In the information economy, the longevity of an organization is based as much on the sophistication of its knowledge management practices as it is on traditional differentiators such as the strength of its products, the talent of its employees, and its marketplace reputation and partner relationships. Simply speaking, as actionable and insightful information becomes the currency of an organization, there are few other ways to tap into any latent potential lost in the office corridors.
There is no one-size-fits-all, cost-effective knowledge management solution; nor is there a specific technology, product, or vendor offering that can help you differentiate yourself through your knowledge management practices. But a genuine commitment to knowledge management (KM), a KM strategy centered in the application of knowledge towards specific business objectives, and tactics that use the company intranet as a platform to further those KM initiatives, will go a long way in realizing new organizational value.
This article discusses typical KM challenges facing large organizations and how a company intranet can be leveraged to create lasting and measurable business value. It does this by examining the relationships between two aspects of knowledge management and how they contribute to a goal-oriented knowledge management initiative. The aspects of knowledge management discussed are people (in the form of communities of practice) and enterprise intranets as knowledge platforms.
What is knowledge management?
The first question often asked is what really is knowledge management? Is it simply the cataloging of all the documentation that resides on server hard drives, Outlook inboxes, and the filing cabinets of employees? Or is there something more scientific and strategic about it? Is it an archiving function appropriately delegated to a support team, or should it be something on the CEO’s radar?
The American Productivity and Quality Center defines knowledge management as “the strategies and processes of identifying, capturing and leveraging knowledge” (APQC, 1996 cited in Atefeh et al., 1999 p.172). For the learnings to be retrieved and reused, they need to be qualified and codified so that they are accessible and searchable. Furthermore, knowledge management can also include strategies to foster a culture of information sharing and the implementation of tools that make it easier for employees to share their learnings and, in turn, to learn from each other.
Typical KM challenges
All organizations are practicing KM in some fashion today. Sometimes these are management mandated, focused, and structured initiatives such as procedures to capture customer feedback on product features to help design new products. In other cases, they are basic grassroots efforts by enterprising managers who, for example, may encourage their teams to publish best practice documents on a file server. But while these organizations understand the importance of knowledge management, many of their initiatives produce mixed results. In fact, most knowledge management initiatives do not last more than six to twelve months. This is often because of the following factors:
- The knowledge management initiative lacks mass appeal — the initiative doesn’t have enough enthusiastic supporters or institutional support to reach critical mass where the benefits outweigh the time and dollar cost to support the endeavor.
- The initiative simply lacks depth — the repository isn’t large or diverse enough for its use to become a habitual activity for many employees. They visit once and never return.
- The knowledge isn’t qualified — the knowledge captured by the initiative is not validated, resulting in each individual employee having to expend energy in searching and filtering to identify the actual knowledge from the professed knowledge.
- Knowledge codification is ignored — the KM teams don’t put enough effort into adding metadata to the documents and organizing the learnings in a single repository, resulting in inefficient and duplicative KM systems from which it is difficult to search and extract knowledge.
- Competing systems undermine the effort — the KM initiative competes with too many other internal and external systems and processes as an authoritative knowledge source for employees.
Issues like these not only hamper the KM efforts, but, more troubling, their perceived value to an organization. As a result, many managers are becoming disillusioned with the potential of enterprise wide KM practices.
However, KM is getting a second chance with corporate intranets gaining new prominence in many organizations. As Fortune 1000 organizations recover from the recent economic downturn by consolidating their operations, revisiting their product roadmaps, merging with other firms, and positioning themselves as being more customer-centric and principled, they’re looking to their company intranets to communicate their new values, business objectives, and operational strategies to the rank-and-file. These organizations are also discovering that investing in an intranet is an expensive endeavor and that they must look for other benefits when trying to make a strong business case for an enterprise-wide intranet. This is where knowledge management enters the picture.
