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What you need to know about Knowledge Management (Pt. 1)

Arrows and blocks
If you’re like me, then you’re coming to lofty concepts like ‘Knowledge Management’ through a technology lense: you’re a practitioner from an IT background and you’ve been tasked with addressing a business challenge you feel is much bigger than your abilities or experience.

You’re not alone: for all the big business talk about the knowledge economy, managing intangible assets (i.e. the knowledge in employees’ brains) and creating value by hiring the best people and giving them great tools, remarkably few organizations use experienced KM practitioners to lead KM projects. More often than not, it’s someone from IT who has to figure it out.

I’m going to assume – for the sake of this post – that you (like me, when I started working in this field a few years ago) are full of good intentions and curious about what knowledge management is. I’m also going to assume that your focus is practical and that you need to get things done. All you’re looking for is to learn some basic business concepts related to your KM/intranet project – concepts that’ll help you

  • Talk the talk
  • Provide some business context to your project
  • Prioritize features to meet your actual business objectives
  • Understand what people will, and won’t, do in an intranet, and why.

Organizations that are part of the ‘knowledge economy’ (anything service-oriented, examples include: financial services, telecommunications, software, consulting, etc.) face an important issue today: their success is dependent on the people working for them, and the information and processes these people are able to access in order to do their work. ‘Information work’ of this kind is characterized by

  • Solving challenges that are unique to a situation or customer
  • Solving different challenges in rapid succession (i.e. context-switching)
  • Applying creativity to solving business challenges
  • Rendering great customer service quickly and efficiently
  • Producing effective documents, quickly and reliably
  • Working with data from a variety of sources (systems, websites, files) and transforming it into ‘meaning’ that can be actioned.

I’m sure this list could be much longer, but maybe we can start with these items. They establish a basic tenet: information work isn’t necessarily about repetitive tasks (at least not repetitive physical tasks), but about bringing intelligence and creativity into the workplace to create economic value.

The value of an organization is determined by how well its people capture, retrieve and use information in the execution of their tasks. What do these terms mean? Let’s define them quickly:

  • Capturing information: When a task is done for the first time, information about how it is done should be captured. This could be a process document, a customer service record, an entry in a knowledge base or a blog entry. When someone improves a task (re-designs it) or solves a specific problem, improvements and solutions should be captured (written down, recorded, captured somehow). All of these bits of captured knowledge should somehow be related to one another so that they can be seen in context.
  • Retrieving information: When information workers are faced with performing a task (either repetitive or unique), they can search or browse for previously captured information about the task. They use structured or unstructured searches to find pertinent information, retrieve that information, hopefully understand it (this means the information needs to be captured in a way that makes it usable) and act on it.
  • Using information: It requires an ‘information worker mindset’ to apply retrieved information, on the fly, to solving business problems or servicing customers. I would argue that this is the same mindset that also captures information for retrieval and use. It is characterized by a fundamental understanding that ‘taking out’ and ‘putting in’ are related, and that both contribute equally to business value and are therefore equally necessary.

Together, these three high-level activities are the defining factors of a knowledge organization. Their respective effectiveness directly translates into KM success.

It should now be pretty clear where knowledge management systems (intranets, BI applications, CRM systems, etc.) need to focus. Systems can make capturing information easier, but cannot bring about a culture shift that’ll make an organization’s employees want to capture knowledge. Systems can make retrieving information significantly more efficient (search, information architecture, notifications, etc.). Systems cannot really help employees use information better, but they can certainly provide the information in a usable context to make its application as easy as possible.

Knowledge management intranets therefore need to support the activities of information workers. In the next few posts in this series, I’ll look to explore each of these concepts (capture, retrieve, use) in the context of a variety of Microsoft technologies (Office, SharePoint, etc.). This will illustrate my points practically and provide implementation examples at the same time. I look forward to your feedback and thoughts.

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