Unfortunately, there’s no universal definition of knowledge management (KM), just as there’s no agreement as to what constitutes knowledge in the first place. For this reason, it’s best to think of KM in the broadest context. Succinctly put, KM is the process through which organizations generate value from their intellectual and knowledge-based assets. Most often, generating value from such assets involves codifying what employees, partners and customers know, and sharing that information among employees, departments and even with other companies in an effort to devise best practices. It’s important to note that the definition says nothing about technology; while KM is often facilitated by IT, technology by itself is not KM.
Think of a golf caddie as a simplified example of a knowledge worker. Good caddies do more than carry clubs and track down wayward balls. When asked, a good caddie will give advice to golfers, such as, “The wind makes the ninth hole play 15 yards longer. ” Accurate advice may lead to a bigger tip at the end of the day. On the flip side, the golfer — having derived a benefit from the caddie’s advice — may be more likely to play that course again. If a good caddie is willing to share what he knows with other caddies, then they all may eventually earn bigger tips. How would KM work to make this happen? The caddie master may decide to reward caddies for sharing their tips by offering them credits for pro shop merchandise. Once the best advice is collected, the course manager would publish the information in notebooks (or make it available on PDAs), and distribute them to all the caddies. The end result of a well-designed KM program is that everyone wins. In this case, caddies get bigger tips and deals on merchandise, golfers play better because they benefit from the collective experience of caddies, and the course owners win because better scores lead to more repeat business.
KM has assumed greater urgency in American business over the past few years as millions of baby boomers prepare to retire over the coming decade. Tens of millions of baby boomers turned 60 in 2005, so those of them who aren’t already retired are certainly planning to do so soon. And when they punch out for the last time, the knowledge they gleaned about their jobs, companies and industries over the course of their long careers walks out with them—unless companies take measures to retain their insights. In addition to an immanent mass retirement, the outsourcing trend has forced CIOs who have entered into outsourcing agreements address the thorny issue of transferring the knowledge of their full-time staff members, who are losing their jobs because of an outsourcing deal, to the outsourcer’s employees in order to smooth the transition to the newly restructured IT organization.
What constitutes intellectual or knowledge-based assets?
Not all information is valuable. Therefore, it’s up to individual companies to determine what information qualifies as intellectual and knowledge-based assets. In general, however, intellectual and knowledge-based assets fall into one of two categories: explicit or tacit. Included among the former are assets such as patents, trademarks, business plans, marketing research and customer lists. As a general rule of thumb, explicit knowledge consists of anything that can be documented, archived and codified, often with the help of IT.
Much harder to grasp is the concept of tacit knowledge, or the know-how contained in people’s heads. The challenge inherent with tacit knowledge is figuring out how to recognize, generate, share and manage it. While IT in the form of e-mail, groupware, instant messaging and related technologies can help facilitate the dissemination of tacit knowledge, identifying tacit knowledge in the first place is a major hurdle for most organizations.
Besides using technology, how else can tacit knowledge be transferred?
Shadowing and joint-problem solving are two best practices for transferring or recreating tacit knowledge inside an organization. With shadowing, less experienced staff observe more experienced staff in their activities to learn how their more experienced counterparts approach their work. Dorothy Leonard and Walter Swap, two knowledge management experts, stress the importance of having the “protégé” discuss their observations with the “expert” in order to deepen their dialog and crystallize the knowledge transfer.
Another sound approach that Leonard and Swift recommend is joint problem-solving by expert and novice. Since people are often unaware of how they approach problems or do their work and therefore can’t automatically generate step-by-step instructions for doing whatever they do, having them work together on a project will bring the expert’s approach to light. The difference between shadowing and joint problem solving is that shadowing is more passive. With joint problem-solving, the “expert” and the “novice” work hand-in-hand on a task.
What benefits can companies expect from KM?
Some benefits of KM correlate directly to bottom-line savings, while others are more difficult to quantify. In today’s information-driven economy, companies uncover the most opportunities — and ultimately derive the most value — from intellectual rather than physical assets. To get the most value from a company’s intellectual assets, KM practitioners maintain that knowledge must be shared and serve as the foundation for collaboration. Yet better collaboration is not an end in itself; without an overarching business context, KM is meaningless at best and harmful at worst. Consequently, an effective KM program should help a company do one or more of the following:
Foster innovation by encouraging the free flow of ideas
Improve customer service by streamlining response time
Boost revenues by getting products and services to market faster
Enhance employee retention rates by recognizing the value of employees’ knowledge and rewarding them for it
Streamline operations and reduce costs by eliminating redundant or unnecessary processes
These are the most prevalent examples. A creative approach to KM can result in improved efficiency, higher productivity and increased revenues in practically any business function.
For starters, don’t label it KM because the term causes so much confusion. Everyone has a different definition of KM (if they even know what it is) and those who have heard of it and have heard of all the failures associated with KM projects will be inherently biased against your project. Instead of calling it KM, pitch it as a project designed to solve a particular business problem. Your KM project is much more likely to succeed if it addresses an actual business goal or specific pain point, like improving collaboration in order to bring a product to market faster than the competition.
How can I demonstrate the value of a KM initiative?
Hubert Saint-Onge, CEO of Konverge and Know, a KM consulting company, has said he believes that 50 percent of all ROIs associated with KM projects are bogus. Rather than attempt to calculate a hard-dollar ROI that you may not be able to achieve, it’s often wise just to promise that the system will pay for itself (if indeed it will) and therefore is worth trying out to see if incremental benefits can be gained. That approach works well if you’re trying to get funding from executives who are known skeptics of KM. Also, instead of attempting to demonstrate enterprisewide value for a KM project, look for value at the individual level. For example, if the project will reduce the amount of time call center workers spend with each customer, you might be able to sell the project on that basis.
