Knowledge management is the system of maintaining the collective wisdom of an organization. This wisdom comes in a variety of forms, including proprietary product information, processes, insight about customers, and continuous improvement methodology.
While some knowledge is confidential, much of what a company manages is widely known. The purpose of knowledge management is not to replicate existing stores of information, but rather to create uniformity in how that information is applied within the organization.
Knowledge management started gaining increasing prominence in the 1990′s. Since then, the discipline has continued to grow more mainstream.
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There are few things that someone, somewhere in a company does not know. The new guy in accounting knows which customers buy most at the end of the month. The engineer in Tucson knows the most common failure modes of product cases, and has a design process for avoiding those issues. A manager in the Widget Fab department was well-versed in daily management and policy deployment.
The point is that much of the value of a company comes from the knowledge and experience that is scattered around the organization. Unfortunately, these diamonds remain buried and the full potential of that wealth of information is never harvested.
Salespeople would love to have the accountant’s insight. The product line struggling with quality problems would be thrilled to see the Tucson engineer’s findings. And the newly appointed plant manager would have a whole lot easier time knowing that she has a team member who could coach her on policy deployment.
Knowledge management seeks to identify who knows what, vetting that information, and ultimately, sharing it and putting it to use.
The key steps of knowledge management are included in the following list. Note that knowledge is not linear. These steps are not either. There is a great deal of meandering that a morsel of information does within an organization.
The advent of technology has its pros and cons. The obvious benefit is that technology makes it easier to store, transfer, find, and apply knowledge. The downside is that this ease of use creates information overload.
Some of the most common technological methods of managing knowledge include the following.
Note that even though these technologies have drawbacks, they are still light years ahead of folders tucked in desk drawers or file cabinets.
A common way that companies manage knowledge is through the development of a “corporate university”. This is essentially a structured in-house education program. The biggest benefit of teaching in this manner is that there is control over what employees are learning.
Corporate universities, however, do have a significant cost associated with them. There is the cost of developing or purchasing training. There is the cost of staffing with trainers or bringing in outside expertise. There is also the increased cost of employee training time. When more training is made available, more team members take advantage of it.
Of course, well executed training pays for itself. That benefit is amplified if integrated with the whole knowledge management program.
Knowledge management is generally received in two main ways by employees. When people trust their companies, they look at it in a positive light. It makes their jobs easier and it makes the company more successful, which translates to job security, growth opportunities, and better overall rewards.
If a person doesn’t trust the company, efforts to consolidate knowledge tend to be looked at suspiciously. Having a strong information base that can be used to quickly bring new employees up to speed reduces the cost of turnover substantially. If the pain from letting a marginal or poor performer go goes down, the likelihood of it happening goes up.
If you fall into the second category, consider whether this company is really one you want to work for long term. Start an action plan to move to one that is a better fit for you.
If, however, you fall into the first, you can use the situation to help your career. Doing the things that are important to your company well is generally noticed. For companies without a good knowledge management system in place, one of those positive things is how well a person maintains their own skills and processes. As the company evolves, though, that becomes less important, and the ability to create and refine processes takes on added weight.
The ability to share that knowledge well also becomes magnified. As mundane as it sounds, becoming a better writer or learning to document via images can dramatically improve your personal value to the company.
Read the frontline notes to learn more about the emotional responses that creating a robust knowledge management system will have on your organization.
Your employees are smart, and will quickly see through your reasons for managing knowledge. If you have a reputation for respecting people, they will gladly share their brains with you. If you don’t have that trust, getting your team to let you document everything they know will be like pulling teeth.
How do you know if your employees trust you? If you don’t know, they don’t. If you want confirmation, though, try an anonymous job satisfaction survey.
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