BOSTON — Every one of the 750 employees of John Hancock Life Insurance Company's information-systems division has a regular homework assignment.
Homework for these computer specialists? It's true. Each John Hancock information-systems employee is responsible, on an ongoing basis, for brushing up on current computer skills and learning new ones.
Skills-enhancement has become so necessary in today's fast-changing business environment that a fresh management process has been developed to speed and organize the effort. And of course there's a buzzword for it: knowledge management.
"Knowledge management is the art of keeping track of and developing all of a firm's intellectual capital," says Marney Peabody, president of SkillView Technologies of Plaistow, N.H., which markets both software and consulting services to implement the process.
She says knowledge management illustrates the contrast between the older machine-production economy and the knowledge-based economy. It's making autos vs. writing software or improving wireless technology, for example.
What's new, she says, is putting responsibility for learning "right on the shoulders of the individuals concerned." The idea of responsibility fits into "much that is new today - employee empowerment, telecommuting, the virtual office, job mobility, and technology." The two most important facets of the process, which is used today mostly at large companies, are knowledge mapping and skills-based management, Ms. Peabody adds.
For a year, John Hancock has been mapping the skills of all of its IT employees - that is, entering in a computer database where specific expertise resides. This allows managers to be more nimble - to let the employees know what their so-called "skills-gaps" are, to quickly find people prepared to do a complex project, and, especially, to boost productivity without increasing costs.
Gerry Hudson-Martin, the Boston insurance firm's technical education director, says that "like other companies, John Hancock needs to develop and deploy skills quickly to deal with ... competition." Hancock's information-systems employees together marshal 150 generic computer skills and several hundred other skills, when specific systems and product lines are counted, he says. Managing change in these areas "is a major challenge."
"As free natural resources and cheap labor are exhausted, the knowledge of people in organizations is the last untapped source of commercial advantage," writes Thomas Davenport, a professor of information systems at the University of Texas, Austin.
The natural tendency, he warns, is to "hoard our own knowledge," so the practice of sharing skills must be "motivated." He points out that Lotus Development, IBM Corp.'s software unit in Cambridge, Mass., "devotes 25 percent of the total performance evaluation of its customer-support workers to knowledge sharing."
Downsizing has helped bring the concept of tracking skills to the fore, Peabody says, because managers are forced to do more with smaller staffs.
"The concept, however, is not meant to be a downsizing tool, but some do use it that way," says Ann Coffou, director of best practices at Giga Information Group Inc., a Norwell, Mass., technology research firm.
"Management must commit that the information will not be used for downsizing but for building skills - and that they will keep the data confidential, on a must-see basis," says Gene Raphaelian, an analyst at the Gartner Group, a research firm in Santa Clara, Calif.