Knowledge management (KM) is the discipline of not only capturing knowledge, but also storing, using and sharing knowledge. While defining the term in a general way is straightforward, each KM program needs its individual definition and techniques, depending on the organization’s specific goals and available resources.
The main objectives of knowledge management are to enable the organization to increase the value of its intellectual capital and leverage its knowledge assets to achieve its goals. The idea is enable corporate knowledge to be effectively shared and reused among individuals or organizational units. KM also reduces the risk associated with an employee who holds valuable knowledge leaving the company.
A paper from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) defines the role of KM as follows: “The primary goal of knowledge management is to connect ‘knowledge nodes’ of both the knowledge providers and the knowledge seekers. The knowledge of the mind of one provider may thus be ultimately transferred to the mind of someone who seeks that knowledge, so that a new decision can be made or situation handled.”
Why knowledge management is challenging
Development of knowledge management in organizations facilitates the retention and nurturing of core competencies through collaboration between users. It is important to recognize that there are different types of knowledge:
- Tacit knowledge is internalized knowledge that a person might not be consciously aware of, such as how to drive sales using personal skills like flattery or humor. The tacit knowledge of individuals is difficult to capture, analyze, structure, scan and store in a database or other IT solutions.
- Explicit knowledge can easily be communicated to others, such as in written documentation, scripts and best practices. This knowledge can be maintained using, for example, document management systems and other knowledge management tools.
One key difference between knowledge and information is that access to knowledge depends on interactions between humans. Therefore, one of the key factors for a successful KM program is communities of practice (CoPs) — groups of people who share interests, discuss best practices and reflect together on lessons learned. Such self-organized networks exist both in small offices and geographically distributed enterprises, fostering the knowledge exchange that is a crucial for organizational learning and related processes.
Key components of a knowledge management program
A knowledge management program consists of the following components:
- First, it’s crucial to create a corporate knowledge management strategy based on both tactical and strategic requirements. A clearly defined and well-documented strategy helps you develop effective processes and measure the program’s success.
- One of the most challenging parts of KM projects is finding ways to involve people in the KM initiative. It’s important to keep in mind that effective knowledge management systems depend on human interactions, especially for knowledge generation, which is a driver for innovation.
- Processes. It is also important to implement processes that work for your organizational structures and cultural frameworks. The more your KM program fights against the established organizational culture and requires people to change their behavior, the more difficult it is to achieve success. A people-centric program should support people’s vested interest in improving knowledge reuse, including sharing lessons learned, as well as acquiring new knowledge.
- From an information technology perspective, KM tools, such as enterprise content management tools, help people searching for knowledge assets, facilitate storing knowledge and help manage knowledge transfer. Don’t limit yourself to a document management system that only helps users find a piece of information they know about; look for knowledge management tools that help users research more broadly and discover the right information to meet their needs. Indeed, a KM program should not be limited to a single piece of knowledge management software. New technologies that can improve the quality of the processes and routines in your knowledge environment are constantly be developed, so it is valuable to regularly be identifying reasonable opportunities for enhancements.
Benefits of knowledge management
Modern businesses work in a knowledge economy, making global knowledge a reality. Doing business in this economy, companies need to make strategic decisions all the time, and knowledge is one of the assets most necessary to the success of their business strategy. Many organizations appreciate the importance of knowledge management for the competitive advantages it brings to improving business outcomes.
By implementing knowledge management effectively, organizations can reap the benefits of knowledge management, such as:
- Improved decision-making and productivity. KM enables the workforce to spend less time looking for knowledge and re-creating knowledge that can’t be found, freeing up time for more important work.
- Easier sharing of relevant information. Documented processes help ensure that everyone has access to useful knowledge, such as experiences and lessons learned, and follows approved procedures.
- Better business knowledge reuse, cultural exchange and innovation. Employees who have easy access to the most relevant information can drive the business forward and meet its evolving needs.
- Cost savings. Loss of knowledge — for example, when an employee who holds valuable knowledge leaves the company — is costly. Extracting and recording knowledge through routine processes mitigates this risk.
Knowledge management helps a company better understand what it knows. The right KM tools allow you to determine where this knowledge exists and provide ways to make information accessible to users and experts. Developing methods for transferring knowledge inside the entire organization helps people collaborate across offices in today’s digital workplaces. More broadly, KM enables businesses to capture their organizational knowledge, reuse their previous experience for solving problems and succeed with knowledge retention, thus boosting business growth.
Knowledge management process
Here are the key knowledge management processes in which IT solutions play a big role:
- Knowledge discovery and organization. The first step in KM is to identify the knowledge and experience the company possesses. This data management process includes retrieving hidden sources of knowledge, creating repositories, and analyzing and filtering information to make it more easily searchable. Next comes knowledge organization: It’s important to eliminate duplicates, outdated information, and situations when data is spread across multiple repositories, with the objective of ensuring that documents can be easily retrieved. The best way to ensure successful knowledge discovery and organization is implementation of automated discovery and classification
- Knowledge reuse, retrieval and sharing. Without question, these KM concepts are crucial to an effective knowledge management strategy. To create an environment that fosters knowledge sharing and learning, you need to establish systematic transfer of knowledge and best practices between individuals, taking into account human resources and corporate culture. For example, companies often use groupware — software products that provide communication and organizational tools for threaded discussions, shared documents and calendars, and other collaboration features.
- Knowledge creation and acquisition. It’s important to define processes for obtaining knowledge from internal and external sources. Workflow management systems can improve the effectiveness of knowledge creation and use, including capturing customer and user experience and formalizing documentation processes.
Knowledge management example: Mott Macdonald
In a global enterprise, effective collaboration is essential to employee productivity, innovation and cost savings. But as knowledge bases grow, making that collaboration a reality is a challenge.
A useful knowledge management example comes from Mott Macdonald, a global management, engineering and development consultancy that delivers services for clients in 150 countries worldwide.
Mott Macdonald needed to simplify access to information and ensure effective knowledge sharing and collaboration among its community of experts, including environmentalists, planners, economists, project advisors, cost consultants and business strategists. In particular, the company needed to improve knowledge sharing and reduce the amount of time these teams had to spend searching for information, especially when they needed to access the expertise in each other’s projects hidden among the tens of thousands files in the company’s SharePoint environment.
The company realized that its SharePoint environment could be enhanced to make it easier for employees to find information relevant to their projects. To achieve that, they needed to ensure that information could be discoverable by sector, discipline, format, creation date, author and other criteria. Therefore, Mott Macdonald invested in automated data discovery and classification to automate the process of discovering and tagging information in SharePoint.
By enhancing information retrieval in SharePoint, Mott Macdonald improved its corporate memory, global knowledge sharing and user productivity. The company accelerated project delivery and enabled innovation, driving better customer service and profitability. Thanks to these results, company expects £1.4 million in savings each year.