The brains of the outfit

It's Monday morning. Do you know where your company's expertise is?Next to the "e-everything" versions of existing terms - e-commerce, e-mail, e-etc. - "knowledge" may be the most popular business-speak buzzword of the decade. It has become almost impossible to attend a conference or pick up a business publication without seeing something more on the subject of knowledge and how to manage it, share

It's Monday morning. Do you know where your company's expertise is?

Next to the "e-everything" versions of existing terms - e-commerce, e-mail, e-etc. - "knowledge" may be the most popular business-speak buzzword of the decade. It has become almost impossible to attend a conference or pick up a business publication without seeing something more on the subject of knowledge and how to manage it, share it, and (most of all) make money selling it.

Information technology (IT) has a lot to do with the new view of knowledge as an asset of commercial value. Software systems capture and manipulate enormous amounts of data while communications systems like e-mail and the Internet make it easy to pass information around the company or around the world. In the exhilaration of the IT moment, it's almost possible to mistake all this high-velocity information for actual "knowledge."

It's not. Sure, there are decision support systems and optimization systems and even artificial intelligence programs that "learn" as they work, but real knowledge still resides only within the minds of people. It's the employees, not their latest-technology tools, who are your company's most valuable asset. So when your brightest workers walk out the door every night, your knowledge-based assets go too. And when a top team member leaves, their knowledge is lost to the organization forever.

If this is not worrisome, it should be. "The importance of knowledge is highlighted by the fact that the value of various knowledge assets rose from 38% of corporate assets in 1982 to 62% in 1992," observes William Halal, author of The Infinite Resource: Creating and Leading the Knowledge Enterprise. "Human capital alone, the value-producing power of employee know-how, is estimated to account for 70% of all wealth of modern economies."

So, besides installing bunk beds in cubicles and a locking gate on the office drive, what can a company do to safeguard its distributed knowledge assets? For starters, savvy companies are taking a fresh look at their workers and asking some very tough questions: Who has the know-how? Who gets things done? Who is the most productive? (Hint: It's not always the people who get the credit or the bonuses.) These top performers are not only earning higher salaries, they're assuming new responsibilities as the leaders of knowledge-based teams and as members of collaborative work groups with other top performers from "partner" firms.

Besides doing a better job of identifying and harnessing existing knowledge, organizations are also using their top performers to help develop better training programs for entry-level workers. The Truckload Carriers Assn., for example, is currently developing the first courses to be offered by the new Truckload Academy, each related to dispatchers and fleet managers. The first step? Meet with top dispatchers to do a skills and needs assessment.

Some companies are encouraging older workers to just keep on working well past 55 or even 65, so it can capitalize on their years of training and experience - their knowledge. Green Thumb Inc. is America's oldest and largest provider of mature worker employment and training services. Its annual search for the nation's oldest worker yields illuminating results. The 1999 winner, 100-year-old Dr. F. William Sunderman, for example, still works an eight-hour day.

As fleets consider the ROI on potential e-business investments, it may be the perfect time to take a fresh and appreciative look at the company's human assets, as well. Without the employees' combined knowledge, "e-" could just stand for "empty."

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