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Key Issues in Knowledge Management

This article describes 15 issues in the field of knowledge management (KM), including challenges and solutions for each one.

1. Getting senior leaders to provide funding, demonstrate support, and lead by example.

  • Challenges: Leaders give lip service to KM. For example, they may advocate usage of an enterprise social network, but then continue sending email. They say, "You should fill in your own profile," but they have someone else fill in theirs. Instead of using a KM tool, they delegate it to someone else. They want a KM program but fail to allocate budget and resources for it.

  • Solution: Ask the senior executive to agree to the following: Approve a reasonable budget for people and other KM expenses. Ensure that all KM leaders have the time to do a good job in the role and are allowed to meet in person once a year. Learn how to give a KM program overview presentation. Learn how to use KM tools and use them to lead by example. Communicate regularly about how the organization is doing in KM. Provide time during leadership team meetings and employee communication events for KM messages. Ensure that KM goals are really set for all employees, and are enforced. Inspect compliance to KM goals with the same fervor as for other key performance indicators. Reward employees who share, innovate, reuse, collaborate, and learn. Ensure that time is allowed for sharing, innovating, reusing, collaborating, and learning.

2. Balancing people, process, and technology components.

  • Challenges: Immediately diving into choosing and implementing technology. Fixating on rolling out tools and driving adoption.

  • Solution: Don't let any one category dominate the other two. Technology is important, but it must support people and processes, not be an end in itself. Start with the needs of the organization, not with finding a use for a tool you have already bought.

3. Delivering tangible business benefits that support organizational objectives and priorities.

  • Challenges: Knowledge management is disconnected from the overall goals of the business. It is not viewed as delivering value to the business.

  • Solution: Directly align KM goals with business goals. Communicate the value of KM using the 15 Benefits of Knowledge Management.

4. Motivating people to share, innovate, reuse, collaborate, and learn.

  • Challenges: People say that they don't have time, don't know what is expected of them, or that leaders don’t expect them to actually perform KM tasks.

  • Solution: Motivate people through goals and measurements, recognition and rewards, gamification and badging, and positive and negative incentives. Leaders should set and communicate goals, report on progress, inspect and enforce compliance, and deliver rewards and recognition for those who set the example.

5. Establishing a vision for how knowledge management should work, and relentlessly working towards making that vision a reality.

  • Challenges: The end state is not defined, not compelling, or poorly communicated. It’s not clear to people why KM is needed or how it is supposed to work.

  • Solution: Communicate a clear vision for how KM will work. Then continuously implement, improve, and iterate people, process, and technology components to achieve the vision.

6. Defining compelling use cases clearly showing the advantages over existing alternatives, and answering the question “what’s in it for me?”

  • Challenges: The wish for everyone to participate in KM leads to vague requests like, "We want everyone to start connecting and sharing." If you don't get more specific than that, you don’t have a very appealing use case. If you say, "Will you please start collaborating globally?" it doesn't mean anything.

  • Solution: Ask people to use KM for specific tasks for which it is best suited, such as share, ask, find, answer, recognize, inform, and suggest. Interact on specific use cases, and talk about how the tool that you're recommending actually achieves better results.

7. Getting people to openly ask for help.

  • Challenges: People are reluctant to ask for help in public, contact people in other organizations, or say the wrong thing. They would rather suffer in silence than expose their ignorance to the world, or to be criticized, blamed, or ridiculed.

  • Solution: Facilitate ways for people to establish trusting relationships in communities so that they will better know those whom they will be asking for help. Make it easy to figure out where to post a question by having a list of communities, easy-to-use search, and a single obvious community for each important topic. Provide ways to ask questions on behalf of others, including anonymous ask-the-expert tools. Redirect queries you receive, and ask others who frequently receive queries to do the same.

8. Making useful information easily findable.

  • Challenges: People can’t find information, resources, or experts they need to do their job. Search doesn’t work, and even when it does, the content is incomplete, obsolete, or irrelevant.

  • Solution: Add a "I found this useful" button, similar to a “Like” button, but more specific, to all content; encourage users to click on this button for content they were able to reuse. Allow content to be tagged with "proven practice" by an authoritative source. Allow searching by date, tag attribute, most-liked by users, etc., and make content with the most "I found this useful" clicks or tagged with "proven practice" by an authoritative source rise to the top of search results. Determine the topics of greatest importance to the organization, curate a list which can be searched and filtered, and feed these as enterprise search best bets with links to the content deemed to be the best for each of these key topics. Take steps to improve search results.

9. Connecting people to each other so they can help each other at the time of need.

  • Challenges: KM programs focus on getting people to submit forms, contribute documents, or update skills profiles. This proves difficult to accomplish.

