Despite the phenomenal proliferation over the past 30 years of digital computing and some extraordinarily innovative uses of computing power, business is still about information and its use. Although document management systems, or content management systems, have been deployed, it is the knowledge these systems contain that is important. John O'Brien, partner and managing director of IRM Strategies, a company that specialises in information resource management, or knowledge management (KM) solutions, said companies must deal with many problems that were related to document management systems that spilled over into other areas such as collaboration and even compliance. The skills that his company could bring to an organisation were best brought in early, before certain decisions were made, he said. 'We like to get in before there is a decision to focus on either document management or sharing and collaboration technologies. The fact is, business needs both - and more - to ensure risk and compliance management, while still supporting knowledge building,' Mr O'Brien said. Although the term knowledge management has been around for quite some time in academic circles, it is still not well understood in a business context. As it doesn't appear to bring an immediate financial reward, companies often overlook it. But the way certain issues of collaboration and compliance are moving means that companies may be forced into thinking about knowledge management. 'A knowledge-focused company takes a broad approach to managing knowledge that today is captured in many ways including on paper, in photographs, video, CD-Roms and other media,' he said. 'It is vital to ensure that what is stored is authentic, reliable, and even defensible later on should issues of compliance arise. But to do this, an organisation must understand this and know that it has a lot to do with changing the way people think and behave.' One of the more challenging problems associated with knowledge management is the question of who is responsible for it? It is usually handed over to information technology (IT) or human resources without much thought. Mr O'Brien said this was not only inefficient, but it could also be harmful. 'Many business people think they are handling profit and loss, and that everything they do is viewed in that context. If you were to say, for example, that they were responsible for corporate knowledge, many executives would have no idea what you were talking about - but they are responsible. 'If the boardroom thinks it can relegate 'knowledge' to IT or HR, they are sadly mistaken. When relevant information is not made available to the right people when they need it, decisions are made that can cost millions of dollars in losses. This clearly shows that there is a connection between knowledge and profit. Many executives still do not see it, though,' he said. Mr O'Brien said his concepts had saved a Canadian public service HK$28million by working out a better way to manage their space. 'People get hung up trying to figure out 'what is knowledge' when it might be better to look for practical evidence of how knowledge is - or is not - being managed. We help them do that.' It is difficult to account for dishonesty in a company but when honest people allow dishonest things to happen, it is often because they haven't got the full picture. The same is true for strategies that go wrong - were they based on a complete understanding of the issues? Mr O'Brien said that a review of spreadsheets and past performance was important, but it was not the whole picture. Can management lift their heads up from the spreadsheets? 'If they don't, they are headed for trouble. Balance sheets are valuable for a backward look at performance and capital asset value. But when 70 per cent or more of corporate value is derived from relationships, brand recognition and other factors, it is wise to assign energy to understanding and managing intangibles such as knowledge,' he said. Mr O'Brien's company has worked with businesses including Hong Kong operations where essential documents were constantly going missing, and where getting the whole story meant time wasted searching and trying to rebuild a picture of the past. 'In one case records with legal value were routinely carted about from project to project, invisible to the corporate body, at risk for damage and loss. Our recommendations have been incorporated into a four-year plan to fix problems such as this,' he said. Perhaps the most important aspect is that blind implementation of some kind of technology is not good enough. Many people in senior management aren't happy with technology because it can be daunting. It is not a good idea, however, for them to hand off all apparently technical decisions to the IT department. It is also important to give IT direction. It is not necessary for senior management to become experts in IT, but they must take responsibility for knowing what their company does and where its records are.