|Information Systems and the Environment | Edited by Deanna J. Richards Braden R. Allenby and W. Dale Compton|
source ref: ebookenv.html
Improving Environmental Knowledge Sharing
DEANNA J. RICHARDS and MICHAEL R. KABJIAN
Evidence suggests that information for environmental management purposes is being collected and stored at a rapid pace.
Information technology is enabling the capture, storage, and use of data in ways unimagined previously. Tools such as intranets and document management systems enable firms to achieve new levels of information management, collaboration, and knowledge sharing, and facilitate decision-making processes by providing fundamental support for standard work practices.
These trends bolster the argument made by leading management thinkers that the manufacturing, service, and information sectors will be based on knowledge in the future, and that business organizations will evolve into knowledge creators in many ways. Drucker (1993) suggests that one of the most important challenges for every organization in the knowledge society is to build systematic practices for managing a self-transformation.
This paper explores how systematic practices in the use of information technologies are enabling organizations to use knowledge to improve their environmental performance.
CAPTURING ENVIRONMENTAL INFORMATION AND KNOWLEDGE
The availability of a wide range of timely, relevant information plays an important role in environmental decision making. In managing and designing for the environment, information needs to run the gamut from the simple (e.g., emissions data and inventory information) through the more contextual (e.g., best practices and performance metrics), and then to the complex (e.g., life-cycle assessment and supplier-chain management) and the daunting (e.g., societal and equity considerations of sustainable development).
Effective decision making depends on the appropriate data, information, and knowledge being brought to bear on a problem. However, each of these inputs has a different role in supporting the decision-making process. Recognizing the distinctions between data, information, and knowledge--not always an easy task--is crucial to developing management approaches that leverage their relative values. The fictional scenario depicted in Box 1 illustrates these distinctions: Data are obtained by observing and documenting facts; information is obtained by analyzing and processing data; and knowledge requires cognition, experience, and understanding. This simplistic hierarchy is shown in Figure 1.
The examples of environmental data, information, and knowledge shown in Box 2 illustrate some of the difficulties associated with managing information and knowledge. Because information is codifiable (e.g., data and decision or design criteria), information sharing involves the relatively simple process of transmission either through documentation or verbal communication. Knowledge sharing, on the other hand, requires contextual understanding (i.e., it is not codifiable) and is open to interpretation (i.e., it is not articulated easily). Improvements in capturing and managing knowledge in the environmental sphere represent an unexplored opportunity in making improvements in business performance.
Although information management practices in many organizations have a long history and are evolving rapidly, knowledge management practices are somewhat less developed. For example,
In the case of environmental improvement, vast amounts of information and knowledge have been generated, and many lessons have been learned from successes and failures in addressing environmental concerns. Learning has not been lost--it can be found in best-practice manuals and textbooks, on the Internet, in anecdotes and conference proceedings, and in the memories of people who have worked on the issues. Given the rapid advances in information technology, the key is to more effectively manage and use this information and knowledge.
MANAGING ENVIRONMENTALLY RELATED INFORMATION AND KNOWLEDGE
The opportunities to improve and apply knowledge management are many, and they cross traditional organizational boundaries. Such opportunities may exist
The objectives and approaches are different in each instance, and certain components of information and knowledge may cut across the four areas described above, but each is relatively distinct within the stakeholder organizations involved (see Figure 2).
Opportunities for effective management of environmental information and knowledge are apparent in a typical firm's operations. In many instances, broad multifunctional teams are called upon to use various knowledge-sharing tools for work related to compliance, product design, production operations, marketing, response to regulatory initiatives, etc. Figure 3 illustrates techniques that may be used to gather and share knowledge at various stages of product development. Figure 4 shows examples of tools used to support information sharing among various manufacturing functions and the types of questions or concerns that may lead to knowledge sharing across work functions.
The tools used to support knowledge management should be designed to meet the varied objectives and diverse backgrounds of team participants who may perform various functions throughout the firm. The tools must be able to capture and translate knowledge derived from projects and other activities and make it available to others within the organization for use in their activities.
Upstream and with the Supply Chain
Today, many firms engaged in the production cycle are more likely to add value to complex production functions by providing services--such as better design, marketing, and distribution capabilities (all information and knowledge value-added activities)--rather than by actually making products. Actual manufacturing is more likely to be accomplished through complex and diverse supplier chains that span the globe. Recent advances in transportation and information technologies have made this model the norm of production functions. To meet production goals, companies have to leverage these techniques, making the complex web of upstream supplier-chain activities operate as one seamless unit. Two other classes of participants are also part of the upstream process: users and customers, who, through their purchasing decisions and patterns, which often are monitored, can help to fine-tune production runs or product requirements. As companies take on responsibility for the environmental impacts of the products they market, the supplier chain that they manage may include recyclers and remanufacturers (who are traditionally thought of as "downstreamers" but who may also supply recycled materials or components).
The wide array of stakeholders upstream in the production function makes the transfer of knowledge daunting. Successful management of this process provides numerous opportunities to identify and exercise options for improving performance, particularly environmental efficiencies. Participants in the process and potential applications of supplier-chain knowledge sharing are shown in Box 3.
At each stage of the product life cycle, stakeholders may exchange knowledge on how to more effectively use, handle, dispose of, or remanufacture a product or material. Effective knowledge transfer along the supply chain can lead to changes in the material composition, in the product design to enable more effective remanufacture, and in the packaging to reduce waste. Figure 5 shows the tools used to support information sharing among the supply-chain players and the types of questions or concerns that may lead to knowledge sharing across functions. Information technology is likely to play an increasingly important role as an enabler of knowledge management; of more effective communication; and of collaboration across organizational lines, borders, and time zones.
