Knowledge Management (KM) is a discipline that has been on the radar of forward-looking organizations for some time now. Senior IT managers and CIOs who have become involved in these projects quickly discover that Knowledge Management may mean different things to different people. I set out to write this article to clear the hype that surrounds this discipline and to provide as much information as possible to make an IT leader’s participation in a KM project a success.

To make sure that it reflects not only my opinion by the experience of individuals who have successfully led such initiatives in various settings, I conducted interviews with such experts. You can listen to these interviews filled with real-life advice here.

A brief intro into the DIKW paradigm

As organizations go about their business, they generate transactional data, such as that describing clients, inventory, purchases, prices, and so on. With storage being as affordable as it is today, organizations retain volumes of data that would be readily disposed of just a few years ago. Data are just discrete facts about objects and events, necessary as part of a business system but of little use to decision making.

But organize the data contextually, with a specific purpose in mind, and it becomes information, which can be used for making inferences, conclusions, and decisions. An operations-type report on daily sales that contains meaningful metrics is valuable, as are business intelligence tools, information dashboards, balanced scorecards, and so on.

(A quick digression, a word on Business Intelligence (BI): Highly popular in the last decade, BI tools have attracted a significant portion of the CIO’s time and budget. Gartner estimates it to be a $9-billion-a-year market. These tools provide the means of efficient data manipulation and presentation, providing information to the inquisitive mind eager to tease out useful knowledge.)

Despite the power of technology and the high rate of investment into it, the success rate of BI initiatives has been underwhelming. The primary reason for this, in my experience working with corporate clients, is the dearth of inquisitive minds capable of turning information into knowledge and wisdom, and the ability to apply the knowledge in the future, the ultimately valuable trait.

Naturally, knowledge in organizations does not originate solely from transactional data. People within organizations develop content and process knowledge by going about their daily duties and figuring what works best, by adopting and fine-tuning best practices developed elsewhere, by taking courses, and also by observing, reading, and living. There are many ways in which people learn.

For example,

  • How to run a meeting most effectively (process)
  • How to handle a student loan application when the applicant is disabled (content)
  • How to influence buyers (process)
  • How to configure an interface for maximum performance (content)

The trouble is that this kind of knowledge is often confined to the heads of the people who discovered it, be it a star network engineer or a high-performance salesman. Some skills are hard to even identify explicitly, such as the ability to frame issues, to focus people’s attention, to get to a resolution quickly, to create an enjoyable work environment, to name a few. You’ve met such people in your career, and you may have admired their talents, but all this fine knowledge is not immediately available to others within the organization, and when the person leaves, so does the knowledge.

The KM imperative

Chances are you have met salespeople who didn’t know much about their wares, cashiers who were stupefied when you tried to pay with a gift card, or support staff who wasted your time by being very polite but also entirely clueless about your issue.

At other times in the very same setting, you may have met very competent salespeople, an efficient cashier, and knowledgeable support staff. I recall having to contact my Internet provider half a dozen times with a pesky problem, which was resolved in no time by the sixth technician; the five before him blamed the evil network goblins.

Bad client experiences are highly deleterious to the organization because, in the age of the Internet, they are readily shared with the world, keeping potential customers away and current customers looking for better alternatives. Yet, they can be fixed if the knowledge of the best performers becomes available to all.

Another reason for KM exists in projectized organizations, which most environments are today. When an exploration company goes on to drill a well, it is similar to other wells that they have drilled before, as are attendant phases, milestones, challenges, and best practices. It would be incredibly foolish, not to mention expensive, to start every time with a clean slate as if the previous experiences with a like project were permanently erased from the organizational memory. The same reasoning applies to professional firms, implementation services, and construction firms. It shouldn’t matter that the next project is run by a different crew. Yet in the absence of KM, it often does.

The third reason that both public and private organizations are paying attention today is the upcoming retirement of baby boomers and the knowledge gap it will create.

The need for KM is, therefore, real. Douglas Weidner, the Chairman of the Knowledge Management Institute, puts it this way: “The greatest discriminator …in the future will be how well you leverage knowledge, how well you focus on knowledge-intensive activities.”

How to start

Where exactly do you start with Knowledge Management in an organization? Here are a few ideas.

Chances are there may already be informal groups sharing knowledge, self-directing communities of practice. Michael Elkins, President of consulting company Kestral Group, suggests identifying such existing gatherings and their leaders and moving to formalize them. Weidner agrees: “I strongly recommend that people start with grassroots initiatives to foster… [organizational] change management.”

