Just as the 1950s are characterized as the manufacturing era, we now live in the knowledge era, characterized by a shift away from manufacturing tangible products and toward the provision of services and intellectual capital. According to Tod Newcombe (“Knowledge Management: New Wisdom or Passing Fad?” in Government Technology), as much as 70 percent of a company’s value is in intangible assets, such as knowledge and intellectual property. In addition, with the advent of computers and the Web, we are now inundated more than ever with information. This convergence of information and technology innovations such as computers, PDAs, fiber optics, satellites and the like poses knowledge challenges around every corner. As a learning professional, what relevance does this have for you?
In our increasingly competitive business climate, further challenged by a business slowdown, companies have had to operate more efficiently in order to survive. Executives are focused on two things: increasing revenues and reducing costs. Only those efforts that accomplish these ends will receive attention, funding and support. As we’ve experienced time and time again in the past two years, training, even good training, isn’t enough. Learning functions within organizations have an obligation to look across a range of performance interventions to identify the appropriate response to specific performance challenges. Specifically, today’s knowledge workers demand immediate access to information, tools and templates to perform at an exemplar level, resulting in the achievement of business goals for a function or organization.
So what are the types of goals to which knowledge management (KM) can contribute? They include:
- Reduced product development time.
- Employee satisfaction.
- Cost reduction.
- Waste reduction.
- Brand presence.
Every day, learning professionals miss out on opportunities to prove value to their organizations due to a general lack of understanding of how knowledge management contributes to individual performance and business goal realization. As a result, they are not recognized as valued business partners to business units. Learning professionals should be prepared to identify and resolve shortcomings in their organizations’ knowledge management practices. They should be positioned as key advisors to business units on the proper application of technology, processes and standards for their KM efforts. In some cases, particularly within smaller companies, the learning function should serve as the owner of the knowledge management system (KMS), offering it as a value-add service to internal clients. This will only happen if they truly can help their clients avoid the common pitfalls plaguing many KM implementations. These include:
- An inappropriate (inefficient or ineffective) mix of knowledge resources, not focused on driving business results (see Figure 1).
- A lack of quality or business impact standards for specific knowledge items.
- A focus on technology versus results.
- Poor communication regarding the expectations for knowledge capture and use.
If you see these symptoms of knowledge abuse within your organization, now is a great time for you to step up and assume your proper role as a valued advisor, helping your clients derive the best value from their KM efforts. Unless you are prepared to do this, your organization is poised to become one of the 80 percent of failed KMS implementations that fail to realize any business impact.
The Failure of Knowledge Management
The result of this failure rate is profound skepticism and the withdrawal of sufficient funding and resources, which are required to turn these systems around. In some cases, executive leadership teams have lost all hope of achieving return on investment and therefore have completely abandoned them until the KM community offers a sound solution.
So far, knowledge management systems have been positioned in most organizations as optional-use applications that function like an intranet or the Internet. Users are responsible for finding helpful information and decide if and when to use what they find. Information systems (IS) groups or KM groups with IS skills and backgrounds have, by default, been given ownership and responsibility for these applications—mainly because KM has unfortunately been equated with technology.
It is understood why IS should be accountable for the performance of technology, but who should be accountable for the realization of business impact? Groups responsible for learning may be in the best position because in order for a KMS to drive performance, there must be a change in human behavior, and knowledge resources must support on-the-job performance and address gaps in knowledge. Logically, the learning groups are closer to these issues than the IS group. Unfortunately, these groups often do not realize that their help is needed or understand how they could help and therefore do not educate themselves on what KM is and how it can be used to support performance in the workplace. The result is a KMS that does not achieve business results.
Charters of Knowledge Management
The goals that knowledge management can help realize can be rolled into three primary charters that should drive any knowledge management team. These charters are:
- Protect the company from losing valued corporate knowledge.
- Optimize operational efficiency.
- Facilitate competitive advantage through an environment conducive and responsive to knowledge creation.
Further, it is critically important to realize that the primary customer, or beneficiary, of the KM team is the organization. The organization only benefits if human performance is supported and improved, but the best interests of the organization are what must be served over the wishes of people.
IS-managed KM teams often misunderstand this main principle. They make the mistake of assuming their primary customer is the individual on the job and that making him happy is their goal. That has led to the current model that focuses on capturing as much knowledge as possible, expecting users to search for and find knowledge and then assuming users can make their own decisions about what to use. When users have difficulty finding relevant, usable information, they are frustrated and unhappy. When they are unhappy, users submit new requests, which the KM team tries to accommodate, believing that users know what they need. It is a vicious cycle, and the result is a system that does not realize business results.
There are several things wrong with this model, primarily:
- A KMS should not try to capture as much as possible, but only that which is strategically important to support performance (see Figure 1).
- Most of the time, users don’t really know what’s available in order to determine what they need.
- Some users won’t know what they need at all.
- Each user’s vantage point is different, and how they go about searching for information will be from their own vantage point, so one search mechanism will not work equally well for everyone.
- Most users are not proficient in searching.
- Most users won’t know when to use what they find.
- Most users won’t know how to best use what they find.
This traditional model puts most of the responsibility for realizing results on users and not on the KMS. In effect, the users are driving the KMS. Let’s take a different approach and examine a model that places the responsibility for driving performance on the system itself.
