The goal of an organizational Knowledge Management strategy is to gather-up the information, resources and expertise that exist within the organization in order to store it for future reference, leverage it for speed to insight and make better, more informed decisions. The goal is to know what we know, know what we don’t know and perhaps get closer to identifying what we don’t know that we don’t know.
So how do we take this quandary and make sense of it within organizations? The following are 6 tips for addressing everyday organizational KM needs. These tips are not overly technical and you’re not going to need to break out your Gant chart. These tips are high-level and meant to serve as a basic introduction to building a Knowledge Management practice.
1. Find out what the main areas of expertise are within each department.
This is the ‘know what we know’ part of the riddle and in KM, we refer to this as a Knowledge Audit. The purpose is begin to piece together the pockets of expertise in your organization, by department and by role. Who do you have and what do they know? What do they do? What resources do they create? What information do they have that helps them perform their jobs? Do they know what their role says they should know? Do they know other things?
Despite the way it may sound, a knowledge audit can be conducted rather informally. It can be as simple as a survey with a pre-determined list of skills or knowledge where employees check-off the skills they have, skills they want to learn, etc. This can even be anonymous and aggregated by department, so the insight is more directional and less individual.
In fact, the more informal and directional, the better. Knowledge is very personal to many and can be very sensitive to discuss, let alone divulge. Many years ago, I worked as a consultant at NASA HQ in Washington D.C. It was one of my very first clients as a junior consultant and my assignment was to communicate the roll-out of a new system to all the mission directorates. My role was strictly informational and supportive. I was to meet with each mission directorate, give an overview of the new system and explain how they were to use it. Simple, right? You know the saying, “It isn’t rocket science!”? Well, when you are a 22-year-old management consultant and you’ve been tasked with telling actual ROCKET SCIENTISTS that they should go forth and enter their skills and level of proficiency into a system with a name that included the words ‘Competency Management’, you realize that some things are a lot harder than they seem or than they need to be. So, keep it informal and aim for collective knowledge, not individual competencies.
2. Identify knowledge gaps and risks.
A knowledge audit will not only tell you what areas of expertise exist in your organization, but also what may be missing. An understanding of a department’s knowledge depth, can be a critical data point when it comes to decision-making. For example, once when conducting a knowledge audit for a data science department, we learned that only one respondent had checked off a skill that happened to be critical to day-to-day operations for one of the company’s most highly profitable and innovative solutions. Imagine if that employee decided to leave the organization or fell ill for an extended period of time. Through the help of the audit, we could identify this gap, the risk of potential knowledge loss and mitigate it by transferring that critical knowledge to more employees.
3. Create a digital space for knowledge to live.
The fastest and most efficient way to transfer and store knowledge is to go digital. Most organizations are using digital tools such as email and file sharing. You do not have to have a fancy intranet or a dedicated web-based platform to have knowledge management. To keep it simple, store commonly used documents or reference materials in a shared drive and keep them organized
with a mutually exclusive folder structure. If the capability exists, give documents appropriate and intuitive tags or assign some metadata to them to enable searchability.
4. Transfer and Share Knowledge.
Organizational knowledge exists in two different forms; explicit and tacit. Explicit knowledge describes the stuff employees produce or create, such as documents, databases, emails, etc. It is easily codified and more easily stored and shared. Tacit knowledge on the other hand is somewhat more nuanced and difficult to identify. It often exists in minds of employees and is based on their experiences. A good knowledge management solution should aim to gather both explicit and tacit knowledge, where possible. Explicit knowledge likely exists on employees’ hard drives and in their email. An organized effort can be made to identify commonly used documents and transfer them to a shared space. Tacit knowledge can still be transferred from those who have it, to those who need it, but there isn’t always a tangible component to this type of transfer. Sometimes a tacit transfer looks more like a mentorship or a conversation to share experiences.
5. Don’t reinvent the wheel
The purpose of sharing knowledge is to grow and strengthen the collective wisdom of the organization and its employees. I once spent a two-week working on a client presentation, researching, writing, analyzing data, and creating charts and graphs, only to learn months later that the person sitting three cubes away had done a very similar presentation just weeks prior. Had I known that person or what he was working on, I would have asked to leverage the learning from his presentation. But in most organizations, it’s not possible to know every employee, across every office location. So instead, organizations deploy a KM solution to avoid redundancies and boost speed to insight for their customers.
6. Recognize people and progress
Lastly, when working in knowledge, we can’t forget that knowledge is only knowledge if there is someone to know something. Knowledge is personal. It doesn’t exist without people and their minds, their experiences, their decisions and their perceptions. A good Knowledge Management solution should include a healthy dose of employee interaction, inclusion and recognition. In a great many organizations, employees are used to storing documents on their hard drives, retaining knowledge in their brains and emailing information back and forth. It is important to understand the current state of your organization’s knowledge needs and make incremental improvements over time, while always paying close attention to the people and recognizing progress.
Knowledge Management doesn’t have to be as overwhelming or ambiguous as the name may infer. It can be as simple as understanding who you have, what they collectively know and how you can best share their knowledge with others and vice versa.