News Article 15/09/2006

DOES KNOWLEDGE MANAGEMENT EQUAL POWER? By Neville Smith 

15/09/2006 - ECDIS Today-Talking navigation, ISSUE SEVEN

Imagine you have been asked to complete a task, such as writing a magazine article.
Having read a few articles in the past, you might have some idea of how to go about it.
But what if you could tap into a databank of information that could tell you not just what to do, but also how to avoid common pitfalls?
Legacy information would be combined with anecdotal insight, linked to all the associated documentation you might need. It won't write the article for you - or put the kettle on while you do it - but a Knowledge Management system can make solving the problem simpler and easier.
Defined simply, Knowledge Management (KM) is the capture and application of information. To quote cognitive learning guru Fred Thompson: "The organisation is the information", or in other words, information is valueless without the structure to make use of it.
What KM tries to do is, "to present the right level of information at the time of need. To solve problems and to try and anticipate them by providing a certain level of risk analysis," according to Dimitris Lyras, principal of Ulysses Systems, provider of the Task Manager system to shipmanagement companies.
The driver to KM adoption in shipping is a desire to replace a mentality of process driven compliance with an approach, which seeks to promote information sharing through linking of documents and data to present all the information necessary to complete a specific task.

But Mr Lyras starts with a curve ball - that KM is not about training per se, since training; "is one of the processes onboard ship which is not broken - you learn the finer things as well as doing grunt work".
Neither should anyone confuse the immediate power of the internet with that of a properly integrated KM system. Though Google will return some pretty powerful results on a given search topic, any links to related sources of information are more by luck than judgment.
Download the ''Google desktop'' search engine to your PC and the software is unable to return differentiated results on anything other than a basic level.
Purchasers of KM systems Mr. Lyras says: "Don't buy them for the underlying philosophical reasons but for convenience, for where they can play a role without interfering with thought processes at the wrong time."
"Mariners filter information all the time, it's part of the job but at some point you have to say ''enough'', he says. "The key is that KM should be a by-product of your working practices, not the other way around." That will come as a relief to many mariners, superintendents and shipmanagers for whom software is too-often wrongly prescribed as a cure-all.
Mr. Lyras cites the example of a ship, which is hard to handle in certain conditions. "That information is difficult to use by itself, but identify the scope and limits to the procedures associated with handling the ship, link those to the context and you have a rich information resource," he says.

Those reports have existed as long as there have been masters and engineers to write letters of complaint but although owners and managers were aware of defects, without knowledge management, they never got to know the solution.
To be useful and used effectively, a KM system has to be structured to reflect the way that an individual or company works. But though the collection of data will be tailor-made to put them in the correct relationship, procedures themselves tend to rely on the same building blocks.
That allows the designer to use a proportion of templated information rather than start from scratch every time, though the initial configuration is important for setting the basics on which everything else is configured.
A KM system can be expected to evolve but initial links and indexing will be retained over its lifetime. Setting up requires linking to legacy information including the circulars which shipping companies are so fond of.
That neatly demonstrates the other gap, which KM will bridge. Manuals and regulations are necessarily about procedure and topics. KM will analyse the workflow associated with a role and qualify the information, which is necessary to complete a given process.
One does not replace the other but it is clear that the paperwork associated with an ISM and ISPS-compliant shipping industry has created a culture where ticking boxes can be seen as a necessary step on the path to compliance. Mr. Lyras praises the ISM Code as "a series of well-written, unambiguous, short clauses which are simple to link in an index" but says these are characteristics, which are lacking from the more recent Tanker Management Self Assessment (TMSA) guidelines. These are much more proscriptive and also call on companies to continuously improve rather than work to procedures which can be linked to an index. "TMSA is a system of micromanaging that shipmanagers are finding harder to work with," he suggests. Mr. Lyras contends that we are, "brought up to believe that accidents happen but in fact shipping is incredibly safe when you consider the scale of fault tolerances involved".
The vogue for continuous improvement appears to usher in a new era for the shipping industry but despite his reservations, this could play into the hands of KM, as it is consistent with coordinating, assessing and learning. Gather and organize information correctly and risk will be minimized.
An unconventional figure in an industry dominated by salesmen, Mr. Lyras suggests it could take years to comprehend how convenient or useful KM is to the shipping industry, thanks to its generally slower adoption of IT.
But insurers are slowly realising that use of a KM system could reduce minor incidents -the bumps and scrapes that push up premiums -as well as more serious casualties. He agrees that analysis of statistics over two or three years could realistically lead to a reduction in premiums. The problem remains both the industry's relationship to IT and to benchmarking quality standards as a basis of regulation.
A leading edge of shipmanagers realise the value of information, but many more are prepared to treat software as a commodity rather than a transforming tool.
But Mr. Lyras suggests they will increasingly get the message as more regulations bite.
"The climate of zero tolerance means that not even shipping can eventually escape a benchmarking culture. That's good for quality shipmanagers who prefer to be at the top of the charterer's list."