Making the Most of Intellectual Assets
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) and can be leveraged.
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:
- 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.
Find out more on knowledge management with our Book Insight The Complete Idiot's Guide to Knowledge Management .
Have a look at our article on Managing Knowledge Workers to help you get the most from people who specialize in this area.
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.