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Without the right knowledge, you will never sustain a competitive advantage

May 9, 2005
David Berger writes that a CMMS package that handles knowledge management is a competitive advantage.

Without the right knowledge, your company could never sustain a competitive advantage. The modern CMMS is a tremendous tool for assisting your company in the science and art of knowledge management. I say “science” because sophisticated technology tools, such as a troubleshooting knowledgebase, can improve the quantity, quality and timeliness of the knowledge made available to the people who need it. I say “art” because technology alone gets you nowhere without somehow motivating people to generate, share and use knowledge effectively.

It should come as no surprise that all knowledge isn’t created equal. For example, consider the knowledge of best practices for repairing some failed component. Now, compare that knowledge to understanding the root cause of the failure and the best predictors of failure that allow one to monitor its condition and prevent a costly outage. Which knowledge is more valuable to your company?

Whether or not the knowledge you manage is inherently valuable matters little if it’s not being used properly. This relates to the attitude and skill of the managers and others that use the knowledge. A company can develop a substantial competitive edge by finding ways to motivate and teach employees how to get the most out of its CMMS and other knowledge-management tools. Employees will benefit through improved job effectiveness. For example, they’ll know not to schedule work for today if spare parts haven’t yet been received by stores.

Knowledge versus information
It’s important to distinguish between information and knowledge. The former is an assemblage of data, such as a report, whereas the latter is a structured body of information, such as an invention, patent, principle, algorithm, conclusion, hypothesis, idea, model, fact or opinion. Most CMMS packages are good at collecting reams of data and regurgitating it in the form of management information. However, it’s harder to find CMMS software that produces and shares knowledge effectively.

Knowledge making
Just as your maintenance department manages the organization’s physical assets, so too must it manage your intellectual assets. Similarly, not only capital equipment needs managing, but human capital too, including the extraction of knowledge in the form of intellectual capital. A maintenance department should strive to maximize the amount of valuable knowledge it has. This should be made available on the CMMS in the form of databases and what can be extracted from individual employees.

For many companies, the latter form of knowledge production requires a significant change in culture. It’s difficult for many companies to break the pattern of management assuming responsibility for generating all knowledge, instead of the mass of shop-floor employees who, in some areas, have far greater knowledge. Companies are changing this culture steadily through initiatives such as TQM, Lean Manufacturing and Six Sigma, which rely heavily on workers for producing knowledge.

Knowledge sharing
Unshared knowledge doesn’t have much value. For example, suppose a resident mechanic developed extensive knowledge about his equipment and keeping it running with maximum performance, availability, reliability and quality of output. Perhaps the mechanic can predict exactly what is about to fail just by the sound or feel of the equipment. This mechanic is so good and has been around this area for so long, management doesn’t require him to document any of the PM or corrective work he does. Everything in his area runs well and never shows up on any management radar screen.

The key issue is succession. What happens if the resident mechanic goes on vacation, retires or moves to another department or company? What if the company has similar equipment operating in several locations or plants? This mechanic’s best practices aren’t being shared fully. A CMMS is a knowledge repository and collaborative tool designed to gain insight and understanding from the experience of users. Thus, used properly, a good CMMS should allow another experienced mechanic to be as effective as our resident mechanic, but only if knowledge has been shared properly.

Benefits to be gained
Knowledge management helps you collect, store and use knowledge for such things as troubleshooting problems, training, planning and making more cost-effective decisions. It also can improve an organization’s flexibility and response time, for example, in reacting to a key MRO supplier threatening to strike, or bringing a new piece of equipment into production faster. Knowledge management encourages employees to innovate and it rewards them for the effort by showing them their knowledge is valued. Finally, knowledge management can lead to greater productivity and increased revenue by identifying non-value-added processes.

The barriers
There are many roadblocks to establishing an effective knowledge-management program, including:

  • Knowledge management must be strategic and goal-oriented.
  • It’s difficult to find hard savings in developing a business case for knowledge management.
  • It’s not easy to keep the knowledge base current or relevant.
  • Knowledge management must be action-oriented, otherwise it makes no sense.
  • It’s difficult for people to give up the perceived power that comes from keeping knowledge to oneself.
  • There must be a cultural shift that, in turn, drives a change in people’s behavior so they understand what’s in it for them.

Supporting technology
Contrary to popular belief, technology isn’t the focus of knowledge management. The first step in establishing a knowledge-management program is clarifying your strategic objectives. Then decide who will be involved, followed by what knowledge they’ll capture and store. Finally, asking how knowledge will be managed speaks to the technology you deploy, such as your CMMS. Described below are a few simple and complex knowledge-management tools featured in a modern CMMS.

Online help: The more sophisticated CMMS packages feature online help that provides flowcharts depicting the key processes, with drill-down capability on each activity for accessing detailed procedural help. This is a useful knowledge-management tool, especially when there’s a hot link from the help screen to the corresponding live program, and vice versa. Simple CMMS packages only offer help specific to a given screen, function or field.

Another useful help feature is the troubleshooting assistant, or wizard. If, for example, you’re in doubt as to how to prepare a budget, set up a PM routine or diagnose an equipment downtime situation, a few CMMS vendors provide a wizard that walks you through each step and decision point in the process.

Search engine: The most obvious knowledge-management tool is a search engine. We already recognize its value when we venture onto the Internet in search of information. Within a CMMS, a search engine is useful, efficient and effective for locating a specific object, such as a work order, purchase order, employee file or equipment record. The better search engines can query on the basis of multiple criteria, as well as filter and sort any data returned.

Workflow engine: Workflow is one of the most sophisticated and useful knowledge-management tools and a workflow engine automatically routes data through a process, based on user-defined business rules. For example, a standard workflow can be established for routing work orders to the appropriate approver, depending on the total labor and material cost. Workflow also can be used for notifying a supervisor by e-mail if PMs aren’t completed on a timely basis.

Document management: Especially when combined with workflow, this knowledge-management tool can be quite powerful in storing, retrieving and tracking revisions to the documents needed to complete a task. Providing the right documents on a timely basis enhances a user’s knowledge and productivity.

E-mail Contributing Editor David Berger at [email protected].

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