The KM opportunity
Some senior executives make the mistake of believing that knowledge management is an end unto itself and attempt to manage and measure KM success with that in mind. Rather, KM initiatives should be treated as intellectual capital investments aligned with specific, long-term business goals. For an organization to do this more effectively, it needs to leverage the Communities of Practice (CoPs) within its organization.
What is a community of practice? Brooke Manville, Director of Knowledge Management at McKinsey & Co., defines communities of practice as groups of people who are informally bound to one another by exposure to a common class of problems. These groups share their learnings and knowledge resources continuously and informally amongst each other for mutual benefit. Every organization has groups like these, which are typically loosely structured, decentralized, fluid, and built on personal relationships.
These CoPs are perfectly positioned to support knowledge management efforts. They are continuously capturing and sharing relevant knowledge with each other. Often, though, the knowledge captured is not directed towards a business objective and isn’t codified or validated in any formal capacity. Nor is the knowledge stored in a format that enables easy retrieval.
An organization can leverage these CoPs to further its KM objectives by stepping back and creating a list of priorities for what types of knowledge to capture and share. These priorities should directly map to the organization’s business goals and should represent what the organization needs to know to be more successful in the marketplace both at the organization and at the individual level. In other words, these priorities should be a list of “if only I knew” types of knowledge.
Once the business priorities have been identified, existing CoPs should be approached to more formally capture and roll out these organizational learnings in a piecemeal fashion using the intranet. If there aren’t any communities of practice naturally aligned to the business priorities, then new ones should be organized. Some large organizations with a history of knowledge management successes have already structured their communities of practice to do this for them on a regular, focused basis. However, these aren’t always successful initiatives because the CoPs have a hard time striking the right balance between knowledge explorations and being focused on the business goals.
Nevertheless, there are opportunities to further focus these communities of practice when using the enterprise intranet as a delivery mechanism. This is because collaborative environments such as enterprise intranets force the participants to be focused, thoughtful, and careful in their contributions. Knowing that what is published may potentially be viewed by the whole organization, or that other users may have the ability to rate the article, forces the participants to be more disciplined in their contributions. In effect, the collaborative, real-time feedback environments of a company intranet encourage self-policing and more strategic information sharing. The downside is that it can also discourage participants from sharing any information whatsoever.
Let’s take a management-consulting firm as an example to study this a little further and discuss how knowledge can be captured and shared.
A consulting firm example
In most consulting firms, knowledge priorities can be broadly categorized as knowledge that:
- supports the business development and sales process,
- contributes to the delivery of services in the form of methodologies, tools, and processes, and
- builds awareness among employees of industry and discipline issues.
Let’s say that of these three knowledge priorities, the consulting firm identifies supporting the business development and sales process as being of the greatest importance. Further, it determines that actively sharing business proposals and case studies, along with the individual learnings regarding each one, is most important to satisfy the KM needs in this area. The organization can implement this knowledge priority via their intranet by doing the following:
- Choosing the right employees — Identify four to six employees who have been enthusiastic and informed KM supporters in the past to serve as community gatekeepers and monitor the publication of content if no existing CoPs exist that cover this subject area. If an appropriate CoP does exist, then gatekeepers from that community should be identified.
- Coaching the gatekeepers — Educate the gatekeepers on how to develop and nurture a new community of practice with a focused objective — in this case, capturing knowledge that can support the business development and sales process. The business objective should be further studied by the gatekeepers to more deeply understand what types of relevant learnings can be captured.
- Designing the collaboration environment — Create a collaborative space on the intranet for the distribution of these learnings. This space should allow for the submission, categorization, rating, and discussion of content. Careful attention should be paid to the structure of this workspace, from the labels used to who can access it and how much categorization is needed.
- Establishing rules for participation — Actively encourage employees to publish their relevant content to this collaborative workspace. These employees should be invited to join the community. The rules of participation, the organizational and personal benefits for getting involved, and the “safety net” guidelines to prevent discussions from spinning out of control should be explained. This collaborative workspace should support notification features so that users can be alerted when new content is added.
