Why Do IT?

April 3, 2003
See it as your personal enabling tool

Chances are everything you do on the job today has been done before. Every question you have has already been answered, every problem has been solved--if not by you, by someone, somewhere. And if you're actually confronting something totally new, there's probably someone else who knows more about the subject and is better qualified to deal with it than you are.

Imagine having access to that knowledge when, where, and in the form you need it. That's knowledge management.

"Reinventing the wheel is an innocent phrase," says John Voeller, chief technology officer at Black & Veatch, "that does not begin to capture the waste inherent in failing to capture and reuse knowledge already gathered and refined." In light of recent world events, Id add George Santayanas aphorism, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

Voeller, an ME from Georgia Institute of Technology, is a principal architect of Powrtrak, an automated engineering system that helped make B&V the number one company in powerplant design and delivery.

CONTROL's continuing coverage of the relationships between plant floor and information systems is driven by more than vendor hype, potential advertising revenues, and even your need to understand their impact on your responsibilities. We see the organized flow of information as key to reaching heretofore unheard-of levels of plant performance. Besides, it's cool stuff. (We'll explain that attitude more thoroughly next month when we cover the top technology trends in process control.)

Voeller has written a series of five books titled Circle of Knowledge, a Guide for Bringing Knowledge Management to Your Business. Carl Hawk, chairman of PlantSuccess, has reviewed the first volume (and offers the opportunity to order it at www.plantsuccess.com). He says, Voeller in it defines knowledge and intellectual property, discusses the various kinds of knowledge, and introduces his Circle of Knowledge as a framework for organizing the many kinds of knowledge we require:

  • Ongoing: Current knowledge that peers need to coordinate with each other.
  • Reuse: Historical knowledge that can be reused to make subsequent work cheaper, faster, and/or clearer.
  • Best practice: A repository of corporate preferred methods of accomplishing certain tasks or functions in a low-risk, high-quality manner.
  • Lessons learned: A repository of ideas and observations about the best method for accomplishing key tasks or processes.
  • Expertise management: An easy method for finding the right person with the right knowledge quickly.
  • External dependent: Knowledge from authoritative sources, such as codes, standards and outside experts.
  • External relational: Knowledge from customers and other stakeholders that is current and will guide others on best approaches to build or sustain mutual relations.

Defining a problem is always the first step to solving it, and apparently Volume 1 goes a long way in that direction, including some statements about what knowledge management is not: document management or technology. Of the latter, Voeller says, "Any enterprise considering knowledge management must avoid one thing above all else regarding technology: it never comes first. No technology should even be remotely considered until the culture, its people, and its processes are moving strongly up the learning curve."

While it may be true that buying document management or collaborative engineering software without understanding how your people work together or what kinds of information they need might be foolish, it's obvious to me that a good information technology infrastructure is a critical first step to knowledge management.

And like communications technologies in general and the web in particular, there is some argument for investing in capabilities before you can clearly see how you'll use them: Powerful, accurate tools have a way of encouraging people to see greater possibilities, take on more challenging projects, and produce better craftsmanship.

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