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Knowledge Management (+9-Page Lean PDF)

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. 

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 to Knowledge Management

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.

  • Discovery. This is the initial “Aha!” when a new piece of information is first uncovered. It can happen by accident, but great organizations structure research and experimentation to guide the discovery process. Discovery from an organizational standpoint often occurs when a newly hired employee brings in new experience, or when a consultant or trainer is brought in specifically to increase knowledge.
  • Confirmation. Knowledge is not always correct. This is especially true for conventional wisdom and tribal knowledge. Facts must be confirmed.
  • Needs Assessment. An organization needs to be conscious of knowing what it doesn’t know and what it needs to know.
  • Knowledge Planning. Knowing what you need to learn is only part of the battle. The information about knowledge gaps should be used during strategic planning. It should also result in an action plan on how to close the gap.  
  • Archival. Knowledge that is not recorded is often lost, but worse, it can also transform into something harmful. An organization needs an effective way to store and retrieve that information.
  • Transference. Knowledge must be shared. People must have access to the appropriate stores of information, and must be trained on how to find what they need.
  • Education. Education is general learning. Learning addition and subtraction is education. General learning is important, as it increases the versatility of people, and helps them solve problems.
  • Training. Training is learning with a purpose. Going to a class to learn to balance a checkbook is training. The knowledge is applied to a specific situation. Acquiring most process knowledge falls into this category.
  • Application. Figuring out how to take a piece of knowledge and use it in a given situation is application. This is one of the hardest steps, as it requires not only knowing two separate data sets (the available knowledge and the company’s processes), but also the ability to connect the two.
  • Assimilation. Getting people to use the knowledge management system is often a challenge, especially before it becomes refined. But it is hard to refine it before it is put to use. Catch-22. Assimilation also covers actually integrating a piece of knowledge into daily use. Knowing something is important, but it also has to become habit. Think of healthy eating habits. Most people know that fruit and vegetables are better snacks than candy bars, but…
  • Review. Information becomes dated. Situations change. A good knowledge management system must purge old content and update itself as needed. It should not be the Wild West, though. There should be a process to make changes that won’t surprise people or cause conflict when one person changes something that affects others who might disagree on the need for change.

Technology and Knowledge Management

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.

  • Wikis: Wikis are essentially community-developed, online encyclopedias. They are useful, but require setup and maintenance. The drawback is that if access is overly lenient, changes are not properly vetted. But if it is too restrictive, the content is limited and the usefulness is diminished. If the format is set with a good posting process, though, they can be extremely valuable because of the ease of searching.
  • Databases: Databases are common in an organization, and often contain great knowledge. Most databases, though, are process specific and are not shared with all those who could benefit from them. Furthermore, many are not designed to be used for knowledge management so the nuggets take a lot of data mining.
  • Shared Folders: One of the most common methods of knowledge management comes from using shared folders to post relevant documents. In big organizations, though, this can quickly become unwieldy. Lessons learned and kaizen report outs are often stored in shared folders. The challenge is in maintaining a process for posting. While file searching is always improving, this is still the most limited way to archive files electronically.
  • Apps. Smartphones are making knowledge sharing easier than ever. Most apps, though, are developed out-of-house, though, so aren’t company specific. This technology, though, is likely to see many breakthroughs in the coming years.

Note that even though these technologies have drawbacks, they are still light years ahead of folders tucked in desk drawers or file cabinets.

Corporate “Universities”

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.

  • Learning is expensive, and managing the lessons learned also has a cost. Don’t spend money re-learning the same lessons over and over.
  • While facts are facts, much corporate knowledge is based on opinions and experience. That makes it open to debate. Make sure there is a process to settle disputes or the knowledge management system will lose credibility.
  • Most companies are at risk of a key individual leaving the company and bringing a vast reserve of information with him or her. In one organization I worked with, an employee was known to have a notebook with key processes, contacts, and other bits of information recorded in it. The employee left the company, and the notebook disappeared. With it, years of knowledge, some unrecoverable, were also wiped out. Most companies don’t allow that extreme situation to exist, but they do bear some risk that departing employees will bring crucial knowledge out the door with them. This risk increases with high turnover and low job satisfaction.

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.

  • Knowledge management is poorly done in most organizations.
  • Knowledge management helps employees by making jobs easier and adding new skillsets that can help careers.
  • Knowledge management helps companies by protecting information from loss or distortion and by sharing knowledge throughout the company.
  • Knowledge management helps reduce the cost of re-learning lessons over and over.

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