By Judith L. Glick-Smith | STC Fellow
Organizations must dedicate time and resources to pay attention to how knowledge is captured, curated, organized, and maintained. Effective knowledge management facilitates purpose-driven strategic planning.
Effective, holistic strategic planning begins with purpose, followed closely by awareness and knowledge, which are foundational to informed decision making. Knowledge is constantly changing and requires a commitment to knowledge management, including knowledge capture, knowledge architecture, processes and procedures, and appropriate technology platforms and systems.
Organizations must dedicate time and resources to pay attention to how knowledge is captured, curated, organized, and maintained. When an unmanaged piece of knowledge fails to get captured, the decision maker can no longer trust the entirety of the knowledge base. Most organizations are in a state of constant re-evaluation of organizational structure and re-allocation of resources due to attrition, the implementation of new technologies, the requirements of customers, and the research and development of new products and service offerings.
In addition, the organization’s vision or purpose can change, especially when organizations merge or hire new leadership. When this happens, knowledge that was once relevant and critical to the organization can be suddenly obsolete. Change is fluid, not static. However, if processes are in place at a meta level (not tied to tools, platforms, or people), knowledge required for agile decision making can be managed and exploited.
This article discusses how knowledge management (KM) facilitates purpose-driven strategic planning. Efficient and mindful KM can focus personal and group commitment to provide the most accurate information in the appropriate form that decision makers can use while fully understanding the impact on the people they serve if this is not done well.
What Is ‘Knowledge’?
Knowledge is the “why” associated with information. Information is data in context. Tacit knowledge is the knowledge in our heads. It is what enables us to remember how to ride a bicycle. Explicit knowledge is knowledge that has been captured and recorded or written down in some fashion so that others can access it and use it for decision-making.
Purpose-Driven Strategic Planning
The first step in strategic planning must be to identify the organization’s vision or purpose. If the vision is to maximize shareholder value, the organization’s decision making will be much different than if it wants to focus on support, putting customers first.
Companies, such as Southwest Airlines (SWA),1 understand that putting employees and corporate culture first results in happy customers. Therefore, their employees and culture are what drives their purpose to “connect people to what’s important in their lives through friendly, reliable, low-cost air travel.” This ties into SWA’s vision “to be the world’s most loved, most efficient, and most profitable airline.” Succinctly articulating a vision and purpose tells the people in the organization where their focus should be every day.
I recently worked with a company (let’s refer to this company as ABC) who required all their new employees and consultants to attend orientation. One of the ABC Senior VPs told the story of a woman who couldn’t pay her electric bill because ABC’s systems were unavailable. The electric company shut off her electricity the next day. She was on oxygen, which required electricity to run. The VP pointed out that what ABC did every day was to minimize downtime so that ABC’s customers — individual human beings — could live their lives with minimal disruption. By putting a human face on the work of the organization, he aligned human resource objectives with that of ABC’s purpose. This effectively created a team environment — a feeling that we are all in this together. I never heard anyone say, “That’s not my job” or “That isn’t the way we do things here.” The environment was collaborative and relatively conflict-free. Knowledge was managed in a standardized way and available to those who needed access to it. People worked together to implement systems that helped the support teams do their jobs.
ABC company merged with another company — XYZ. XYZ company had a different culture. They were focused on building shareholder value, rather than on serving the customer. However, this was never articulated or communicated to the everyday worker. The “message” was delivered non-verbally through upper-management decisions to separate resources into silos fostering a competitive environment as opposed to a collaborative environment; to lay off people who, previously, were key in making sure systems were adequately documented for operations and for audit purposes; to shut off access to systems required for research; by discarding a well-defined and effective development and implementation process because it felt “too slow.” Over time, because they rushed, project teams began building systems before they had a design, which meant there was much re-work. A great deal of knowledge was lost on these projects because attrition was accelerating, solution architects were not assigned to individual projects, and engineers were using multiple platforms to capture decisions. I began to hear people complain that “This is not my job” and “Why do we have to do documentation? We never did this before.” Because those who left the company, whether voluntarily or involuntarily, were not replaced, those who were left behind became overloaded. Everyone’s job got very messy very fast.
