posted 10 Jun 2004 in Volume 7 Issue 9
Clearing the culture hurdle
Based on his experiences creating knowledge-sharing cultures within large organisations, Alan Herd describes his tried-and-tested methods for ensuring KM initiatives meet their goals.
Companies that fail to deliver real value from knowledge management could be missing some key components. Many firms neglect the essential cultural or content-architecture elements, and try implementing knowledge-management programmes based on IT tools alone. The purpose of this article is to help KM practitioners understand how to integrate the three components, culture, content architecture and ITĖbased knowledge solutions, which deliver the full value.††
When an organisationís culture is ripe for knowledge sharing there will be demand for and understanding of the components that make up a successful KM programme.
Real business value, through fast and lean working, is generated when people collaborate to bring these pieces together and they mature into what I describe as an integrated knowledge-management approach. Knowledge management is ultimately successful when it becomes self-sustaining.
Luck or planning?
There is much to learn from my experiences and war stories on planning and implementing a successful knowledge-management strategy. We based the creation of our knowledge culture on the three components shown in figure 1. The blue circle, organisational readiness, represents the culture or people component.† Success strategies have ranged from business-wide change initiatives to global e-learning tools to help people use our knowledge-sharing solutions. The red circle represents our knowledge architecture and content management, which is where we† designed the framework of the knowledge content or assets. Our knowledge solutions are shown in the beige circle representing the IT applications we have tailored to meet our work needs. The point in the centre where these circles meet is what we think of as our knowledge-management sweet spot where we have contributions from all three.
Our knowledge-driven culture components can be defined as:
∑††††††† Organisational readiness
- Guidance and tips on the behavioural requirements for successful and efficient collaboration to get started;
- Develop, design and transfer knowledge-management work practices.
∑††††††† Knowledge architecture and content
- Architecture study and support;
- Content management;
- Business-wide and knowledge intensive.
∑††††††† Knowledge solutions
- Support for effective and dynamic business processes;
- Collaborative team environments;
- Repositories and tool-based applications.
We think of our approach as living-learning knowledge management. Part of our learning has been around these three unique KM components. When you start a new knowledge-management programme you need to assess where the business is in relation to these components. You should assess whether the company has spent more resources on IT-knowledge solutions and little on the culture or organisational readiness.
The knowledge architecture and content are also important. I convey this concept to busy senior leaders through the integrated knowledge model, which shows the structure of the knowledge content from a top-down viewpoint.†
The taxonomy begins to emerge in the layers below each main heading in the model. These integrated knowledge models give visibility to the business knowledge context, which can be thought of as organisational wallpaper. It helps build employee understanding and confidence in knowledge management because it provides a recognisable map of familiar business processes and work practices. We integrated existing work processes in the business to increase the user impact of knowledge management. High impact means that there is something for almost every employee regardless of function or position in the organisation.† This is an important foundation if the business is to have sustainable value for knowledge management rather than it being a leadership communication and reporting tool.
What is a knowledge-driven culture?
∑††††††† Knowing your purpose and who you are;
∑††††††† Decisions based on peopleís knowledge;
∑††††††† Visible metrics and value;
∑††††††† Learning organisation;
∑††††††† Sharing knowledge.
I believe that a knowledge-focused culture recognises that its purpose is all about having a clear single-minded business strategy supported by its knowledge-management programme. The strategy of one firm I worked with focused on innovative product development. Knowledge management enabled faster and higher quality decision making based on peopleís knowledge. The results delivered visible business value, which we measured by the percentage sales of new products introduced in the past five years. We harnessed knowledge by sharing ideas and project knowledge using collaborative processes.
How did we make the transition to a knowledge-driven culture? Our KM work was born in a R&D organisation, and scientists being numerate, inquisitive and keen to explore new ideas gave us a head start with knowledge management. The businessís leadership also supported our work. A key advantage was starting this work in the research department, which meant that the organisational readiness for handling knowledge, information and data was already high due to the technical nature of its work. Natural scientific curiosity in new subjects and interest in improving personal work effectiveness using technology also helped. My role as a KM consultant was to link all these different aspects together.
We built our approach and the component parts while I participated in the creation of a business-knowledge community by applying KM across all aspects of the global business. Many successes emerged from this work, in particular our own set of knowledge principles that provided a common set of knowledge-related aims. High-level principles are a must to help build a critical mass of employees who naturally align their knowledge activities with these aims.†††
Our knowledge principles:
Information will be available to everyone by default;
- Information will be stored digitally;
- Innovation in knowledge management will be encouraged
- Knowledge management will be global;
- Retain business and corporate memory;
- Knowledge management will be business-process driven;
- Information/knowledge content will have individual and functional ownership;
- Knowledge acquisition, sharing and learning will be key individual objectives;
- Processes, policies and standards will evolve to make us more productive;
- Natural work team needs will dictate knowledge structure;
- The right information will be determined by personal choice;
- Databases will be used for knowledge deployment, and e-mail for communication.
Critical success factors for knowledge management
A number of factors helped us achieve success on our knowledge-management journey.