  • Solutions: Dave Snowden wrote, “If you ask someone, or a body for specific knowledge in the context of a real need it will never be refused. If you ask them to give you your knowledge on the basis that you may need it in the future, then you will never receive it.” Letting documents and expertise emerge at the time of need is a better approach. This is best done in a community of practice. If you need to find a document, or an expert, post to the most relevant communities with your request. If your communities are working as expected, you will receive one or more replies and can proceed. Documents and expertise will emerge in the replies to the query. By reading the full thread, you will get a sense of the context for the offered documents, assess different points of view, see points and counterpoints, and be able to synthesize multiple documents and what multiple people think.

10. Improving decisions, actions, and learning.

  • Challenges: KM programs are described using vague concepts like "increase engagement," "add value," or "drive transformational change." These are difficult to measure and achieve.

  • Solution: Tie KM efforts directly to key business processes. Develop goals and metrics to demonstrate progress in helping people make better decisions, act more effectively, and learn from others.

11. Focusing on a few initiatives, setting a few simple goals, and not trying to tackle everything possible.

  • Challenges: There are at least 50 different KM people, process, and technology components available for implementation. It can be tempting to try all of them. It’s hard to resist the allure of the latest technology, the current fad, or the tool that sounds too good to be true. Organizations tend to establish long lists of arcane metrics.

  • Solution: Set three basic goals for employees and stick to them for at least a year. Pick three simple goals that are easy to articulate, implement, and measure. Make these three goals the pillars of your ongoing communications so that everyone will remember them. Set overall targets for the organization, and key all metric reports to show progress against these goals. Choose a few KM components that will yield the greatest benefits in the short term to your organization. Stick with proven approaches, even if they seem boring and predictable.

12. Delivering what people want and the organization needs, not what is trendy.

  • Challenges: Organizations can be mesmerized by maturity models, benchmarking, and me-too best practices. Seth Godin wrote, “Benchmarking against the universe actually encourages us to be mediocre, to be average, to just do what everyone else is doing.” Any new initiative will fail if it does not meet the needs of its intended audience or is perceived as being created in isolation.

  • Solution: Use frameworks, models, and benchmarking as sources of ideas, not as precise prescriptions to be slavishly followed. Treat your users as customers whom you are trying to acquire, satisfy, and keep. Continuously solicit, capture, and respond to the needs of the people in your organization. Establish ongoing methods for two-way communications. Interact in communities, conduct surveys, publish newsletters, and maintain web sites. And above all, listen to what your constituents tell you, and take timely action in response.

13. Communicating by pull and opt-in, not by push.

  • Challenges: Organizations want to push information out to audiences. Leaders regularly send lengthy email messages and newsletters to people who don’t read them.

  • Solution: Make it attractive for people to pull content for themselves. Provide opt-in for subscribing and unsubscribing from content. Enable direct interaction with leaders to replace communiques filled with corporate speak and jargon.

14. Augmenting and automating processes using analytics, cognitive computing, and related techniques.

  • Challenges: New KM technologies are introduced, hyped, and implemented. But they often fail to deliver on their promise.

  • Solution: Before pursuing new technologies define use cases that clearly specifyhow they will deliver significant improvements to the status quo. Analytics and business intelligence can enable making good decisions, acting efficiently, optimizing processes, inventing and innovating, communicating effectively, influencing customer buying, and improving business performance. Cognitive computing and artificial intelligence can simulate human thought processes and mimic the way the human brain works, addressing complex situations that are characterized by ambiguity and uncertainty. This can enhance the capabilities of humans by augmenting their powers of observation, analysis, decision making, processing, and responding to other people and to routine or challenging situations.

15. Integrating knowledge management into existing processes, workflows, and systems.

  • Challenges: KM is perceived as extra work. It requires additional tools that people have to learn and use.

  • Solution: Embed knowledge capture in the flow of work, not as a separate process. Make tools and systems work together to minimize the need for separate tools. Look for ways to automate existing processes to reduce required effort and improve the quality of results.


About the author:

Stan Garfield is a knowledge management author, speaker, and community leader based in Northville, Michigan. He has worked in the field of knowledge management for over 20 years.

Stan spent 8 years at Deloitte leading communities and enterprise social networking. Prior to that, he spent 25 years at HP, Compaq, and Digital Equipment Corporation. Stan launched Digital's first knowledge management program in 1996, helped develop the corporate KM strategy for Compaq, and led the Worldwide Consulting & Integration Knowledge Management Program for HP. He also worked for PricewaterhouseCoopers, St. Louis University School of Medicine, and Washington University School of Medicine. Stan holds a BS in Applied Mathematics and Computer Science from Washington University in St. Louis. He leads the SIKM Leaders Community with over 700 members globally, and is invited to present at numerous conferences, including KMWorld. Stan has published over 190 LinkedIn articles on leadership, innovation, knowledge management, communities of practice, enterprise social networks, and social media.

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