What Is Knowledge Management?

We define knowledge management (KM) as the collection, synthesis, and dissemination of knowledge throughout an organization in pursuit of business value.

Almost every enterprise today—private, public, and nonprofit—depends on knowledge assets more than physical ones for a large part of its value. Success depends on people having the right knowledge and information when and where they need it for their work, and on leveraging the insights and learning of others, both internally and externally. Organizations that do this effectively can and do build a competitive advantage by fostering continuous learning to deliver faster growth, creating more efficient and cost-effective operations and higher-quality products and services, and developing a stronger workforce.

Knowledge management encompasses the broad set of approaches, methods, processes, practices, and technologies that help achieve these goals by transforming data, information, and know-how into action and results.

Several themes emerge when examining how different organizations have implemented knowledge management initiatives:

  • Knowledge management needs to fit within a wide range of enterprise content, systems, data and enablement programs, and needs to be linked tightly to all of them.
    • At one end of the spectrum are comprehensive systems of record, including enterprise-level records management and digital asset management, data warehouses, and employee directories, that seek to gather all content of each type.
    • At the other end are people and team productivity tools, such as collaboration and document sharing, designed to enable ongoing work.
    • We think of KM as positioned in between these extremes: as activities and platforms that seek to mobilize key insights, lessons learned, best practices, and other content that should be actively shared across the organization in order to drive business goals. This includes both written content such as project summaries, reports, current sales materials, and training, as well as expertise profiles, social networks, and communities that enable sharing tacit knowledge.

The most successful organizations have clear strategies that target the types of knowledge they want to harness and share in this middle layer, and how the knowledge should flow from between levels (e.g., how team collaboration results should be distilled into key insights or stored as records).

  • KM must serve the organization’s strategy and goals. This means focusing on the specific types of content and personal networking that have the most value and where that value can be measured. Examples include sharing customer intelligence to speed up development of business proposals, production and delivery statistics from different locations to identify improvement opportunities, lessons-learned systems and forums to improve future project management, or Q&A forums that reduce re-invention and facilitate customer service.
  • KM needs to be driven from the top, with active line manager participation, in order to be successful on a sustained basis. Useful knowledge and insights can come from anywhere in an organization, so the quest for content needs to mobilize all employees. This is why senior leader and line manager involvement is so critical; they need to model the right behavior by sharing their own know-how and by visibly asking others for help.
  • In addition to visible leadership support, KM programs need an accountable senior sponsor, ideally with line management experience, to dedicate time to leading the initiative on a focused basis. Enterprise-wide KM processes and systems typically don't happen on their own, although effective initiatives may be found in specific departments or locations. The task of the KM leader is to learn what works best for his or her organization, put the right platforms in place, and then drive adoption across the enterprise. Processes and technologies need to be those that fit best with people’s day-to-day work and that enable successful knowledge sharing with the least amount of extra effort.
  • Although KM is much more than technology, it is critical and difficult to get the technology right. It’s the largest area of spend and KM leaders have to navigate an ever-increasing number of new tools and vendors to find the right solutions for their organization’s needs without creating digital overload. Again, this means aligning systems with day-to-day work processes to the greatest extent possible, and ensuring that the user experience is as frictionless as possible.
  • Ultimately, success depends not just on process and technology, but on deep-seated organizational behavior and culture. It’s about encouraging teamwork and sharing at an enterprise-wide level so that people never start a new project without asking, Hasn’t someone done something like this before? These are difficult challenges and not susceptible to quick fixes; they require sustained senior leadership attention, role modeling and, often, careful use of various kinds of incentives.

The KM field has matured sufficiently over the past decade and the result is the evolution of a body of accepted practices and standards. What was theory yesterday has developed, been refined, and tested in a variety of real-world settings. Our business helps organizations learn from what’s been done before—what’s worked and what hasn’t—whether they are at the beginning of the KM journey or revitalizing a program that has lost momentum. We believe that effective KM programs can drive significant improvements in productivity, product and service quality, employee satisfaction, and business results for almost any organization. It’s worth the effort!

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