Knowledge Management

Making the Most of Intellectual Assets

How do the "wise owls" in your organization share their knowledge?

© iStockphoto/lite

Most of us need knowledge in some form to do our jobs well.

Perhaps you need to understand how your customer database is designed, so that you can extract a particular report. Maybe you need to know the best way to get senior managers to approve a business case. Or perhaps, even, you need to know how your boss prefers to receive bad news, so that you can deliver this as painlessly as possible.

All of these things require specific knowledge. No matter what your job is, you need this knowledge if you're going to do a good job.

This seems obvious, right? But how does your organization handle all of this knowledge? When you have a question, is it easy for you to find an answer, or do you have to search for hours or days to find what you need to know? This is why knowledge management is so important.

Knowledge management is the practice of organizing, storing, and sharing vital information, so that everyone can benefit from its use. In this article, we'll look at exactly what knowledge management is, and how you can start organizing knowledge within your own organization, thereby saving money and increasing productivity.

What is Knowledge?

Words like "data," "information," and "knowledge" are often used interchangeably. But there are some important differences:

  • Data is a specific fact or figure, without any context. For example, the number 1,000 is a piece of data, as is the name Tom Smith. Without anything else to define them, these two items of data are meaningless.
  • Information is data that's organized. So, pieces of information are "Tom Smith is a CEO" and "1,000 widgets." We have more details, so now the data makes more sense to us.
  • Knowledge, then, builds on the information to give us context. Knowledge is "Tom Smith is the CEO of our company's biggest competitor, and his company ships 1,000 widgets every hour."

The key difference between knowledge and information is that knowledge gives us the power to take action. We can use it.

There are also two different types of knowledge, explicit and tacit:

  • Explicit knowledge includes things that you can easily pass on to someone else by teaching it or putting it into a database or a book. Explaining your company's safety protocols to a new team member is demonstrating explicit knowledge.
  • Tacit knowledge is less quantifiable. It's when you know that your company's best client won't make a deal unless you go golfing with her. Or when you know that your department's smallest supplier is also the most reliable one, but only if you place your order by the 15th of every month. This is knowledge that's most often learned by experience. It's the stuff you know, but don't necessarily know that you know.

Benefits of Knowledge Management

The major benefit of knowledge management is that information is easily shared between staff members, and that knowledge isn't lost if someone goes on vacation, gets sick, or leaves the company.

This can result in substantial savings to an organization's bottom line. People are easily brought up to speed, and valuable knowledge assets are never lost (which means that you don't lose time and money when people have to learn new information quickly).

Because ideas can be shared easily, knowledge management may also increase innovation and help create better customer relationships. And if the company has a global team, knowledge management can create a more powerful workforce when all of those different cultures are brought together to share assets.

Knowledge management gives staff members the knowledge they need to do their jobs better. This makes them more productive.

Implementing Knowledge Management

There are two different ways of managing knowledge: using technology-based systems, or using softer systems.

  • Technology-based systems – These can include a collaborative wiki  , where everyone can add and edit information. Or, it can include programs or databases on the company's intranet, with information organized so that everyone can access them.

    Any technology-based system will have challenges. For instance, who will manage the project? Who will keep the information up to date? How will people access the information?

    There's no "one size fits all" approach here. Every company and culture is different.

  • Softer systems – These are things like specific actions or meetings that take place to share knowledge and help people connect with one another.

    Consider the following methods as part of your soft knowledge management systems:

    • Shadowing.
    • Mentoring  .
    • Instant messaging   and intranet forums.
    • Specific actions, like After Action Reviews   after significant events, and Post-Implementation Reviews   after a project has been completed.
    • Voluntary groups, also called communities of practice, that help team members doing the same thing in different areas to meet informally and share information.

Keep in mind that technology-based knowledge management systems are great at capturing explicit knowledge, but not so great at capturing tacit knowledge. Tacit knowledge is more often captured by softer systems, like the ones listed above.

This is why knowledge management approaches should try to use both approaches.