- Providing incentives — Tie in each participant’s KM involvement with his or her annual bonus. Reviewing how active the employees have been, whether they have been responsive and responsible community participants willing to share and learn from each other, and the quality of their contributions in relation to the business priorities should be included as contributors effecting their annual bonuses and raises.
An initiative like this doesn’t cost much and wouldn’t take long to implement. Once one knowledge community has been established, the organization could seek similar opportunities to create knowledge communities based on other business priorities. Thus over time it may have a network of interconnected communities that capture organizational and individual learnings related to specific business priorities. Remember that the more tightly defined the business priorities and the more motivated the community gatekeepers are, the more likely the initiative is to succeed.
Intranets as knowledge management platforms
Well-planned intranets make perfect platforms for your knowledge management initiatives. But most intranets aren’t deliberately planned, as they start out as grassroots, divisional efforts that are then leveraged across the whole organization. Many of these intranets hold valuable information but are wild, decentralized, and unstructured spaces. This can be a problem, as employees will only use the intranet as a learning, collaborative platform if they have confidence that it will consistently provide them with authoritative, validated, and qualified knowledge in return.
Your intranet can be optimized to support knowledge management initiatives if you make changes to the existing content, publishing processes, and information architecture of the intranet.
Evaluate your content
Existing content is the trickiest to deal with, as it is hard to know how much content is published online. Removing meaningless, orphaned, dated, and irrelevant content that is of little use to the employees is the first step in this process. This type of content has no place on the intranet and should be removed as soon as possible.
Another problem with the content on an intranet is that it could be published in the wrong place, in the wrong format, and potentially with the wrong amount of emphasis attached to it. Use professional content strategists and information architects to help you understand, manage, and evolve this content.
Make publishing more democratic
Publishing processes can really make or break the success of your KM intranet. Do not push the publishing of content down to the bottom of your corporate hierarchy. For the intranet to become a knowledge management platform with knowledge communities, every intranet user should know how to publish content and provide feedback on content already published.
Publishing should not be left to administrative assistants who don’t understand the content well enough to know where to publish it or whether it should be published online at all. Also pay attention to the actual publishing process, as this is your opportunity to codify individual learnings by forcing publishers to add metadata, categorize, and edit the content before publishing it.
Tweak the information architecture
Finally, if you hope to use your intranet as a knowledge platform to support your business objectives, pay particular attention to the information architecture. Research your users’ needs and, just as importantly, how the users relate to the current content and nomenclature on the intranet.
Consider categorizing all content by use rather than subject. Categorizing the content by the context of its use, the depth of the information, and the target audience will result in more distinct, intentional, and goal-oriented user experiences. It will also naturally limit the amount of redundant content published. Most intranets today organize content either by department or by Internal processes that only the process owners understand.
Knowledge management is becoming immensely important in today’s fast-paced, disruptive business environment. In fact, recent research conducted with 182 work groups at a Fortune 500 telecommunications company by Jonathon N. Cummings, assistant professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, showed that teams that share knowledge, both intra-group and externally, perform better. These findings validate previous research and underscore the importance of knowledge management.
Still, organizations have struggled with implementing knowledge management effectively. Overly ambitious projects, a lack of attention to organizational cultures, and unsophisticated technology have doomed KM efforts in the past. The company intranet has been ignored or treated simply as a file server when it comes to sharing learnings.
But approaching knowledge management in a simpler, more tactical fashion where the emphasis is placed on the application of knowledge can be the key. Identifying your organization’s KM priorities, carefully focusing your communities of practice on these priorities, and upgrading your intranet to be a more of a knowledge platform will help you quickly develop a relevant, meaningful, and beneficial KM initiative.
- Kluge J., Wolfram S, and Licht T. 2001. “Knowledge Unplugged: The McKinsey & Company global survey on knowledge management,” Palgrave Publishing.
- Cummings, Jonathan 2004 “Work Groups, Structural Diversity and Knowledge Sharing in a Global Organization,” MIT Sloan Management Review Winter 2004, Volume 45, Number 2, p. 5