Getting Started With Knowledge Management

Aug 8, 2016

In the last couple of years I’ve dealt with a few companies that were either unable or unwilling to preserve the knowledge and expertise of their employees. In fact, I was employed at one such organization for quite some time. The company lost money and opportunities, and its image suffered as well, all due to the lack of a comprehensive knowledge management solution.

In regards to training, the company put faith in the old “knowledge sharing is king” motto. However, they paid little more than lip service to the concept. In reality, it all boiled down to turning to a colleague when you were stuck, and if you were lucky, you got help. To tell you the truth, the motto was mostly used by the management to justify denying employees’ requests to be sent for advanced training off-site.

As you may guess, the morale in the company was low, and the turnover high, which, in turn, only served to exacerbate the lack of expertise. In the end, after a few key persons left, the company found itself unable to adequately service its customers. The remaining employees simply did not have the knowledge and experience necessary to provide assistance to a customer in an emergency, who, as a result, incurred significant loss.

To prevent such disasters from happening in the future, I decided to compile a list of basic recommendations that can be used to establish knowledge management in your organization. If you have ever entertained the idea of recording the employees’ knowledge, storing it centrally, and making it available company-wide, the principles of knowledge management might be just the ticket.

What Is Knowledge Management?

Knowledge management involves discovering, retaining, and sharing expertise in order to improve the efficiency of an organization. Let’s take a closer look at this beast. Knowledge management is meant to facilitate the following:

  1. Creating knowledge.
  2. Storing knowledge.
  3. Sharing and transferring knowledge.
  4. Applying knowledge.

Creating and storing knowledge are well-formulated and well-understood tasks, and the details of their implementation are up to you. Picking whatever means of creating and storing knowledge works best with the kind of knowledge your company works with. If you are all right with putting in a little effort to create quality training courses, I recommend using Geenio for knowledge creation and storage, killing two birds with one stone. Everything you create in Geenio is stored securely in the cloud, but you can also use Google Docs or another service as an alternative storage solution.

Item number 3 in the list (sharing and transferring knowledge) deserves closer attention. Knowledge sharing in a company is only possible if the following conditions are met:

  • The knowledge provider can describe the information to be shared.
  • The knowledge recipient must be aware that knowledge exists and is available.
  • The knowledge recipient must be able to access the knowledge provider.

If in your organization these three conditions are satisfied (or, at least, can be satisfied with a little work), you are good to go.

Applying knowledge is equally important. Learning new things is well and good, but the effort is wasted as long as you fail to consistently apply the obtained knowledge in real life scenarios. Skills and expertise that are not put to use get lost over time, so it is important to make sure that the knowledge you’ve created and stored is used and applied for knowledge management to succeed in your organization.

Fundamentals Of Knowledge Management

Knowledge management in an organization is based on the 3 main components:

  1. People.
  2. Processes.
  3. Technology.

These components are the foundation you need to establish knowledge management in your company, but they are not weighted equally. 70% of success depends on people, processes account for 20%, and the rest is technology. Use these guidelines to gauge how much effort to put into each of the components, and how much to expect in return.


Main Challenges

Since the success of knowledge management in a company relies heavily on that company’s personnel, it is logical to expect that most challenges you are going to encounter will be related to that aspect. The human factor has a lot of nasty tricks up its sleeve, so make sure that you are prepared for these commonly encountered issues:

1. Refusal To Share.

Not everyone is eager to freely share the knowledge they earned with hard work. Many people are afraid that giving away their “know how” will make them redundant, and believe that by hoarding their expertise they make themselves irreplaceable. You must convince them that sharing their expertise will benefit them as well as everyone else, that sharing knowledge allows it to grow, and that giving freely will not diminish their standing within the company - to the contrary, it will make them more valuable.

2. Motivation Issues.

If, having read this far, you’re ready to rush to the office and declare that the knowledge management initiative begins immediately, hold your horses. Unless you motivate your employees to actively and earnestly participate in knowledge sharing, your new policy is going to be a bust. To better understand how you can motivate your employees, I recommend you to read up on the self-determination theory.In a nutshell, there are three main aspects to a person’s self-motivation:

  • Competence.
    The desire to achieve a certain level of skill, or some specific result. Receiving positive feedback from managers and colleagues confirms a person’s professionalism and competence, and reinforces their desire to work and improve in their chosen area of expertise.
  • Autonomy.
    When you enable your employees to make their own decisions and allow them a greater degree of freedom in regards to their training, you give their motivation a big boost. Extrinsic motivators, such as pay raises and bonuses, stymie their intrinsic motivation and diminish the feelings of personal responsibility.
  • Relatedness.
    Make your employees feel like they're a part of something important, something bigger than themselves. The feeling of belonging to a group does wonders for morale. Every employee must feel that they are welcomed and valued by their colleagues, and that their work brings people joy.

3. The Knowledge Provider Search.

However much knowledge and expertise you collect and record, it is unlikely to cover 100% of your employees’ needs. Every now and then, a unique situation will arise and demand a radical solution, one that requires even deeper understanding and rarer insight than those you possess. To weather such storms, it is imperative to answer not only the “Know How?” question, but the “Know Who?” one as well.

If your company wants to establish effective knowledge management, you must have a clinical understanding of the unique strengths and expertise of the people you employ. You must always know who among the staff is best poised to answer a particularly tricky question in this or that area. Thus, whenever someone is genuinely stuck, they can reference a knowledge map, find the corresponding Subject Matter Expert, and ask them for a consultation instead of wasting time looking for answers in training materials and courses.

The “Skills & Endorsements” feature on LinkedIn is a good example of this approach. It enables you to search for professionals in any area that interests you. In addition, every expert is rated on his or her skills, with the ratings being peer-sourced instead of being arbitrarily assigned by the expert or their boss.

StackOverflow is another great real-life example of a knowledge map. Its self-regulated community deals out rewards and titles according to individual merit. Every member of the community has a reputation value as well as a recorded history of consulting on and participating in discussions dealing with specific topics. On top of that, a system of points and badges offers further possibilities for distinguishing the leading experts.

It is the task of the management and the training department to ensure that the subject matter experts are easy to find and are available for a consultation, but in such a manner that it does not impair their ability to carry out their main duties. For example, you can budget 10-15% of their time to be spent consulting, training and mentoring. This will engender a supporting network and expert communities in your organization.

To Sum It All Up

4 main goals of knowledge management:

  1. Creating knowledge.
  2. Storing knowledge.
  3. Sharing and transferring knowledge.
  4. Applying knowledge.

Knowledge management is based on these 3 main components:

  • People (70%)
  • Processes (20%)
  • Technology (10%)

When implementing knowledge management, you will encounter the following challenges:

  1. Attitude towards sharing knowledge - paradigm change.
  2. Motivation issues - Self-Determination Theory.
  3. Finding the knowledge providers - Knowledge Maps.

In the next installment, we will talk about the processes and technologies that can be used with knowledge management. I will also introduce you to a number of tools widely used for knowledge management in companies around the world.