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Starting off on Knowledge Management – the practical way

This article focuses on the practical issues of implementing Knowledge Management (KM), mainly how an organisation that is completely new to KM might get started.

I would like to start my article with two quotes from the past showing the ever importance of Knowledge Management: In 1940 H.G. Wells wrote

“An immense and ever-increasing wealth of knowledge is scattered about the world today; knowledge that would probably suffice to solve all the mighty difficulties of our age, but it is dispersed and unorganised. We need a sort of mental clearing house for the mind: a depot where knowledge and ideas are received, sorted, summarised, digested, clarified and compared”;

and another from Arthur C. Clarke saying:

“Cave dwellers froze to death on beds of coal. It was all around them, but they could not see it or use it. Today, we are in danger of making the same mistakes”

These past quotes are very much relevant today as technology has made it very accessible for business to manage the information and knowledge they possess or can access to survive competition.  Hence, it can be argued that lack of good KM put business in a vulnerable state.  Some research carried out by the European KM Forum has gone further still, by arguing that very few SMEs really appreciate just how vulnerable their businesses are, and how much they rely on the tacit knowledge of single individuals to carry out key processes and take key decisions.

KM in a business start-up context

When planning any new venture, whether it is a new product or a completely new company, one needs to ask such questions as: what knowledge will I need; what knowledge already exists; how can I acquire it and how can I create the knowledge that I cannot acquire?  These need to be taken into consideration when developing a business plan for the new venture (see Table 1).

Table 1 – Knowledge requirements for business planning

Business plan elements Knowledge requirements
Defining the business need The business objectives, potential customers and their needs.
Defining what conditions make the business possible The wider business environment (e.g. regulatory issues).
Defining how the business will work About product development, administration etc.
Defining competition On potential competitors and what it will take to enter the market.
Defining the financials Where the money is going to come from, how much can be charged for products or services, and how to look after the day-to-day finances.

Assessing current knowledge base

A good way to start out in KM could be to undertake a formal, documented assessment of their current knowledge base. Conducting a so-called “knowledge audit” would show how employees currently store, access, use, and (hopefully) share the knowledge that they need to do their jobs. It should also uncover many of the cultural barriers to knowledge use and transfer and, at the same time, highlight good practice examples – lessons that could be applied across the organisation’s business.

A knowledge audit is most effective if it covers the whole organisation, because once an audit involves everyone, it becomes much easier to find points of view which might be frequently overlooked, but which are actually critical success factors. A key part of the audit should be to assess factors that potentially inhibit or promote knowledge sharing.

Tools and techniques commonly used when conducting a knowledge audit include:

(i) knowledge mapping which involves locating knowledge throughout the organisation. The knowledge mapping process

is relatively straightforward. It takes an inventory of what people in the organisation have written down or entered into systems, and identifies sources of information employees use that come from outside (such as libraries, websites or subscription services). Finding and organising all that data may be time-consuming, but it is not conceptually difficult.

(ii) knowledge flow which involves identifying the patterns of knowledge flow in the organisation by examining how people process information, since ultimately that determines how well an organisation uses and shares its knowledge.

(iii) Social Network Analysis (Cross and Baird, 2000), which maps the connectivity between key people.

The outcome of the audit should produce:

  • the knowledge that exists within the business;
  • expertise and knowledge assets;
  • quick wins that could be implemented to produce immediate benefits;
  •  the use and cost of externally-acquired information and examine how it may be used more effectively;
  • the use of internal resources – i.e. to see how valuable they are, and how they may be improved;
  • the knowledge flows and current bottlenecks within those flows.

To achieve the objectives of the audit, to gather all the data, and to develop practical proposals, a mix of interviews, questionnaires, discussion groups, and focus groups should be used depending on the size of the organisation. To understand the key issues and business processes, a number of people in key positions should be interviewed. In some (but by no means all) cases, this process could be accompanied by a detailed questionnaire to all staff to draw out specific information and appropriate data.

Discussion groups should then be arranged to test conclusions, and focus groups to explore particular issues and challenges.

Key elements of a KM strategy

Organisations should also remember to develop their KM strategy, based not only upon what senior management demands, but also upon what other employees ask for too, since the whole idea is to meet the requirements of everyone, not just the elite few. Indeed, many of the most successful KM strategies emerge “bottom-up”, rather than “top-down”.

Some of the elements that need to go into its strategic planning process include:

  • Effective communications through which team members can communicate, share information and create and edit key working documents in a collaborative fashion and to capture the hearts and minds of employees at large;
  • provide the necessary resources e.g. appointing a full-time or part-time dedicated resource to make it happen;
  • measuring progress, a task that needs to be undertaken so as to control the implementation of KM.  It is often difficult to measure in financial terms, but it is vital to start measuring knowledge outputs at an early stage – e.g. higher customer satisfaction, fewer product failures etc.

Creating standards for KM

Once the organisation has captured its knowledge it needs to effectively document it in a consistent way across the various organisational units.  Early development and adoption of common standards – at the organisational, industrial and geographical level – should allow the organisation to better exploit its knowledge assets, whilst at the same time maintaining a manageable level of business risk. Standards on technology, data architecture, risk management, etc can prove helpful in many areas – see Table 2.

Table 2 – Typical common standards managing knowledge assets

Knowledge Asset Standards
Risk Management  Covering such issues such privacy, client confidentiality and security of intellectual property
Navigation  Consistent categorisation will enable content to flow in a meaningful way, and be found more easily
Workflow  The adoption of a common data architecture will allow information to flow more easily in internal KM systems and between the organisation and its customers

To summarise, this article has shown that all organisations, large and small, have knowledge that they need to share amongst employees, suppliers, and customers.  By conducting a “knowledge audit” it can get a bird’s-eye view of the knowledge that exists within an organisation.  A KM strategy should be aligned with the overall organisational strategy and not be seen as a stand-alone initiative.  In order to make knowledge flow consistently to wherever it is most needed, organisations should adopt standards early on (around technology, data architecture, risk management etc.).  Finally, management should also consider to “brand” KM so that knowledge that is explicitly shared has a consistent look and feel.

References

Cross R. and Baird L., “Technology Is Not Enough: Improving Performance by Building Organizational Memory”, Sloan Management Review, Vol. 41, No. 3, Spring 2000.

European KM Forum discussion board at https://www.knowledgeboard.com/

Kelleher & Leven, 2001 “Knowledge Management – A Guide to Good Practice”, British Standards Institute

Wells H.G., “The Brain: Organisation of the Modern World”, 1940