Is there a best way to approach KM?
Starting small is definitely less risky than taking a big-bang approach. With smaller projects, you have more control over the outcome, and small-scale failure won’t doom your entire effort. In addition, getting funding for a series of smaller projects is more feasible than getting funding for an enterprise wide initiative, especially if the benefits are hard to quantify. Starting small also allows you to build on your success. Our story, Less for Success shows how you can make KM pay off by starting small.
When embarking on a KM strategy, you should define the value you want to achieve from your KM initiative and establish at the outset metrics that will prove your success. Finally, a KM program should not be divorced from a business goal. While sharing best practices is a commendable idea, there must be an underlying business reason to do so. Without a solid business case, KM is a futile exercise.
The major problems that occur in KM usually result because companies ignore the people and cultural issues. In an environment where an individual’s knowledge is valued and rewarded, establishing a culture that recognizes tacit knowledge and encourages employees to share it is critical. The need to sell the KM concept to employees shouldn’t be underestimated; after all, in many cases employees are being asked to surrender their knowledge and experience — the very traits that make them valuable as individuals.
KM Requires Ongoing Maintenance
As with many physical assets, the value of knowledge can erode over time. Since knowledge can get stale fast, the content in a KM program should be constantly updated, amended and deleted. What’s more, the relevance of knowledge at any given time changes, as do the skills of employees. Therefore, there is no endpoint to a KM program. Like product development, marketing and R&D, KM is a constantly evolving business practices.
Dealing with a Data Deluge
Companies diligently need to be on the lookout for information overload. Quantity rarely equals quality, and KM is no exception. Indeed, the point of a KM program is to identify and disseminate knowledge gems from a sea of information.
How can I gain support for my KM effort and get people to use the systems and processes we’re putting in place to facilitate KM?
One tried-and-true way to build support for KM is to pilot the project among employees who have the most to gain and would be the most open to sharing their knowledge. This will vary depending on the organization. It’s also a good idea to involve in the pilot a select group of influencers—employees who are well-respected by their peers and whose opinions are highly regarded in the organization. If both groups have good things to say about the KM effort, their positive attitudes will go along way toward convincing others of the merits of KM.
To get people to participate in the KM effort, you have to bake knowledge collection and dissemination into employees’ everyday jobs. In other words, you have to make it as easy for them to participate as possible. A lot of early KM efforts failed because they added cumbersome steps to the jobs of already overworked employees. So when things got busy, workers just didn’t bother with the extra steps. And since most people are already stretched so thin these days, they can’t contemplate adding another layer onto their daily routine. The best KM efforts don’t seem like an effort.
Linking KM directly to job performance, creating a safe climate for people to share ideas and recognizing people who contribute to the KM effort (especially those people whose contributions impact the bottom line) are also critical tactics for getting people to make KM a part of their day to day.
Finally, many companies create incentive programs to motivate employees to share their knowledge. This can work, but the danger with incentive programs is that employees will participate solely to earn incentives, without regard to the quality or relevance of the information they contribute. Ideally, participation in KM should be its own reward. If KM doesn’t make life easier for employees, it will fail.
Since KM is not a technology-based concept but a business practice, enterprisewide KM efforts should not be lead by the CIO. (The CIO is a suitable choice to lead KM efforts within the IT department, however. ) Some companies have dedicated KM staff headed by a chief knowledge officer or other high-profile executive. Other companies rely on an executive sponsor in the functional area where KM is implemented.
What technologies can support KM?
KM is not a technology-based concept. Don’t be duped by software vendors touting their all-inclusive KM solutions. Companies that implement a centralized database system, electronic message board, Web portal or any other collaborative tool in the hope that they’ve established a KM program are wasting both their time and money.
That being said, KM tools run the gamut from standard, off-the-shelf e-mail packages to sophisticated collaboration tools designed specifically to support community building and identity. Generally, tools fall into one or more of the following categories: knowledge repositories, expertise access tools, e-learning applications, discussion and chat technologies, synchronous interaction tools, and search and data mining tools.
What is social network analysis (SNA) and how is it related to KM?
Companies that have been frustrated by traditional KM efforts are increasingly looking for ways to find out how knowledge flows through their organization, and SNA can show them just that. SNA is a process of mapping a group’s contacts (whether personal or professional) to identify who knows whom and who works with whom. In enterprises, it provides a clear picture of the ways that far flung employees and divisions work together and can help identify key experts in the organization who possess the knowledge needed to, say, solve a complicated programming problem or launch a new product. M&M maker Mars used SNA to identify how knowledge flows through its organizations, who holds influence, who gives the best advice and how employees share information. The Canadian government’s central IT unit used SNA to establish which skills it needed to retain and develop and to determine who, among the 40 percent of the workforce that was due to retire within five years, had the most important knowledge and experience to begin transferring to others.
SNA isn’t a replacement for traditional KM tools such as knowledge databases or portals, but it can provide companies with a starting point for how best to proceed with KM initiatives. As a component to a larger KM strategy, SNA can help companies identify key leaders and then set up mechanism—such as communities of practice—so that those leaders can pass on their knowledge to colleagues. To identify experts in their organizations, companies can use software programs that track e-mail and other kinds of electronic communication to identify experts in their organizations.
If you have any stories or thoughts to share about CRM, please contact Meridith Levinson at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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