The Whys and Wherefores of Knowledge Management

By Rob Koene

Over a lengthy career, I have found Knowledge Management (KM) referred to by many different names before settling into the current usage. One thing that has remained constant is that the most important ingredient has always been the willingness to share information.

The professional use of Knowledge Management Systems depends on people and it revolves around trust.

Confucius is claimed to have said: To know what you know and what you do not know, that is true knowledge. (And this guy lived around 500 BC (2500+ years ago).

It is not difficult to understand why knowledge sharing is a survival factor, perhaps not immediately for the individual, but for a group/civilisation. This is something which is even observed in the animal world.

In a corporate environment, KM helps improve productivity by building trust, networks and by substantially enhancing the intellectual level of the corporation.

Knowledge = Power. OK this may work at an individual level until the knowledge gets stale, which can happen quite quickly. Often this is exposed by use of phrases such as “I have done it like this for 25 years”.

Why Do Knowledge Management?

Why should a company embark on Knowledge Management? There are many good reasons but the major one – in my opinion – is to maintain the knowledge of those retiring in a way that makes sense to the next generation. Note that it is -in this context- important to involve this next generation in how to present it.

Another major reason to do KM is the huge amounts of savings that can come from sharing smart solutions, getting fast and good answers to questions, and avoiding the “re-inventing of the wheel” (which happens a lot).

It is also about protecting Intellectual Property. These are your companies trade secrets or methodologies which must be guarded diligently. Proprietary Designs, Beer Recipes, Strategic Information, Finances, etc..

Knowledge Management is also about who can see what. It is very likely that not all stuff in your company is viewable by all employees.

Knowledge Management will succeed best when:

  • Top Management understands the need for it (no need to convince them)
  • Top Management supports it by promoting it and recognising the benefits.
  • Top Management provides sufficient funds on a continuous basis.
  • It is being run by a dedicated, strong and enthusiastic team who do this as part of their career.
    (meaning: they take on this job for a longer period of time)
  • Subject Matter Experts are identified and are active and visible.

Unless your company is only about IT or HR, do not allow IT or HR to run the show.  Although they mean well and they really try with the best of intentions: IT is usually about automation and will drive to automate the management. (and people do it, remember?). Because of this IT-run KM systems often fail very quickly

HR may be focused on training which certainly is an item in KM, but it is only part of the package. A loss of focus may occur very quickly.

IT and HR should be supporting and facilitating. In that role they can provide a very valuable service. Keeping IT and HR closely involved will always pay off big time: They are not an enemy but can be powerful allies.

A Knowledge Management program is a success when:

  • People start complaining when it is out of order for longer than a couple of hours. (then you know it is used!)
  • You see a regular activity in Forums and the questions being answered adequately in time (at Fluor we set the bar to 95% adequately answered within 48 hours).
  • New Knowledge is being submitted on a regular basis. Do not expect the same rate as the Forum activity though.
  • Forums are carefully moderated and have at least 4-8 hours of review time per day somewhere on the globe. It is important to act quickly!
  • Sales uses the Knowledge Management program to sell projects. (then you have really made it).
  • There is a constant improvement in the KM System, presentation, user friendliness, search capabilities, contents and probably a few more can be thought of.
  • Feedback is given by the users. And every feedback is of value: Positive or negative. This keeps the KM leadership on their toes. NEVER become complacent. What is good today is substandard tomorrow.......

In short: Users have to see what is in it for them. Only then they will be willing to contribute themselves. The KM System has to make sense, must be relevant and must be trustworthy.

On a personal level this can also take the form of public recognition programs on a team/local office level. Small gifts will also work: I am still using a ballpoint pen with the Fluor logo and a 2GB USB stick. OK, I admit, I am easily pleased but stuff like this is just fun. Recognition pins and certificates signed by senior management are very often seen as very valuable.

At Fluor, it took us about five years of hard work to see a significant portion of the company actually using the system. Patience and hard work is the key.  Expecting immediate results is a "pipe dream".