Performance-Driving KM Model
First, let’s start by clarifying what we mean by “knowledge management” and “knowledge management system.” Knowledge management (KM) refers to the guidelines, policies and practices that an organization uses to manage its corporate knowledge—that is, to create and transfer knowledge resources to people who use those resources in the context of doing their work. There are a number of different types of knowledge resources (see Figure 2) that can support people on the job. Managing knowledge requires managing these varied types of knowledge resources. A primary goal of knowledge management is to ensure that the right information is available to, and used by, the right people at the right time.
A knowledge management system (KMS) is the all-encompassing framework of integrated elements in place solely to accomplish the three primary charters of the KM team. It generally includes using technology, and using one or more applications, but technology is only a vehicle that facilitates success. The elements work together to acquire, organize, store, maintain and distribute knowledge, and to ensure that knowledge is used when and how it is supposed to be. Typical elements of a performance-driving KMS include:
- Technology to organize, store and distribute knowledge.
- Incentives to ensure knowledge is used and that new knowledge is captured.
- Processes to guide people through these phases of knowledge management (that is, acquire, organize, store, maintain, distribute and use).
- Governance to ensure that the KMS is adopted into everyday work practices and to steer the evolution of the system.
- Metrics to assess the value of the various types of knowledge resources.
- Feedback to shape the change in behavior that is necessary for the system to work.
Main Functions of a KMS
Most traditional knowledge management systems only use technology to acquire and store information—often without any direct connection to performance. In this sense, they may be good at capturing knowledge, but are not good at helping people leverage it. Capturing knowledge refers to the acquisition and storage of knowledge resources—leaving the burden of knowing what, when and how up to the users. This may help achieve the first charter, to protect the company from losing valued corporate knowledge, but it does not help optimize operational efficiency or facilitate an environment that is conducive and responsive to knowledge creation. In order to optimize operational efficiency, the second charter, the organization must leverage knowledge. Leveraging refers to the use of knowledge resources by as many people in as many right situations as possible. Leveraging does not just happen if the system isn’t designed to accomplish it. (See Figure 3.) To achieve a system that results in both capturing and leveraging, you have to:
- Acquire knowledge that is strategically important and supports performance.
- Organize and store that knowledge in a way that helps users understand where to find it and how and when to use it.
- Maintain individual knowledge resources so they remain accurate and relevant, and the system so that it continues to support the needs of a changing organization and business environment.
- Distribute knowledge so people know what they can and should use, and when and how to use it, and to ensure the environment is engineered so people use the captured knowledge in the right situations at the right times and feed new knowledge back into the system.
When these core functions are working properly, the environment will also be conducive and responsive to knowledge creation—the third KM charter.
How do you build a KMS that will achieve all three charters? This is where you can really add value to your organization’s KM effort. To start, let’s look at a road map that helps you identify the gaps that your organization may be facing.
Five Components of Organizational Performance
To use the road map, you must first understand the foundational components that drive performance in the workplace. These are:
- Organizational Design: How your organization is structured, including all the divisions, locations, functions, levels, etc.
- Technology Infrastruc-ture: All the automation solutions that enable your organization to function, including both hardware and software applications.
- Processes and Methods: The uniform corporate instructions that define how tasks are accomplished.
- Tools and Standards: Templates, checklists, documents and other artifacts that support the processes and ensure that they are uniformly followed.
- People Capability: The ability of the workforce to perform at a level that meets the business objectives of the organization.
These components can be used as levers to improve the performance of nearly any organizational initiative. Knowledge management is no exception.
Creating the Knowledge Management Road Map for Action
Earlier, we explored four functions that must be executed well in order to achieve the three charters of your KMS. If we merge these functions with the five components of organizational performance in a matrix format, we end up with a table that serves as the basis for our road map (see Figure 4).
At the onset of your KM initiative, you need to explore each intersection to determine if the right elements are in place to achieve the three charters for your organization. The elements will differ for each organization. The ultimate goal is to be able to respond to each intersection in the affirmative. Chances are, very few organizations can respond affirmatively in each case. However, as you continually improve and reassess your KMS, simply place a checkmark in the intersections that are affirmed. The remaining question marks that must be addressed constitute your Road Map for Action. The basic issues that must be considered at each intersection are presented in Figure 5.
The ability of an organization to capture and leverage knowledge will have a profound effect on its success in an increasingly competitive business environment. As knowledge workers move around, or even retire, capturing knowledge will protect the organization from losing valued corporate knowledge. For existing workers, effectively leveraging knowledge will improve operational efficiency and provide them a competitive advantage over competitors.
As a learning professional, you will play an increasingly larger part in advising on knowledge management issues. In order to be effective in this role, you must first understand that a knowledge management system is much more than technology. A knowledge management system is a framework of integrated elements put in place solely to protect knowledge, optimize operational efficiency and enhance the organization’s competitive advantage. It accomplishes this by making sure that strategically important knowledge items are readily available at the right time to users who are capable of accessing the knowledge when needed.
To accomplish this level of success, a road map for action is required that can serve as a guide to help identify and prioritize gaps in your system. By aligning the four functions of a knowledge management system against the five components of organizational performance, a road map emerges that allows you to assess the overall strength of each function within your organization. An action plan for improving your knowledge system will naturally follow that can be acted on in conjunction with the business unit that you support. As you provide this level of advisement to clients within your organization, you will be viewed as a business partner who truly protects and enhances the human and intellectual capital within your organization.
Dr. Jacalyn Smeltzer is a performance consultant specializing in knowledge management. David Bonello, CPT, is an e-learning consultant and has been designing and developing technology applications to support human performance in the workplace for more than 10 years. Together, they won an Outstanding Performance Aid award in 2004 from ISPI for their work in designing and implementing a knowledge management system. For more information, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.