I’m not as addicted to affirmations as some people are. You won’t find the words of dead poets and living celebrities on mugs or in framed prints in my house. There is, however, one quote I like: “Knowledge is power.”
History attributes this iconic phrase to Sir Francis Bacon, who included it in his 1597 book Meditationes Sacrae and Human Philosophy. It means that knowledge is a force that empowers you to deliver great results. For organizational purposes, I think it should be expanded to: “Knowledge is power- if it’s properly managed.”
In this respect, I agree wholeheartedly with the great industrialist Andrew Carnegie, who once said that an organization’s only irreplacable asset was the knowledge and ability of its employees. He added that productivity depends on how effectively employees shared their competence with those who can use it.
I wish Carnegie was my boss when I worked in the corporate world. One of the engineering managers was a department unto himself. If you needed the original blueprints for a five-year-old building project, you went to Gary. Did you need to find out the latest NFPA 61 dust explosion safety standards? You could spend ages researching it, or you could get the Cliff’s notes from Gary.
We relied on him so much that if he so much as complained of a sore throat or the sniffles, everyone who worked with him plied him with Vitamin C and green tea. There’s no cure for a wedding, though, and when Gary was absent on his honeymoon, so many processes that relied on his input slowed down or stalled completely.
Researchers at the University of Denver found that Fortune 500 companies lose at least $31.5 billion per year due to failure to share knowledge. Now we were learning the hard way how crippling improper knowledge management can be.
The CEO couldn’t let it happen again, so he invested in a knowledge management system that allowed all departments to share information, ideas, and collaborate. For example, when any of the company products were updated or otherwise changed, the product development team would post the particulars in the new knowledge base. The webmaster would use these details to update the website, and the account managers would let their customers know about the changes. It worked, and the company still uses it to this day.
What is Knowledge Management?
Knowledge management is a system of strategies that make knowledge and information readily available so teams can work more efficiently. The concept first appeared in the 1980s, when popular management consultant Peter Drucker defined and applied it, and became a recognized discipline by the early 1990s. Today, information assets that convey this knowledge in companies include:
- Individual employee experience
- Documented policies and procedures
- Workflow systems
- Content management systems
- Collaboration software
With so many resources available, knowledge management should be a relatively straightforward process, but the truth is that many companies take a haphazard approach to what is unquestionably an essential system.
Knowledge Management Challenges
There is much more to knowledge management than deploying a platform. Too many companies undertake knowledge initiatives without a plan or strategy in place, with predictable results. Let’s take a closer look at some of the more common challenges involved with knowledge management, all of which prevent the team from taking advantage of valuable resources.
- No system in place. The larger a company, the more knowledge is involved in its operations. When there is no central system in place, it can be difficult to locate critical information during a crisis. Just ask the XYZ employees during the ‘days of Gary.’
- Knowledge is not shared. I’ve seen this occur in every workplace. Certain tasks are only carried out by one person. That party is great at what they do, but when they’re off sick or, even worse, on vacation, chaos descends and you count the days until they’re back.
- Documentation is not in a central location. Essential knowledge is confined to departments or even a few employees, leading to delays in responding to customers and clients and even impacting the ability to quickly respond to a crisis.
- Taking a ‘plug and play’ approach. Companies that implement a knowledge management system (KMS) assume that all workflows will be implemented and that all employees will use the system. In practice, this rarely happens. A system is only effective when it has staff awareness and buy-in.
- Hiring a knowledge manager. Many organizations hire a knowledge manager and task them with creating a KMS. While this role can play an important part in executing strategy, knowledge should not be seen as one’s person’s concern. It needs to be valued and shared across the organization.
So what can be done to address these issues? Like I stated earlier, there’s more to knowledge management than deploying a platform. Here are some ideas for creating a system that your team will use to achieve successful results.
Encourage a Culture of Knowledge
The valuing and sharing of knowledge needs to become part of your company’s culture. We no longer live in a time where organizations can take a siloed approach to information sharing, with only a chosen few having access. Today, empowering all employees through knowledge sharing is essential to success.
Below are some ways that you can create a knowledge-sharing culture that allows the company and its employees to succeed together:
- Ensure that all departments contribute to and share in the benefits of a well-managed knowledge system
- Train employees on the benefits of knowledge management
- Make knowledge contribution and sharing part of employee KPIs
Tailor Knowledge Delivery to User Needs
What does knowledge represent in your company? The answer to this question will enable you to define and communicate a clear strategy for storing and sharing information. You can even take a cue from the sales teams and develop ‘knowledge’ personas (your version of their buyer personas) of the people who contribute to and use knowledge. For example:
- Joe the tech support agent needs to be able to find answers quickly when he’s on the phone with a customer. An indexed and searchable knowledge base would be invaluable to Joe and his colleagues.
- Anna is a product development manager who is extremely busy and rarely has time to sit down at her computer and input detailed product updates into a knowledge database. A texting app she can use to message updates to the webmaster and documentation writers as she works can ensure that key information is captured without delay.
Develop personas that provide insight into multiple departments across the organization. How does the Marketing team prefer to deliver and access knowledge? What about the project managers and the account managers? Use the answers to these questions to develop an understanding of what knowledge communications and mediums are effective for your company and which ones aren’t.
Make Knowledge Curation a Priority
Once you have a system in place, don’t hinder its effectiveness by turning it into an information dump. Keep your knowledge management system relevant by:
- Only adding information that is timely, popular, and necessary for employees to do their jobs
- Archiving knowledge that is no longer useful
- Ensuring that knowledge is only provided by trusted sources who have the training, experience, and/or qualifications to provide it.
Think of it as an ecosystem that needs to be reviewed regularly and modified as user needs evolve. You don’t want people to waste time sifting through outdated documents, product bulletins, and memos to locate the information they need.
Use Software That Encourages Transparency
Content management systems are becoming an integral part of modern companies and organizations because they make knowledge easy to access and update. This level of access and transparency should be a requirement in all software you use unless it is job specific, such as AutoCAD for structural engineers and Adobe Creative Suite for creative specialists.
At my current company, we use Toggl Plan to manage projects. This free browser-based tool, which has been used by companies like Microsoft and Disney for their project planning and management needs, makes project information easy to share with team members and stakeholders. All you have to do is add them to the timeline and from that point on, everyone is in the loop. Scheduling and resource allocation have never been easier, or more transparent.
Research has shown that easy access to knowledge in organizations is positively related to benefits like:
- Stronger and more effective individual and team performance
- More rapid completion of new product projects
- Reduced production costs
- Increased innovation
- More solid financial performance
Knowledge management systems require some effort to set up and populate, but companies that invest the time and resources in doing so will be more successful than those that maintain a strict information divide between departments and even employees.
When you remove these barriers, everyone from the receptionist and helpdesk personnel to the department heads and the CEO will be more empowered to do their jobs because they have quick access to the knowledge and information they need to be productive.