Tips for Implementing Knowledge Management Systems

  • Identify tacit knowledge first – Many organizations find that identifying their team's tacit knowledge is the biggest hurdle. If you implement a knowledge management system in your department or company, start with a brainstorming session with your team to get their ideas flowing on how to capture this.
  • Start with a small team – It's very easy to get overwhelmed with the amount of knowledge that could be shared. Start with a small group, in one department, and grow from there. This will help you figure out what information you'd like to keep, and how you'd like to organize it.
  • Help staff feel comfortable about sharing knowledge – It might be hard to "sell" knowledge management to your team. After all, you're asking them to share their hard-won knowledge and experience, the very things that make them valuable to the company. (This can be a powerful incentive for people not to share their knowledge!)

    Make knowledge sharing part of the company culture, and something that everyone does. This will help make team members feel more comfortable about getting involved. And, consider bringing knowledge sharing into your formal approach to performance management, so that people are rewarded for sharing information freely.

  • Make it as easy as possible for your team to share information – Everyone is busy. If being part of a knowledge management program is difficult or time-consuming, people may not want to be involved. The easier it is for people to participate, the more likely you are to succeed.
  • Plan for retiring team members – Retirement is a major reason why so many organizations are trying to quickly implement knowledge management systems right now. If you're facing a baby-boomer generation that's about to walk out of the door, it makes sense to start collecting their experience first.

Tip:

Find out more on knowledge management with our Book Insight The Complete Idiot's Guide to Knowledge Management .

Key Points

Knowledge management is becoming increasingly important to organizations. Having an effective knowledge management system not only protects revenues, it may also improve retention, increase productivity, and promote innovation.

Knowledge management systems should try to implement a two-part approach: using a database or wiki to collect explicit knowledge, and connecting colleagues to one-another to share tacit knowledge.

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Comments (4)
  • Rachel wrote Over a month ago
    Hi All,

    All the people in your team need specific knowledge to do a good job.

    But how do you handle this knowledge so that everyone benefits from it?

    This week's Featured Favorite looks at how to use a Knowledge Management system - click below to read more!
    http://www.mindtools.com/community/pages/article/newISS_87.php

    Best wishes
    Rachel
  • Rachel wrote Over a month ago
    Hi All

    Knowledge is power, right? Not if it doesn't get passed on!

    This week's Featured Favorite looks at how you can share knowledge in your organization with a knowledge management system. Learn about the benefits of passing on knowledge, and find out how you can set up a system, by clicking below.
    http://www.mindtools.com/community/page ... ISS_87.php

    Best wishes

    Rachel
  • bigk wrote Over a month ago
    Hi

    I'm not sure that the same model is applied in all industries.
    An example;
    If the business needs to have an up to date use of knowledge for it's development and customer base or profit generating then it will be critical to the business to develop this even if they feel they have already got this as a starting point.

    In a small business setting, knowledge share and knowledge development is a good item to progress but the time and effort might be different.
    For example;
    A small business might want to use the expertise of a linked business and share information perhaps more than a corporate.

    But the small business has some extra issues like getting good people development and business development without having to take on too many extra costs to achieve business development in the business.
    However the business could make use of expertise from other companies but it is a specialty particular to the business so the task should remain within the business.

    Getting networking developed might be a good way of getting extra information on this to allow the business to develop without too many extra costs.

    What else do you feel would be a good use of the tool in this setting?

    I need to check my research on this as there are many good small business links available for support particularly in the UK, but these do tend to focus on business development, so knowledge development might still need to be dealt with in the company itself.

    Any thoughts?

    Bigk
  • sdey wrote Over a month ago
    Regardless of the field one is in, this is an area that will bring in definite value to the organization. I would like to share a few thoughts
    1. At varying levels and in an informal way, many organizations share knowledge within the team and across. What is required there is to trap this in a formal platform - I believe not many do it efficiently.
    2. There are many different technology available to handle this. This biggest challenge is to drive this into the organization culture so that it becomes self sustaining.
    3. Because the benefits of this is not always immediately visible there is likely to be an inertia that will have to be overcome to implement this.

    Regards

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