A business strategy focused on innovative new products Ė Our business had a strategy based on getting new products to market quickly and effectively, and generating a high proportion of sales from new products. As a result, we initially focused knowledge management on product innovation. The main lesson learnt from this was to apply knowledge management to the content subject that is top of the business agenda. Success criteria for this involve knowing the subject content in depth;†
A business leader with a passion for personal/organisational development and IT Ė Gain leadership attention, and find several leaders who will walk the talk of sharing and using knowledge solutions and assets. This means practicing knowledge management rather than just talking about the theory. We had a powerful leader who would regularly use knowledge bases to call project managers and ask how their new product was coming along;
Knowledge solutions and IT enabled us to share knowledge assets in a user-friendly way for the first time Ė Knowledge solutions need to be just that: solutions rather than additional burdens. Many organisations still encounter the number-one problem with knowledge solutions, that they donít work reliably. If the solution is neither reliable nor supports the daily work of practitioners, they will resist using it. Knowledge-management solutions are sometimes built on the old premise that if you build it, they will come. Successful KM practitioners recognise that people in business today are looking for fast ways to effectively harvest and apply knowledge for added value.††
Communication and collaboration
In the early 1990s I was responsible for information technology at ICIís research-and-development department. My first exposure to the company was to speak at its annual research conference. I decided to face up to the inevitable questions I anticipated being asked by putting them on the table myself: what is IT and why do we need it? Information and knowledge were part of this initial communication because they are the lifeblood of research, development and innovation. This communication was the first of many I have given all over the world. These were initially on a face-to-face basis so there was a real opportunity to build relationships with people across the organisation. In addition to the people and cultural factors, and the plans for instant access to information, I told delegates how information technology could support all of this globally. Some businesses fail to move out of the technology rut and never realise the power generated by people, and organising knowledge and information assets.
Having started the communication process, my next challenge was to embed this into the organisation. I didnít have to do this alone as there were already enthusiasts whose work required them to manage large repositories of knowledge. We cajoled everyone to share knowledge and use repositories as places to do work rather than as filing cabinets. There is a dramatic and powerful difference between doing work in dynamic knowledge repositories compared with filing information as an additional activity and cost. KM gives employees platforms and business processes where work can be carried out in a way that is fast and lean.††
I had an early opportunity to experiment with knowledge management solutions when I was asked to co-ordinate our knowledge about new products. The problem I faced was that knowledge was literally held all over the place as we had different processes in each region of the world called new product schemes. These were largely paper based and the only way I could see to effectively co-ordinate them was to integrate the various regional items of knowledge or knowledge assets and create a unified business process that would meet the different knowledge needs of each user.†
I worked closely with the designers of the different regional systems to look for the benefits of having a single, global process. We built the knowledge architecture of the process, including the structure of the knowledge assets required at every stage in the innovation process, PDQuest.
High impact approaches to knowledge management
One of the ways we achieved a successful impact was by using a sense-and-respond approach to building the knowledge solutions and integrated content framework. We began in the research-and-development division with its need to create innovative products, and retain and share technical knowledge. We applied this by getting people to lead and† in the introduction of the knowledge-sharing approach as it applied to new products. This was effective as it provided a two-way feedback loop that helped us sense and respond to the introduction of the solutions and processes that support the knowledge-sharing culture. It also allowed us to adopt an evolutionary approach rather than apply the solution as a big bang. The evolutionary approach helped us pace the culture change and created a sense of shared ownership rather than imposing the change. It also helped business leaders handle the difficult problem of evaluating the value of KM and managing the set-up costs.
Closely aligned to our approach was an intense understanding and interest in the nature of the work we were carrying out. This created high-impact, early wins for us as enthusiastic content owners began to encapsulate knowledge assets in our manufacturing process knowledge repository. The interesting knowledge-sharing culture that emerged from this was that the solution met the widely varying job needs of process operators and technical engineers. The design of the knowledge architecture meant that we had an integrated knowledge framework from the start, which helped develop peopleís understanding of how to browse to find sources of expertise and the experts themselves.†
Leadership and organisational development
The business where I began practicing knowledge management had a business leader with a clear strategy, and an interest in personal and organisational development. We had a whirlwind of change initiatives ranging from innovation boot camps to flying-in-formation project management, high-performance teams and cross-business-development activity. The innovation-boot-camp process led to the establishment of a business community of practice with a number of global teams, notably one covering knowledge management and others for each key change aspect in our business. This business-led culture change demanded knowledge-management support and its use to integrate the various streams across the business. The demand for integration taught me that what we were doing was living-learning knowledge management. The image of one of our teams admiring its paper-tower-building efforts during one of our team-development events illustrates this living-learning culture. For some companies that fail with knowledge management, the flimsy paper tower is the IT solution that will crumple without the people component and organisational readiness, or the content or knowledge architecture. This is not knowledge management but IT masquerading in knowledge-managementís clothes.
Creating a sustainable knowledge-sharing culture
You will know that the culture has ripened when there is enthusiasm from leaders for an integrated approach. Donít expect high value or attention from the top for content management unless you work in a business with a long history of records management. We applied the rules of managing paper records to managing the architecture and content of electronic-knowledge assets. Another measure of success is the ability to speed up the KM renewal cycle. The renewal cycle is the speed of improvement change as it applies to the organisational readiness, knowledge architecture and content, and solutions. In our case, the organisational development work led to demand from the business community for a wider range of knowledge solutions to support people and places, leadership teams, customers, competitors, manufacturing operations, and technical and global document management.
In this programme, we have reached the stage where knowledge management is self-sustaining in the business community. Knowledge assets are constantly being refreshed, and there is continual evolution of the integrated knowledge-management architecture and solutions to meet changing business needs. A close relationship between the customer and the technical people building the knowledge solutions is essential for success. The best way to do this from a culture viewpoint is to co-locate your knowledge-management-service group with their business customers. We recognised that this was not always going to be possible and it opened up new opportunities for us to apply our own knowledge-management practices in facilitating collaboration between our business customers and within our team.
Our KM work has taught us how difficult it is to practice what you preach when it comes to knowledge management. One of the best ways I have found to identify and overcome the barriers to a knowledge-sharing culture is to try the methods you advocate on your own work before trying to teach others. Get another job in addition to your KM role and you will learn first hand what the barriers will be and can then explore practical ways of overcoming them. This has been my approach to knowledge management.
Alan Herd is knowledge manager at DuPont. He can be contacted at email@example.com