Start small. Zach Wahl, Director of Information Management at Project Performance Corporation, says: “You can do this iteratively; this is what we typically recommend. Start with small engagements… but those efforts must be done in a context of the enterprise roadmap and the enterprise strategy.” He continues: “We [as a profession] have learned this early on as we tried unsuccessfully these “big bang” approaches to KM.”

Do meaningful things. Wahl advises: “Understand what the business really needs. In the past, KM practitioners implemented things that seemed neat, that would make a good white paper… but not what was needed by the business.

Don’t obsess over the technology. Weidner warns that “one of the great mistakes we have seen in KM is people going out buying some KM system and don’t do proper change management. So, it’s never utilized to its advantage and… the returns are low, if anything.”

Elkins agrees: “Focus not on the technology aspect but on the social aspect.” He suggests concentrating on the following key points:

  • Social aspect: foster communities that benefit from sharing of knowledge.
  • Classification: knowledge is useless if it cannot be easily accessed and found.
  • Trust: peer review and endorsement is a must. Today, this is easily accomplished with such tools as wikis.
  • Strong leadership: not only driving and promoting KM but also moderating exchange of knowledge to keep it healthy, constructive, and safe.

Who should lead the KM program?

If you are familiar with the field of Organizational Development, you probably know of five types of power within organizations. One of them is called expert power, the power of knowledge. It’s job security for many, and to undermine it by sharing knowledge with peers may appear counterproductive. In fact the opposite is true: sharing knowledge strengthens the position of the source, positioning him or her as an expert, an authority on the subject. Often, a culture shift is required to make the organization look at knowledge sharing this way to stop knowledge hoarding. Who is the best person in an organization to instigate this change?

Weidner suggests that familiarity with the discipline is critical: “It is imperative that the person who is going to run KM knows what KM is all about. KM is too complex to run in an ad hoc fashion and think that enthusiasm and passion are going to get you there.” He suggests that the individual should be “someone who is respected in the firm… Ultimately [KM] ought to report to a very high level position…Sticking it under some operation, training department, or HR would not be the right way to go.”

And what about a CIO taking on a role of a knowledge leader? Zach Wahl offers this observation: “In my experience, there are some CIOs who are very effective strategically. In other cases, I have encountered CIOs who tend to be… much more focused on the day-to-day operations.”

Douglas Weidner agrees that there is a variety of IT leaders with different skill sets out there but says the following: “I have nothing against IT departments; it has been my background. But… under IT, [KM] takes a flavor of being a technology solution, being all about the KM system and not about the behavioral aspects.” He suggests that in some organizations, there may not be one senior person with the confluence of requisite skills, in which case several individuals may need to comanage.

Key success factors

  • By definition, the intent of Knowledge Management is to discover, retain, and disseminate locked-in knowledge across the organization. Doing so in pockets or silos does not make sense. In fact, Wahl asserts that “True KM cannot really exist at any level other than the enterprise.”
  • How are you going to know if you’re successful? Targets are elusive, and progress is subject to interpretation if the measure of success is not explicitly defined.
  • One shouldn’t be cavalier about the significant complexity of the task at hand. Elkins warns that KM is not the case of “build it and they will come.” He says: “KM requires the establishment of knowledge networks, of social collaboration tools… where you bring communities of experts together, creating the incentives for them to share [knowledge].”
  • Sponsorship from the very top is critical. Weidner explains that it is not optional: “Getting the top management commitment is ultimately one of the requirements to be successful. The other requirement to be successful is the quick win.”
  • Quick wins are necessary to maintain the momentum of the program, to keep the organization on the path. It’s true for most change initiatives, especially those that contain significant transformation of group norms and behavior.
  • Implicit recognition of a contributor is almost always built in to KM initiatives by default, as the he or she becomes known as an expert. It is also important to devise the means of recognizing knowledge sharing explicitly. These do not have to be monetary.
  • Celebrate and share success. Communicate often to showcase the value of the program to provide reinforcement of the desired behavior and to broaden its scale.

Final thoughts

Over 15 years ago, a TQM leader blurted out to me rather superciliously: “This is not rocket science. We just need to write down how we do everything around here.” We know today that capturing organizational knowledge is not a trivial endeavor. We also don’t see many people swoon over TQM as snazzier fixations are available today.

There’s a wealth of value in Knowledge Management if it’s approached in a thoughtful, serious, committed fashion and not as just another silver bullet of the day. If you’re looking to embark on this journey, this article should serve as a good conversation starter for your organization.