By Dr. Maureen Hammer
To understand knowledge management (KM) in practice, we should define it. Before we define KM, however, we need to share a common understanding of knowledge. Knowledge is the technical, social, and political information that individuals have learned through formal and informal learning, including explicit knowledge, or information, and tacit knowledge, which is experience and expertise influenced by context.
Now, how do we define knowledge management? In general terms, it is the identification, collection, organization, dissemination, and use of critical knowledge within an organization. It’s an attempt to identify what knowledge an organization and employees hold, who needs that knowledge, and how to provide that knowledge to the right people at the right time.
KM in practice varies depending on the goals and needs of individual organizations. The approach to creating an initiative, however, is standard, although the tools you use will depend on what you are trying to accomplish. Let’s take the journey to establish KM in your organization by reviewing several common goals:
- Mitigate the loss of knowledge
- Make knowledge findable
- Improve performance
- Support innovation
Goal: Mitigate the Loss of Knowledge
If you are anticipating a retirement wave, have a lot of new employees, are experiencing movement within the organization, or your employee tenure has shortened, then your goal might be to mitigate the potential loss of knowledge. We no longer have the organizations of the past, where people come to work just out of school or training and stay for their entire career. We no longer have apprenticeship programs where people are taught and knowledge is transferred. These aren’t bad things; in fact, knowledge within the organization can be increased when employees come from different backgrounds and experience. The key is to create opportunities for people to share and leverage that knowledge.
Conducting a Knowledge Audit
Regardless of your goal, it’s critical to know what knowledge the organization, and the people within it, holds. Conducting a knowledge audit helps to identify the following:
- Where the knowledge is
- Who the experts are
- Whether you have adequate bench strength in a given knowledge area
- Whether that knowledge has been documented
- How knowledge does, or does not, transfer across the organization
When conducting a knowledge audit, make a record of where all the documented knowledge is located. The knowledge or information might be located in the following places:
- In common electronic repositories
- In individual hard drives
- In offices in written format
- Held by individuals
Creating a Knowledge Matrix
Create a knowledge matrix that lists the critical knowledge areas in the first column. In the first row, list the possible repositories. In each cell, list the exact location of the knowledge, such as the name of the system, the specific office, or the individuals. If there are limited electronic repositories, list them individually in the first row, and mark an “X” in the cell to indicate that knowledge resides there.
The matrix is a living document that expands as new repositories are uncovered. To identify the repositories, conduct interviews with experts who can start you on the journey of discovery. You might discover multiple knowledge areas to explore; if so, prioritize them. The matrix serves as your map to uncover and gather the knowledge. Relocate critical knowledge to centralized repositories, if possible; if not, keep the location up to date to make that knowledge accessible when needed. Some knowledge might be outdated; in that case, you might still collect it to archive for future reference or to use as a source for new knowledge.
Creating Directories of Expertise and Knowledge Books
Creating directories of expertise allows you to determine who can be tapped when an opportunity or challenge arises. For knowledge areas that are critical to your organization’s core functions—especially those areas where you found only one or two levels of depth of expertise—consider creating a knowledge book. The knowledge book details processes, networks of expertise, the purpose and reasoning behind steps and decisions, and the information and data that support further decision making.
Creating Communities of Practice
Create Communities of Practice (CoPs) to intentionally gather individuals together to share knowledge, document that knowledge, and create new knowledge. The CoP should be relatively small and made up of experts with long tenures in the organization, as well as employees with a shorter tenure who are new to their field or who bring experience from other organizations. The CoP can document a process or lessons learned, introduce others to their networks, and mentor. Creating CoPs hastens the transfer of knowledge from individuals to the organization.
Goal: Make Knowledge Findable
If you have information housed in multiple repositories, different geographic areas, or a variety of formats, your goal might be to make knowledge and information findable. As with mitigating knowledge loss, start with a knowledge audit. During the audit, document the various systems, the information they store, and whether they are connected or stand alone. Our organizations have so many disparate systems—how do we bring them together and make information findable?
Creating Document Centers
Create corporate document centers that house authoritative and critical information to reassure employees that they have the latest versions of documents and that the information has been reviewed and approved.
Creating a Common Taxonomy
If you have a library, work with the experts there to create a common taxonomy that can be used to categorize documents and individuals who are experts in a specific area so that others can tap into that knowledge. Data managers can help create links across systems by identifying appropriate fields that house similar information.
Goal: Improve Performance
Perhaps your goal is to improve performance by decreasing the time needed to complete tasks or integrate functions. Accomplishing this requires technical and organizational knowledge.
Reengineering Your Business Processes
Business process reengineering requires an in-depth look at a process, documenting the as-is state, identifying steps that are no longer needed or should be adapted, and creating a new process. Attach the critical knowledge supporting each step, including the names of individuals, corporate documents, lessons learned, how-to videos for completing the step, training materials, or case studies—whatever will help flesh out the knowledge required to be successful. If you’ve created CoPs, leverage them to support increased communication and collaboration between functions. Enlist them to perform the business process review and identify what knowledge is needed—where it is and whether it needs to be documented.