Before the merger, technical writing was an integral part of the system development life cycle. However, within two years, XYZ engineers were complaining about having to meet to help technical writers create documentation that operations support could use to maintain the systems. ABC engineers were leaving in droves. The rapidity of this change was stunning. The company will be OK for the next year and a half. However, because they are not replacing the writers or the engineers they have lost, the knowledge base will begin to be out of date. This will bite them when auditors come calling and when there are outages. They will lose customers because of their short-term thinking. This is a pattern I have seen over 40 years of working in the technology sector.
Strategic planning requires an on-going process of continuous re-evaluation, of aligning with purpose, and communicating purpose and plans to those who are doing the work of the organization. People want to know the vision and will align their work to that vision. If the organization does not communicate the vision, people within the organization will make up their own purpose for being, which may not align with the organization’s definition of success. The reason for this is that everyone wants to go home at the end of the day feeling as if they have accomplished something worthwhile and that their contribution matters.
The Role of Knowledge in Informed Decision Making
When knowledge is not captured, codified, and made accessible, decision makers will be more susceptible to what Kahneman calls “hindsight bias,” sometimes referred to as the “I knew-it-all-the-time” phenomenon. Hindsight bias refers to the inclination to overestimate one’s ability to have foreseen the outcome. One tends to minimize the impact of decisions, relegating outcomes as good or bad, rather than whether the decision made sense within the context.2
Knowledge provides the basis for decisions. Knowing what has worked in the past helps determine how to proceed. Also, knowing why a specific path wasn’t chosen doesn’t preclude going down that path now if circumstances have changed. However, if the knowledge around that choice hasn’t been captured and made easily accessible, it is easy to repeat the same mistakes, negating the effort to be agile.
Knowledge Management (KM) is a system consisting of people, processes, and architecture. People are responsible for conducting knowledge capture activities; curating the knowledge captured; creating and maintaining the virtual knowledge architecture; creating and following processes and procedures; and building and maintaining appropriate technology platforms and systems. Written standards and procedures, naming conventions, and an agreed upon taxonomy with buy-in from all parties is critical to ensure consistency and accuracy. Even with standards, though, enforcing a consistent process is not simple, unless you have a dedicated person or team to be the focal point for curation, enforcement, and publication.
The architecture is also critical. If an organization is using multiple platforms, effective KM is next to impossible. I’ve had multiple clients that use multiple “knowledge platforms,” such as Confluence, Teams, SharePoint, and ServiceNow for storing knowledge articles and project artifacts. The more platforms an organization uses, the harder it is to find relevant content that can be trusted to be the most recent and most true. If there is no gatekeeper to maintain these source platforms and people can’t find what they are looking for, they will create new documents causing there to be multiple, similar — but not the same — documents about the same subject matter. This is what creates “knowledge graveyards” — a mess that will need to be researched and cleaned up to be useful.
One project I worked on with a large global consulting firm involved multiple SharePoint knowledge bases. SharePoint was their knowledge base platform of choice. However, each department was an organizational silo with its own SharePoint site configured to its needs and not curated to fit within any corporate standard. Anyone within that department could add to the knowledge base to which no other department had access.
The organization had consultants who spent a great deal of time creating documentation — from engagement letters to final reports. They often were able to take an existing document and modify it for their current client. However, when they couldn’t find another document that worked in their given situation, they would create a new document from scratch, unnecessarily.
This resulted in an exponential growth in the number of repetitive documents and no way to tell which was the most accurate. The project’s purpose was to establish a common taxonomy, consolidate the knowledge bases, delete duplicate documents, consistently tag the remaining documents, and then upgrade SharePoint to the next version. There were over 300,000 documents to review, categorize by document type, and tag with appropriate keywords.
If there had been an explicit set of enforced standards and access to a common knowledge base, each individual consultant could save hours searching for documents and having to create documentation from scratch.
I’ve been in environments where multiple knowledge architecture solutions dominate, depending on who is in charge. If upper management has always used Confluence, they impose Confluence on their people. If upper management changes and the new regime is used to using SharePoint, the edict will be that everyone needs to now use SharePoint. This is done regardless of any type of requirements analysis or consulting with the people who need to use the system or the size or portability of the existing knowledge base.
