be measured in other ways, too. For instance, having access to drug-pipeline information helps managers make better strategic decisions.

Q: Some knowledge management vendors claim that the biggest obstacle to implementation is customer confusion about which technology and approach to use. How does KPMG help clients sort out their choices?
A: We view knowledge management as one component of a set of business applications that an IT organization needs to deliver up to an enterprise. As such, knowledge management needs to have a significant level of integration with the rest of the business — not only the interface fitting into the right architecture, but also the technology itself fitting into the company's way of doing business.

From a technical perspective, we start the product-winnowing process at the architectural level — does the product fit the company's current IT architecture? Then we have various templates for assessing things like how flexible or customizable the product is, and how stable the vendor is.

Q: We've talked about how knowledge management is supposed to work. How do you know when the system isn't working, and where are the failure points?
A: That's simple — you built it and they didn't come. If the system isn't being used, people either can't find the right information fast enough or they haven't been sufficiently trained to know where the information is in the first place.

To ensure the system is accessing the right information for the right people, you need to constantly be looking at the system's information and data, and making sure it's fresh and usable. We recommend back-end data-analysis tools to monitor activity levels within data repositories, but the IT manager must first understand how people are using that data and how frequently. Then he or she can make sure the data is updated appropriately. After all, that data carries a real cost in terms of storage and resources.

Q: Some IT managers rank knowledge management's technical challenges as less important than overcoming the cultural challenges. How significant are such cultural challenges in life science companies and how do you address them?
A: Well, life science companies are part of a scientific culture that promotes standard procedures for research and development. So at least you have the advantage of users who are already in the habit of documenting their knowledge. But you're absolutely correct that scientists and researchers can be competitive — and they often have very valid reasons for not sharing information, such as not having sufficient data to defend a hypothesis.

These professionals are similar to professors in the academic market, where they add individual, creative thought to nearly every project they work on. They want control over how that thought is used and where it gets used. So it's up to the leaders of the organization or company to articulate and foster a culture that encourages and rewards regular interaction and information sharing.

Q: What if that culture is absent?
A: From a consultant's standpoint, there's really no way to compensate for a closed or secretive organizational culture. If you raise the issue, clients often get defensive immediately — even those who aren't necessarily guilty. Just by addressing the problem, the consultant can seem to want to take over the client's processes and information, which of course isn't the case. The best you can do is simply make the point that whatever knowledge management system the client finally chooses may not be as effective if there's parochialism around the client's own information.

Horizons is a new section debuting this month in Bio·ITWorld. Horizons will offer an eclectic collection of stories, profiles, commentaries, and conversations that paints a broad canvas of thoughts, trends, and technologies that are poised to define the bio-IT landscape.

For reprints and/or copyright permission, please contact  Jay Mulhern, (781) 972-1359,