Downstream and the Consumers
Downstream factors in complex production operations take on greater significance when services--as distinguished from manufacturing, natural resource industries, and agriculture--are factored into the discussion of knowledge management. Accounting for 60 percent of output and employment (U.S. Department of Commerce, 1996), industries in the service sector provide fundamental economic and societal functions such as transportation, banking and finance, health care, public utilities, retail, wholesale, education, and entertainment. The companies in this sector (e.g., Wal-Mart, Kmart, Target) have great leverage on upstream activities through their merchandise purchasing, in providing food service and delivery (e.g., McDonalds), through their use of logistics and distribution channels to deliver packages [e.g., United Parcel Service (UPS), Federal Express (FedEx)], through the management of hospitals and hotels (e.g., Marriott), in providing health management services (e.g., HMOs), and in providing entertainment (e.g., Busch Gardens, Disney theme parks). Because companies in this sector also interact with a large consumer base, they are a source of knowledge about consumer preferences downstream in the productionconsumption system, and they can play a critical role in conveying environmental information to consumers.
The upstream leverage that service firms have on manufacturers is quite evident. As purchasing agents for millions of consumers, these companies exert tremendous leverage over their suppliers by creating markets for environmental improvement. Their downstream influence is yet to be tapped fully. These service firms, to be successful, must be very close to their consumers, and several companies in this sector provide their consumers with environmental information. For example, Starbucks provides information about their environmental practices; Home Depot provides "green" products next to more common brands; and some hotels provide guests with the option to change hotel sheets or towels less frequently to conserve resources. Firms that provide this sort of consumer education also provide early insights into consumer tastes, preferences, and regional buying habits.
Many firms in the service sector, and indeed most industrial operations, are also providing environmental education and information about their practices via the World Wide Web. Knowledge sharing (including validation of claims) is an untapped information and knowledge management challenge that involves collaborating beyond the firm with educators, environmental groups, risk communicators, consumer advocates, graphic designers, and information organizers. Box 4 shows potential participants in knowledge sharing in downstream production activities. Figure 6 shows tools used to support information sharing among downstream players and the types of questions or concerns that may lead to knowledge sharing across functions.
Always dependent on information and knowledge sharing, the success or failure of a collaboration depends on a common understanding of the project's objectives and the establishment of trust among collaborators. Information management systems cannot solve these concerns but they can facilitate collaborative efforts for a wide range of objectives. Figure 7 shows examples of questions that may be addressed by an industry group or consortium.
Collaborations are often initiated to address specific concerns:
Figure 8 illustrates the links among various stakeholders and the potential collaborations that could address specific functional needs.
HARNESSING INFORMATION MANAGEMENT SYSTEMS TO MANAGE KNOWLEDGE
There are many technologies that support knowledge management. Examples of common information technology tools that are used to manage environmental knowledge include:
These technologies are key enablers, but their successful use depends on their ability to support the framework and culture within an organization. To implement these technologies successfully, it is important to know the roles of different organizational groups, how work is performed, and how information flows between groups. The technologies used to manage environmental knowledge are only as good as the organizational structure that supports the work processes through clear roles and responsibilities. The policies, procedures, and guidelines that identify the goals, expectations, and suggested practices within an organization must be clearly articulated and known; only then can the systems and tools that support the framework and culture be successful.
As Heptinstall (this volume) shows, implementing a successful environmental information system requires an understanding of the following steps:
PITFALLS IN FACILITATING INFORMATION AND KNOWLEDGE MANAGEMENT
It is not unusual to have even the best-laid plans run into difficulty along the way. In the case of implementing an effective information and knowledge management system, difficulties may arise in relation to the following factors:
THE IMPORTANCE OF ENVIRONMENTAL KNOWLEDGE MANAGEMENT
The more successful organizations at the turn of the century can be characterized as those that use their soft resources--intellectual capital and knowledge--as effectively, if not more so, than they do their hard assets and infrastructure. Indeed, this trend is true in the economy as a whole, where 60 percent of employment and output is in the services sector (U.S. Department of Commerce, 1996).
In services as diverse as consulting, retailing, air transportation, hotel management, real estate management, freight transportation, and entertainment, knowledge is a prime commodity. Inputs to production are no longer limited to labor, materials, or capital. Technology and information are equally critical. In addition, the systems used to manage complex enterprises are also information intensive. Finally, the values that are being factored into business decisions are no longer as simple as the notion of profit, but include less tangible factors such as the environment, knowledge, and sustainable development.
In addition, there are a number of trends that point to the potential drain of knowledge and the deterioration of organizational memory within corporations. These include
As described above, many of today's changing business trends present challenges to environmental knowledge management. On the other hand, many recent developments provide opportunities for improvements.
The appropriate use of data, information, and knowledge is fundamental to improving environmental efficiencies of production and consumption. Whether information transfer occurs within a company, between customers and suppliers, or among competitive organizations in an industry, the management of information is key to the management of environmental efforts. The rapid growth of information technology continues to provide more effective tools to support knowledge management and transfer. New information tools offer much promise, but in and of themselves are not a panacea. The effective management of environmentally related information is brought about not by making available large quantities of information, but by delivering information that is appropriate for the decision-making tasks at hand. Although many efforts to date have focused on data management, substantial opportunities exist to leverage available knowledge to address environmental performance issues. By undertaking a balanced approach that incorporates data, information, and knowledge, we can begin to more effectively support environmental decision-making objectives as well as longer-term sustainable development goals.