It Must Be Trustworthy

Do what you promise or don't promise it in the first place. This is the major challenge of any Knowledge Management system.

You can find huge amounts of information on the Internet but much of it is either posted without the proper context or is even (to an extent) wrong. And the inexperienced professional may be challenged to detect this.

Do not misunderstand me: There is also a lot of excellent stuff out there but how to distinguish between this and the “bad” stuff....

The solution is - of course - very easy: Make sure that the items in your KM system are checked and approved. If you use forums (Q&A) make sure that they are carefully moderated.

Nothing new here. Professional magazine articles and books have always gone through a thorough peer review process and well-managed KM is not different.

Peer/Expert review and approval, and forum moderation is the key to making users trust the system.

Even Wikipedia uses a pretty severe moderation/validation team of volunteers to make sure that the content makes sense.

One thing which is also important is to verify that knowledge still makes sense in the current environment of your company.

I once heard the phrase “Knowledge Ecosystem”. This may cover the life cycle of Knowledge and how relevant (trustworthy) it still is. Evolution shows that species (Knowledge) which do not fit the current environment anymore must go extinct.

People are the key to any KM system

This is not a hollow phrase. Achieving trust in a KM system is not something that happens by itself. You must have participation from a number of experts in all the fields and disciplines your company operates in. This ensures a rigorous review of all knowledge that is posted. Experts will be able to make sure that the context is correct and the submitted knowledge makes sense.

That does not mean that the opinions of non-experts should be completely disregarded. Make sure reviews are performed publicly since you never know where really additional good advice could come from. This is also a way to surface new experts.

Forum moderators also play a role in this. Forums are always public and the really good replies can be posted which also surface new experts.

In my experience, it is best to actually name the experts and remove any form of self-proclamation.

It is also good to warn your potential experts that, ”The role is not an honorary title, work is expected from you”. This deters people who are after the title alone.

Many people will use the KM system as a look up and will never contribute or publicly ask questions. This figure is typically around 60% of your users who are:

  • Scared to look “unknowing” in the eyes of peers or supervisors.
  • Consider what they know is not of a sufficient standard.
  • Not really interested (9-to-5-ers)

This is OK for a small organisation, as the KM team can fill the gap. But in an enterprise with a huge membership base (Fluor has 30,000) users need to be motivated to contribute by their direct supervisors.

These are extremely difficult barriers which often need attention on a personal level. The supervisors/department managers are the KM team’s target audiences in this case.

People Make It Work

It is a total misconception that KM systems work by themselves. People make it work and practice shows that almost all of the time unmanaged KM systems will be short-lived.

Really powerful methods to build trust are:

  • Forum Moderators:  Make sure that Forum replies are on time, are relevant to the question and are useful.
  • If a reply does not make sense remove it (and tell the author why).
  • And even more important: Make sure that the question makes sense. Recognise that is not always easy to phrase a question correctly (work with the author to edit it).
  • Knowledge Reviewers have to make sure that new knowledge is vetted (reviewed) and where necessary work with the author to edit it.

All of the above needs careful managing by a Knowledge Manager who may combine several roles as required. There is no fixed rule for this and it all depends on the capabilities and availability of the people involved.

This also means that the key people will be willing to invest part of their career in KM. KM processes are slow by definition, so a KM role should be at least five years (longer if you fall in love with it – as I did). Only then a person can make a difference.

As KM is positioned horizontally and vertically in a company: KM workers will have an interesting view of the company as a whole. This will hardly ever happen if you are “on the shop floor”.

Your reward as a Knowledge Manager is to see it all work smoothly and recognise that you have been “the grease in the wheels” most of the time. It is really a magnificent sight to see a well-functioning KM system in operation.

Rob Koene is Knowledge Manager at Fluor Corp. This article reflects his personal views and does not reflect the views of Fluor Corporation.