Another way multiple knowledge platforms get implemented in organizations is through the “silver bullet mentality” that has dominated software sales for over 40 years. The salesperson arrives in the C-level office and proceeds to convince the senior management team that, “If you buy this platform/software/solution, all your problems will be solved. It’s so intuitive that your people don’t even have to be trained.” I’ve seen this happen in every sector — private, publicly-held, emergency services, and government. The new solution is implemented, and people are told by upper management, “Here is your new solution. From now on, we are going to use this.” Workers then proceed to figure out how to make the new system do what they have always done negating the perceived benefits of the new system.
In the KM world, I’ve been in multiple organizations where the mandate to use one platform for knowledge storage changed more than three times within a two-year period. No guidance, standards, or enforcement were provided — only a mandate. People didn’t know where to put or find project artifacts or support documentation. There was no thought as to how someone would later search for information for use by operations support, by an auditor, or by management for decision-making or planning purposes.
In one client environment, I was in a meeting about a new process where people from multiple departments attended. Confluence was the new, mandated knowledge base, but few people had access to it, and it took weeks to get access. One of the meeting attendees spoke up about having written procedures for documenting projects. He asked to share his screen. He showed the meeting attendees a procedure he had written in Confluence. Most attendees were still using SharePoint and didn’t have access to Confluence.
While he was talking, I looked at the organizational chart to see his role. He was a senior manager!
He said, “We need procedures like this.” He showed a procedure he had written in Confluence complete with screenshots.
Then, he said, “Any monkey can do this.”
Of course, my hackles went up.
I asked him if he was a technical writer. (I knew he wasn’t. I just want to point out that he wasn’t.)
I asked him if he wrote these procedures.
“Yes,” he said.
I asked him who was going to maintain them. He said that he was going to maintain the procedures.
I asked him if he communicated these procedures’ existence to those who would need to use them and whether he had granted access to them through Confluence.
“No,” he said.
I asked him who would maintain these procedures if he left the company or got hit by a bus.
He said he didn’t know.
Then I asked him if he was aware that there was a team of professional technical writers already in place to do this type of technical documentation.
He said, “No.”
I pointed him to the manager of the technical writing team. I checked with her later that week; he never contacted her.
This is how “knowledge graveyards” grow weeds and adversely impact strategic decision making.
Organizations who dedicate time and resources to facilitate KM best practices using professional technical communicators who understand how to acquire, curate, and publish knowledge reap the benefits. Every minute an employee or consultant saves by having accurate and true access to knowledge about past decisions is money that goes straight to the organization’s bottom line.
Implementing KM is a system development effort that should follow traditional system development life cycle best practices and include the buy-in from all stakeholders. Whether a waterfall approach or an agile approach is used is irrelevant. However, pre-defined requirements are critical before the purchase or adoption of the KM platform.
Professional technical communicators comprise the KM team of gatekeepers and knowledge architects. These professionals are trained in KM practices and need to be the ones to set up and document how the KM system will work, including:
- Articulating, maintaining, and communicating KM standards
- Maintaining the KM taxonomy
- Determining and controlling who has access and who can contribute to the KM system
- Writing, vetting, tagging, and editing knowledge articles
An accurate and current KM system is what facilitates the ability to create dynamic, holistic, and purpose-driven strategic thinking and decision making.
- Southwest® Careers. n.d. https://careers.southwestair.com/
- Kahneman, D. 2011. Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Judith (“Judy”) L. Glick-Smith, PhD, has been a technical communicator, author, and business consultant since 1983. She is president/CEO of MentorFactor, Inc. (MFI) and the executive director of The Center for Flow-Based Leadership®. She is the author of Flow-based Leadership: What the Best Firefighters Can Teach You about Leadership and Making Hard Decisions, which was named the Number One Public Safety Leadership Book of 2016 by Fire Chief Magazine. She is the co-author and co-editor of three other books: Visionary Leadership in a Turbulent World: Thriving in the New VUCA Context, Exceptional Leadership by Design, and Women Courageous: Leading Through the Labyrinth. Judy has a PhD in transformative studies and is a Fellow and Past International President of the Society for Technical Communication.