Have you ever had to find a stud to hang a picture? You knew the stud was there ... somewhere ... beneath the surface, but you just couldn't find it without exhaustive searching. Finding studs is like locating knowledge management and knowledge personnel in today's insurance industry: You know they're there, but at first glance they're always hard to find.Around the time of the dot-com boom, knowledge management was one of the buzz-worthy trends infiltrating business and insurance circles. Formally established as a discipline in 1995, knowledge management, and the inception of the chief knowledge officer, had gained steam throughout the late 1990s, but fell off the radar almost completely once the bubble burst.

"If we look back about seven years ago, it was the role du jour, and knowledge management was a big-name topic," says Richard Cantor, knowledge management team manager with Warren, N.J.-based Chubb Commercial Insurance. "Around that same time with the dot-com bust, many practices and ideas got a bad rap. Knowledge management was one of them; it got lumped in with the rest."

And, despite what some sources told INN - that knowledge management is vital, alive and growing - at least an equal number of sources admitted being unsure of what knowledge management is, let alone whether or not it is employed in any form in their company. But, from sources currently working in knowledge roles, apparently knowledge management, and the utilization of the knowledge officer, is back on the rise.

"What I'm seeing now is a resurgence and a heightened interest in knowledge management," Cantor says. "I don't know of too many chief knowledge officers, but I know of a number of middle management personnel and grass roots positions. These roles are on the rise."

THIRSTING FOR KNOWLEDGE

Traditionally, knowledge management is thought of as the range of practices used by organizations to identify, create and distribute knowledge for reuse, awareness and learning. And the chief knowledge officer's role, according to Cantor, is to maximize the return on investment on people-their knowledge assets-and develop and refine processes that support knowledge sharing while strategically using technology. While INN was unable to locate any chief knowledge officers in the industry, insurers are still staffing roles to accomplish these tasks.

"I don't think the concept of chief knowledge officer was widely used," says Tom Hilgart, vice president, knowledge and learning group for Chicago-based CNA Financial Corp. "We certainly don't use that term. We do have a role for knowledge management, but we don't use that term."

Despite not employing a chief knowledge officer, knowledge management is of the utmost importance at CNA.

"My role as leader of the knowledge management area is to make certain the company has the right tools, the right information and the right processes in place to share information," says Jay Kostrzewa, assistant vice president - knowledge management, knowledge and learning group, CNA. "This ensures the different departments across CNA have common tools, and that we can centrally manage either the technology or the processes to accomplish our goals."

"The idea of a role like Jay's is to centrally manage a contemporary knowledge base, and the access and improvements to it. Therefore, I think the role of the knowledge officer is not only viable, but is increasingly needed in organizations," Hilgart adds.

At State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co., Bloomington, Ill., knowledge management is a serious, companywide undertaking.

"We feel at State Farm that everybody's role is in some way, shape or form about managing and transferring knowledge," says Carol Csanda, director of knowledge management, State Farm strategic resources.

About three and one-half years ago, State Farm implemented their knowledge management initiative on an enterprisewide basis. Led by Csanda, the knowledge management team comprises four full-time employees and, currently, three development candidates who come from other areas and work in knowledge management for 12 to 18 months. The candidates then return to their departments with the ideas, methods and practices they learned as part of the knowledge management group.

In addition, Csanda says one of State Farm's primary goals is to increase collaboration across the enterprise. "One of the ways State Farm is trying to extend that collaboration is through the formation of communities (i.e. knowledge sharing groups or communities of practice). We've done a good job of getting a number of these groups up and running throughout the organization."

SPREADING THE WEALTH

The big challenge for insurers isn't so much gaining knowledge, but more how to identify, compile, categorize and disseminate it to its employees. Fortunately, there are myriad options available on the technology front to accomplish all needs.

Matt Brown, senior analyst with Forrester Research Inc., Cambridge, Mass., says the traditional knowledge management tools-portal servers, collaboration platforms, search engines and enterprise content management systems-are now being coupled with Weblogs, wikis, RSS feeds and other e-learning and social networking tools.

Collaboration platforms are, according to Brown, historically the most widely associated with knowledge management. Many solutions are commercially available to insurers, and a great number can be customized to fit specific needs.

Portals are another important technology component of knowledge management. "Portals are a category of software used primarily to aggregate enterprise information," Brown says. "When companies have many different data repositories that funnel into Internet/intranet sites and applications, they're looking for a way to pull all those together into a common, Web-based user experience, so they use portal servers."

The carriers INN spoke to employ many divergent technologies to aid in their knowledge management efforts, but all fall somewhere within Brown's spectrum.

"At Chubb, we're focusing on using our intranet as the vehicle that delivers shared knowledge," Cantor says. "Many of our knowledge management efforts are packaged within that veil."

CNA's Jay Kostrzewa says the company employs various solutions from Austin, Texas-based Vignette Corp. that are later customized to optimize performance.

"We use a combination of different products," Kostrzewa says. "The Vignette Portal is the base, so we start from a portal shell and integrate Vignette Collaboration-their collaboration tool. We also use Vignette Content Management, so between the Vignette Collaboration server, Content Management and Portal, we built a number of tools, using that as our base."

State Farm, while utilizing collaboration tools, an intranet site, blogs and instant messaging, among others, does not see technology as being the sole answer to spreading knowledge.

"In our eyes, knowledge management is not just the technology," Csanda explains. "Technology enables sharing and information capture. From our perspective, technology is an important part of what we do, but we also spend a lot of time and energy researching new methods, and new approaches to knowledge capture collaboration and sharing."

WHERE NOW?

After a long search, the stud has been found. The consensus among the insurers with whom INN spoke is that, while the chief knowledge officer may be dead and gone, the knowledge management tenet and associated personnel are regaining strength. Plus, given its focus on collaboration and sharing, according to Csanda, knowledge management, in today's business environment, is harmonious with the nature of the next generation of workers and shouldn't be overlooked.

"We need to all be thinking about how the incoming workforce is going to demand these types of open sharing processes within the organization," she says. "Young people today are all connected, they're all collaborating, and these are things we need to be thinking about for the future."

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