Can you get your staff to pool their collective brain power into a formidable corporate hive-mind without creating an office of automatons? Rob Lewis finds out if knowledge management has the answer.
One of the early goals of our departing prime minister was to establish a "modern, knowledge driven economy". His first term, coincidentally, saw the rise of the concept of knowledge management (KM). Boardrooms had chief knowledge officers. Software programs like Lotus Notes and Domino became popular applications. Something called the internet was going to be very useful too. Knowledge management was going to herald the dawning of a new business millennium. What happened?
David Gurteen is a KM consultant and founder of the Gurteen Knowledge Community. "KM hasn't been as successful as the early hype but then often nothing is," he admits. A lot of knowledge managers have either been laid off or absorbed since the 90s… a lot of mistakes went on."
Gurteen believes the early incarnation of knowledge management was harmed by an over-emphasis on the technological aspects: "There was this whole paradigm of extracting knowledge from people's heads and putting it into databases and that people would use it and they’d find it useful. It just proved not to work. The large organisations that installed these systems hadn't taken into account the people issues. For people to want to share their knowledge, put things in databases and use communications they have to see a benefit for them."
David Gurteen, Knowledge Management consultant
So in order to survive, KM has become increasingly people-focussed, with an emphasis on informal sessions and personal contact. Gurteen says that makes it a logical field for HR to take an interest in. "You'd expect the HR people to say, 'hey, this is what we're about, this is what we do, we should be involved here', but that's yet to happen. HR professionals don't seem to get involved in KM, and I don’t quite understand that, because HR is now probably one of the most obvious places for people in an organisation to drive it. I was at a big KM conference in the USA and one of the speakers asked how many people there were from HR. One hand went up."
The business case
If old-school knowledge managers failed to convince the users, they also failed to convince senior management too, Gurteen says. If you're going to advocate KM in your company, you need to know what it is and what it can do. Yet even this can be a tricky business. In an article for the Journal of KM Practice, James Elbers and Eugene Yelden wrote that:
"...the principal stumbling block in the justification process is a question of cause and effect. Knowledge is intangible, and because of that fact, the return on knowledge management efforts is not directly coupled to business outcomes. Further exacerbating this shortcoming is the fact that traditional accounting mechanisms are based on a financial orientation that doesn't easily account for knowledge."
Yet despite the difficulties in defining this young corporate discipline, there are plenty of success stories where organisations have benefited tremendously from its implementation.
"The very early big success stories in KM were the oil companies," says Gurteen. "BP was one of the big pioneers, for example, because if you’ve got an oil well in the North Sea that's gone down for some reason, you’re losing a lot of money. If you can fix it a day earlier, you’ve saved serious money. So they invested a lot in KM and video conferencing so that maybe somebody in Venezuela could be able to help out in the North Sea. All of the major oil companies have KM programmes, and it’s saving them millions of dollars a year."
Roger Hammond, director of Knowledge Transitional Services (KnowTS), knows of several examples too, amongst them a multi-national defence organisation that saved £10m through KM at the design stage of a new aircraft.
He also warns that a lack of KM can have a negative effect on companies too. For instance, KnowTS performed a review of international aid organisations and found that field operatives were frantically jetting around from crisis to crisis without passing on what they’d learnt. But when most of your working life is spent in danger zones, a little inside information can go a long way.
"Considering the huge sums of money being spent in these areas and the humanitarian need, the loss of knowledge and learning from these interventions was a major concern," says Hammond.
Building a knowledge culture
The budding HR development manager has a number of options open to them if they want to maximise the benefits of knowledge management. However, the basic principles of KM go against the prevailing corporate culture, where 'knowledge is power', and is not something that is happily shared. The correct atmosphere is needed, and achieving this is an accomplishment in itself. The CIPD advises the following steps:
- Facilitate communities – people-to-people is better than machine-to-people. Organise opportunities for staff with common professional interests to get together and share knowledge. The World Bank calls them 'thematic groups', and BP calls them 'peer assist groups', but the principles are the same. Gurteen says they’re also great for surfacing problems.
- Write your own Yellow Pages – One of the simplest ways of sharing knowledge is to let your organisation know where they can find it. Writing a corporate directory of employee expertise may be a pain, but it’ll be a lot easier than trying to get them to enter it into a database on their own.
- Open things up – Allow everyone access to the company’s knowledge base. Let every individual communicate directly with those who have the required knowledge, and allow every individual to enter knowledge themselves. The emerging technology of Web 2.0 is great for this, according to Gurteen, especially Wikis, if you can persuade senior management to give up the necessary control.
- Remember the individual – individual knowledge management is a key development in the evolution of KM, according to Hammond. While the company will benefit from this pooling of knowledge, what’s in it for them? If you’re keeping track of what your staff know, you’ll also be able to see what they need to know. They’ll appreciate the attention and the opportunity to advance themselves.
These four steps could make a great deal of difference. As well as improving knowledge retention in the face of ever increasing staff turnover, they also foster innovation. One of the most recognisable features of a KM culture is that when things go wrong, it’s seen primarily as an opportunity to learn something. Blame should be absent; and we could all do with knowing a bit less about that.