“The history of business is the history of managing knowledge” Thomas Stewart

Business is all about knowledge and understanding; of the market, your customers, competitors, technologies and systems. Thomas Stewart used to say that “the history of business is the history of managing knowledge”. That has been true for thousands of years and has become more true with more recent changes in the economy. W. Brian Arthur said,“we used to sell congealed resources, now we sell congealed knowledge”. That fundamental shift in what products truly are has had a profound effect on what users value and where impact lies.

So the efficient and effective management of knowledge, expertise and know-how is important for all organisations, particularly for those that are consistently innovating. They need to be able to capture the knowledge of their staff and partners, organise it, retrieve it and redeploy it.

That may be knowledge of previous projects for a consulting engineer, deep understanding of market needs and structures for a marketing organisation, or how to shape technology into a form that users find attractive for a consumer products company. Whatever your business, knowledge of some form will be critical to your success.

“We used to sell congealed resources, now we sell congealed knowledge” W Brian Arthur

Broad experience is increasing as we have many more roles with many more organisations in a working life. Deep experience in a specific area is less common. Modern organisations are much more porous, with rapid turnover of staff and much more work outsourced to various partners. It is very easy to ‘forget’ even quite critical information, or to see it walk out of the door.

People respond either by doing nothing and hoping that some sort of diffusion process will spread key information through the team, or by reaching for a knowledge management process or system.

Relying on diffusion is not really practical in organisations that get beyond the start-up stage and begin to grow, although it is a common approach. Those that think about it tend to want knowledge management systems and practices. Unfortunately, in recent years the discussion of knowledge management has become almost entirely about software. Individual companies explain how their particular tool can be used for knowledge management, and articles review the best software. This leads many to assume that the key decision in knowledge management is what software to invest in.

Don’t jump to ‘how?’ before you have figured out ‘why?’

The typical mistake, repeated in all kinds of organisations, is to move quickly to the mechanics of knowledge management before understanding the alignment with strategy and culture. To jump to ‘how?’ before there is clarity on ‘why?’. To choose a solution before we know what matters to people.

Any knowledge management strategy or process needs to align both with the strategy and the culture of the organisation. It needs to be clear how it helps to progress the strategic goals of the organisation, and how it helps people to deliver their job more effectively.

The goal of creating a knowledge management system is not to have a system, but to make a measurable contribution to tackling the organisation’s most pressing issues. Successful knowledge management is important to the organisation. It is not a ‘nice to have’, but a key tool for delivering the collective goals.

Getting alignment with organisational strategy and culture

Alignment with strategy and culture is vital. How do we achieve it?

Most organisations have a small number of critical objectives that must be delivered. Whatever you do with knowledge should support them. What does the business plan or strategy say in your organisation? What are the top priorities?

But you should also check with the senior team. What is their view of the key challenges facing the organisation and where you need to focus?

Ask questions like:

  • What are the critical things we need to do?
  • What are our most pressing issues?
  • What keeps us awake at night?
  • Where are we most vulnerable?
  • Where do we have the greatest opportunity?

Never ask what they think a knowledge management system should do; keep the focus on the real issues facing the organisation.

That will give a good picture of how knowledge management could help to deliver the key goals of the organisation, but it won’t make people use the system. For that you must make it personally attractive. How will it help real people to do real jobs? How will it help me personally?

The best way to find out what people most want from knowledge management is to ask about the problems and barriers they face:

  • How could you personally be twice as effective as you are?
  • If you could make one activity vanish, what would it be?
  • What wastes your time?
  • What would you like to spend more time doing?
  • How is your performance judged? What does the organisation value?

Where you are trying to introduce or strengthen knowledge management, you are asking people to take on some additional tasks. Work they are not currently doing. In organisations with highly motivated, skilled people with a commitment to a vision, people will look hard at the perceived value of any new task. Is it important for my role? Will it help me to work more effectively towards my goals?

If the new task fits with their understanding of what the organisation is for, and their role in it, and if it helps them to do their job, they will participate enthusiastically. If it feels like ‘bureaucracy’ and ‘makework’ unconnected with the mission, or is seen as a distraction from the important task, sullen acceptance is the best you can hope for and active sabotage a real possibility.

One rule of thumb is that any additional effort required must be repaid at least two-fold. If you want me to contribute an hour of knowledge management work, I expect to save at least two hours in my day job.

Pluck the low hanging fruit that makes life easier

Needs that come from the users may be very simple, but meeting those needs will really help delivery.

In one business in a rapid growth phase there was a screaming need for better a better induction pack. Experienced staff were frustrated at having to keep interrupting their work to help new starts get going, and the new starts were frustrated that no-one had the time to bring them up to speed. They felt they were flying blind.

In another business the administrative assistants wanted to create a list of FAQ’s and ‘how-to…’. They would learn from each other and deal with queries from other staff much faster.

A multinational service company had a long and proud list of successful projects, but nobody could easily find out about these projects and who was involved. The information existed in project reports but was not retrievable.

These are the low hanging fruit. Meeting these needs is often very easy and shows that knowledge management has some immediate benefit.

Putting the strategy and user needs together, the most important knowledge assets are:

  • connected to the key objectives of the organization
  • supporting the values of the organization and the way people work
  • helping individuals to meet their own goals
  • clearly and measurably valuable
  • up to date
  • providing timely information
  • meaningful to the people who will use them
  • from a trusted source.

Once you have decided what the most important and powerful knowledge assets are, you can begin to think about the best way to deliver them.

Don’t forget, the goal is always to help real people do real jobs.

Knowledge Management is Not About Choosing the Right Software, But the Right Strategy

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