Knowledge management in R&D: challenges and solutions

Knowledge management in R&D: challenges and solutions

As competitive pressures grow, innovation has become imperative for research and development (R&D) organizations. In this pursuit, the sharing and efficient use of data is key to ensuring greater efficiency and speed to market. It keeps the cogs of ‘knowledge management’ turning and helps organizations to acquire, create, disseminate and leverage collective data and experience.

This notion of knowledge sharing marks a significant shift in the way research is conducted, and highlights four key R&D ecosystem challenges, which must be overcome:

Capturing the whole story

Data storage challenges will be familiar to most researchers. After all, research is often still stored in paper notebooks, computers, external hard drives and corporate IT systems. These fail to capture the tacit knowledge of the researchers, and the context of how that knowledge was created. The introduction of electronic lab notebooks (ELNs) has helped, by creating an environment where researchers can capture the experiment process, together with the relevant data and conclusions that were drawn.

The human factor

Organizational culture plays a defining role here. Without the right culture and drivers for change, effective knowledge management is a pointless pursuit. Integral to this is the organization’s human capital – which requires a deeper understanding of teamwork and inter-personal relationships.

Knowledge sharing will often be hindered by a ‘know-it-all’ attitude, poor ability to understand the information being exchanged or even a fear of criticism from peers. Equally, employees often see their colleagues as competitors, and feel that sharing knowledge could result in losing power and influence. In an ELN, private areas can be created to hide data from public view until an experiment is completed and all results have been verified. These protected areas can also hide sensitive data, or store in-house research separately from that carried out by a third-party organization.

Conquering infrastructure obstacles

Mergers and acquisitions (M&A) activity is rife in the R&D space, as evidenced by the ongoing changes and consolidations in many industries, including pharma. This can leave behind complex organizational structures and cultural clashes as users continue to work in the manner with which they are most familiar. A recognition system that rewards employees for sharing information, or crediting those whose work contributes to new patents, can help to facilitate knowledge transfer. By running ‘information exchange’ sessions between teams, it is possible to establish an open culture of knowledge sharing. Ultimately, the organization must recognize it is more efficient to re-use information than repeat work.

Overcoming system challenges

Technology forms the backbone of organizational knowledge management – especially when working across multiple research sites and locations. By connecting multiple sites, the operation becomes decentralized and knowledge can be shared more easily. However, three key challenges remain. Firstly, the physical factor of system performance is important, and users may be disappointed if it is too slow or has a cumbersome user interface. Secondly, users may expect that all systems are integrated (which is often feasible, but can be expensive and time-consuming to enact). Finally, users will have different capabilities, in their confidence in using and correctly interpreting results from a new system.

The R&D process is evolving rapidly and, with this, new challenges become evident with the expectation for improved efficiency and cross-collaborative working. Effective data management tools and an open corporate culture can break the communication barrier, and link researchers across borders and business units. Those organizations which strike this balance will benefit from greater research efficiency, leading to a faster speed to market and ultimately, a better competitive standing.