This article was co-written with Leila Dige.
As the amount of knowledge generated within organizations continues to rise, firms must implement systems that make it easy for employees to find the information they need when they need it. Doing so not only stands to improve employee experience and boost productivity, but also can enable a level of agility and innovation that can become a competitive differentiator.
Yet knowledge workers still spend a disproportionate amount of time searching for information. In our work with Fortune 500 companies, we are seeing a re-emergence of some of the challenges that drove the “intranet era” more than 10 years ago, namely a proliferation of productivity tools that create knowledge and content silos within organizations. Employees complain that knowledge is outdated, if it is documented at all, and companies worry about tribal knowledge or the loss of intellectual property when employees leave.
Addressing this challenge is no easy feat and requires a combination of people, process, and technology efforts that will necessitate a significant change in culture. However, companies that properly implement and cultivate their knowledge management practices will not only unlock productivity, but also differentiate themselves from their competitors.
Defining knowledge management
Knowledge management is the conscious process of defining, structuring, retaining, and sharing the knowledge and experience of employees within an organization. When building your knowledge management strategy, it’s important to consider the types of knowledge that exist. We will examine two primary knowledge types:
- Explicit knowledge is knowledge that has already been documented, such as policy and process documents, sales pitches, and customer data. It is important to ensure your organization has the right content management systems in place to successfully manage and distribute this knowledge.
- Tacit knowledge is unwritten knowledge that resides in the minds of employees. It is commonly referred to as “know-how.” Tacit knowledge is the most difficult to retain because it has not been explicitly documented or articulated by an individual to others in the organization.
In our experience working with companies to help solve their knowledge management challenges, we recommend thinking about the process of managing explicit and tacit knowledge as a gradual progression. The first phase of knowledge management maturity is to properly manage explicit knowledge. Over time, more value can be gained by surfacing tacit knowledge, providing context, and connecting experts. No matter the approach, the overall goal is to turn tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge.
Developing a knowledge management strategy
Understand knowledge types and user personas
One major challenge companies face when implementing knowledge management is integrating it into existing workflows and business processes. To properly do this, organizations should first identify the top three to five user personas and their associated pain points and preferences. The knowledge needs and preferences of a sales representative in the field likely will differ from those of an R&D employee, for example. A sales rep in the field might need access to unstructured knowledge — in the form of emails or contacts –through their phone or tablet; whereas an R&D employee at a pharmaceutical company requires a solution that helps them mine vast amounts of structured data such as academic journals.
Developing a knowledge management strategy around user personas can help leaders understand their organizations’ primary knowledge needs and develop processes that will best serve the firm’s strategic goals. Let employees share information where they want to receive and access it. Starting with this employee-centric approach can limit the risk of creating a knowledge repository that is not intuitive, and that ultimately goes unused.
Address the management and distribution challenge
Once knowledge types and user personas have been identified, organizations should address how and where that information will be stored and managed. For less mature organizations, we often recommend tackling explicit and structured knowledge first. This step of the process is often labor intensive, as it requires making sure that content is accurately indexed, tagged and assigned the right access controls so that it can be properly distributed.
An organization’s needs often dictate how knowledge is ultimately distributed. We often see companies implement a central front-end user experience, usually in the form of an intranet, that may connect to other fit-for-purpose knowledge repositories.
A critical sub-component of an organization’s knowledge management program is the search strategy. It is not fair to assume employees will always know where to find the information they are looking for. Rather, leaders must enable them with strong search capabilities, built on content and knowledge that is accurately indexed and tagged for relevant topics. Increasingly, we see companies implementing federated search functionality that spans across multiple tools.
While an intranet is a common starting point for many firms, this search strategy mostly addresses how employees “pull” information from the content management systems. Firms that are mature in their knowledge management capabilities also have a mechanism in place to “push” relevant knowledge based on user personas and previous knowledge consumption patterns. We have seen some companies begin to abandon the intranet front-end experience. Instead, they adopt a Google-style approach to content and knowledge, leveraging AI to push just-in-time knowledge, and federated search to fill in any gaps.
While it is important to start with the management and distribution of structured and documented knowledge, remember that not all knowledge within the company is documented. The next phase of maturity is providing employees a mechanism to leverage tacit knowledge. This can occur by connecting knowledge workers with similar interests or by identifying subject matter experts, among other approaches.
Metis Strategy recently worked with a multibillion-dollar software company that leveraged a skills inventory framework to identify areas of expertise and then overlaid AI and personalization technology to make connections among both people and existing content or topic areas in their knowledge repository. Developing these connections can help foster innovation and expand what is possible by encouraging collaboration and the formation of new ideas within the organizational network.
Drive adoption through change management
It is important to note that knowledge management is not a one-off exercise. Firms should put in place measures to govern and maintain knowledge over time. That includes first developing centralized ownership for the knowledge management process and governance. After that, it is important to ensure there is a cadence for regularly updating knowledge so that it remains fresh and relevant. Successful knowledge management programs are built on trust. If knowledge is consistently outdated, that trust will be lost and employees will stop contributing.
One of the biggest hurdles to successfully implementing a knowledge management strategy is adoption. Employees might be reluctant to bring another tool or process into their workflow. They may even fear that sharing their knowledge with the organization could decrease their job security.
This underscores the fact that true knowledge management is not just about storing and distributing content, but also driving cultural and change management practices that will encourage employees to play an active role in the process. That means embedding the importance of knowledge sharing into your company culture and helping employees understand the benefits both for the company and their own experience at work.