Reviewing Actions—Before, During, and After
Before-, during-, and after-action reviews are helpful to document knowledge going forward. We are all so busy that our default style of work is to solve an issue and move on (single-loop learning). If we do not take time to reflect, however, we keep solving the same issue over and over. We must be double-loop learners, and the action reviews help with that. They provide time to review and identify the following:
- What went well
- What didn’t
- Whether we have a successful new approach that should be shared and incorporated into our processes
- Where our processes are broken and have been subject to regular work-arounds
These reviews should cover not just the what of decisions, but also the why behind the decisions to inform others when they perform their before-action reviews, increasing shared organizational knowledge.
Goal: Support Innovation
Finally, your goal might be to support innovation by encouraging creative thinking, ideas, and learning. Perhaps you want to build new functions or deploy new research or ideas. If so, consider the following:
- CoPs can support this goal through collaboration; enlist them to validate submitted ideas or to work with submitters to implement ideas.
- After-action reviews can also be used to support innovation; create case studies and include them in learning events that might spark innovation.
- Coaching and mentoring are key tools with this goal to encourage employees and teach them how to stay focused on the desired end goal and address challenges more creatively and innovatively.
Knowledge Manager Skills
There are five KM skills that will help you be successful:
First, you must be a strategist and be able to define the role of KM in reaching organizational goals and objectives. Ask yourself the following questions:
Does my organization have an intent to manage knowledge?
- Where will I start?
- Where are the opportunities?
- Where are the champions?
- What will provide the most compelling story?
- Does my organization have an intent to transfer, retain, and create knowledge?
- How will I measure?
You must be persuasive and make a business case that makes sense to decision makers to invest in KM techniques and approaches. Note that these decision makers might have different needs, so it’s important to know what keeps them up at night.
You need to be organized and set up the infrastructure, partnerships, technology, and tools that will make you successful.
Facilitation skills enable you to support participants in the KM initiative. You need not be an expert in the target domain of knowledge, but you must be an active listener and able to guide participants.
Finally, you must measure your success in terms that speak to the decision makers and participants. This includes ensuring there are quantitative and qualitative metrics that demonstrate the value of KM.
How will you measure? Consider these measurements:
- Cost avoidance
- Cost savings
- Time savings
- Efficiencies gained
- Qualitative feedback
Most important is to tell the story and ensure that the organization sees the benefit of the initiatives.
Other Critical Success Factors
For KM to be successful, both individuals and the organization need to support the effort.
Support from Individuals
Leadership should embrace its responsibility to share knowledge and expertise, and management should agree and see the benefit of making time for employees to participate.
In addition, gaining grassroots support from those who will be participants means making the case of what’s in it for them and how it will help them. Most people do not realize that the personal knowledge they have is extensive and needed by others; they don’t know what they know until they are asked.
Support in the Organization’s Culture
The organizational culture must support knowledge sharing and embrace teamwork and collaboration over individual accomplishment and recognition. Recognition should be for teams and knowledge sharing, not rewarding those who protect their knowledge and hesitate to share.
Learning organizations—those that embrace double-loop learning—are the most successful with KM. Everyone is so busy that workers in a typical organization solve problems without ever sharing what they learned, which sentences the organization with needing to reinvent the wheel over and over. Double-loop learning acknowledges the value of pausing and examining what happened, as well as pooling all of those innovative approaches to create a new organizational approach, using before-, during-, and after-action reviews.
What can you expect? There will be resistance, typically due to a perception that there is no time to stop and identify the knowledge that currently exists in the organization. People want proof, and pilot projects demonstrating the value of KM initiatives are beneficial. Seek to answer the following questions with your pilot-project results:
- How are you going to replicate this on a larger scale?
- What is the cost-benefit?
- What lessons did you learn that will revise or impact your approach in the future?
The Value of KM
As organizations face new challenges and opportunities, it’s critical to transfer knowledge held by individuals to the organization so that it can be incorporated into processes and tools used by others. This helps the organization understand its core functions and allows all members of the organization to be proactive in meeting future needs rather than reactive. It also ensures that the organization becomes an employer of choice, where people can take part in exciting opportunities, learn, grow, and share what they know.
Dr. Maureen Hammer (email@example.com) has been with Battelle Memorial Institute since 2016. Prior to that, she served as the Knowledge Management Officer at Virginia DOT (VDOT) for over 12 years. Dr. Hammer has over 25 years of experience in information and knowledge management. Under her leadership, the VDOT Knowledge Management Program was a finalist in the 2008 Harvard Innovations in Government Award and a finalist in the 2007 KM Reality Award for KM World. Dr. Hammer has significant experience in knowledge transfer tools and techniques, the development and maintenance of knowledge portals and business intelligence delivery systems, outreach, business process improvement, training, information and library services, taxonomy creation, content and document management, data management, and knowledge architecture.
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