posted 19 Jan 2006 in Volume 9 Issue 5
Conducting a knowledge audit part III
The final instalment in a three-part series exploring the process of conducting a knowledge audit. By Danny Budzak
In the final part of the series I want to concentrate on the following issues: outcomes; conclusions and recommendations; measuring success; learning from the audit; and presentation.
The knowledge audit ought to have a significant impact on the development of a knowledge-management strategy across the organisation – if it is done right – but it is not the only possible outcome. Here are some of the other benefits recorded by people who were involved in a particular knowledge audit in the past twelve months:
Improved induction interviews;
Helped with coaching, mentoring and training;
Enhanced the working relationships between people across the organisation;
Changed the environment of the organisation (for the better);
Improved how internal and external information products are used;
Improved retrieval of information and knowledge across the organisation;
Enhanced and improve quality and consistency of information and knowledge;
Helped remove deadwood and obstacles to change;
Changed and improved customer-service delivery.
In each of the benefits recorded above, the knowledge audit had set out to address or investigate specific problems of interviewing, training, change management, business-process re-engineering, workflow, retrieval and managing cultural change, hence the outcomes.
In the final example, the knowledge audit concentrated on the people in one particular building (a one-stop shop for customer service). It was felt that many of the lessons learned could be applied not only to improve customer-service delivery in that particular area, but across the organisation as a whole.
I vividly remember a presentation at the end of one knowledge-management conference I attended, at the end of a long two days. The speaker, an ex-traffic policeman, spoke without notes or slides for about 20 minutes and clearly made this point. After more than thirty years of experience, he was medically retired. No effort was made to record his observations, thoughts, experience or insights of what his working life had covered. All this accumulated knowledge was simply allowed to walk away. Not just this individual, but with everyone who left, often with lengthy service records and an extraordinary range of experience.
Does any organisation really believe there is nothing to learn from staff who have spent years at the sharp end of the job, dealing with people, managing crises, navigating themselves through organisational change?
A small audit which looked at how knowledge is transferred within and across the organisation might have picked up this potential goldmine of knowledge and experience and reaped rich rewards for the organisation as a whole.
Conclusions and recommendations
The conclusions of the audit must include recommendations. Depending on the remit of the audit, they can be varied. They do not have to include a revolutionary overthrow of the existing organisational structures and working practices. Rather, if the audit identifies a complete lack of any knowledge capture of staff leaving the organisation then it can recommend steps that should be taken to address this problem. And it should also produce the evidence to show why this is a problem.
Some organisations fall into the trap of recursive report writing. That is to say, report number one is 86 pages and declares the need for a strategy. Report number two is 87 pages and is the strategy. Report number three is 88 pages and is how the strategy will be implemented. Report number four is 89 pages and is the plan for the implementation of the strategy and so it goes on. Each recommendation simply leads to yet more reports, which in turn recommend further reports.
Avoid this. If the audit has discovered a lack of knowledge capture then make recommendations that quickly and clearly lead to action. It can be very satisfying when some quick wins, or even just one quick win, is identified and acted upon. Any audit that identifies current practices which are of high risk needs to highlight these and recommend immediate action.
How can the success, or otherwise, of a knowledge audit be measured? If this is the first time there has been a knowledge audit in the organisation, there may be no existing metrics to measure against. However, if the audit leads to clear and tangible benefits, these should be widely communicated. An audit that concludes that there is no attempt to capture the knowledge and experience of people leaving the organisation and makes recommendations to change this is going to have far-reaching consequences.
Hopefully, the audit will be able to demonstrate some benefits to the organisation. Benefits, as we have seen earlier, can come in a range of forms. It may be difficult to prove a financial return on the audit, but not necessarily impossible. In an audit to investigate knowledge transfers within a pharmaceutical company, for example, a particular process was identified as a bottleneck. When this was removed, a critical activity took two fewer days to complete – a measurable and tangible saving in both time and money.
In a large engineering company, a knowledge audit revealed that experiences were not shared effectively, knowledge was not being captured and there was poor information and knowledge retrieval. A recommendation to create a knowledge base was implemented. Everyone was actively encouraged to contribute to this, to share ideas and project work and to provide input and feedback on the project. The company estimated that this saved them at least £1m a year; and this is without calculating the value that the new resource added to the company as a whole.
In the previous section, the measurement of success was considered. But what if the audit is ultimately regarded as a failure? In one organisation the first attempt at a knowledge audit had been poorly thought out and weakly executed. It was such a failure that it demoralised the team involved. They felt that their one chance to ‘get it right' had failed and, in the process, had damaged their chances of carrying out similar work for some time to come. Staff across the organisation were deeply suspicious of the audit and auditors’ aims and, as a result, did not support their aims and objectives and were reluctant to cooperate.
In another organisation everything had started well with all the required fanfare and excitement, but the scope was allowed to be changed too much and the final results did not reflect the original brief. Recrimination and dissatisfaction swiftly followed.
Part of the problem is that the auditors themselves may lack confidence in their ability to complete the work and be pushed off course by competing interests in the organisation, not to mention difficult individuals. It can be useful to be part of a wider network of people involved in knowledge-management activities to share ideas and experiences – and to gain confidence. There are some useful web-based resources and discussion groups that form part of the knowledge-management communities of practice. Make sure you're connected in to some of these.
At the very least, the experiences need to be captured and recorded. It forms part of the knowledge activities of the organisation. If you feel the audit has failed to deliver, or are unhappy with the results, take the time to write an objective case study of what happened, what the successes were and what went wrong. Share this with the communities of practice; there are large numbers of good people out there who will provide you with critical insights, feedback and comments that can be applied to future knowledge audits and help you to run them better. We can all learn and develop if we work with each other and learn from each other.
But hopefully the audit will have some successes. These too should be shared. Perhaps the audit discovered some good practices of particularly high quality. Perhaps the responses were much wider, more extensive and of much higher value than expected because the audit revealed a latent demand among staff to contribute?
Whatever the outcomes and results, all of the project documentation, the notes, comments, e-mails, reports, discussion forum threads, interesting articles, resources, website addresses and so on should be collected together in one place into a proper record and archive. In some organisations, that in itself will be the first real building block that they have ever taken towards building sound knowledge-management principles and practices.
And finally, to one of the most important parts of all of the audit – presentation. How often has a good piece of work been let down at the very end by a poor presentation? A speaker who mumbles and fluffs his lines during a presentation; a report so full of padding and verbiage it sends the entire audience to sleep; a briefing note which sets the wrong tone, too chatty, too brittle, too dictatorial, making light of a serious matter and alienating the audience. These are all common shortcomings.
The final presentation needs to bear in mind the following:
Thekey messages from the audit;
Who the key audience is;
Howthese messages will be communicated.
The key messages are the conclusions and recommendations based on the findings of the audit. These need to be concise and put into the language and context of the organisation.
There may be key messages which are accepted because they clearly reflect many people's experiences. For example, 'no, I can't find the knowledge base, I didn't even know we had one because the search engine on the intranet is useless and each department having their own intranet system only makes matters worse'. You can almost hear the sigh of relief echoing around the organisation that, at last, the terrible unspoken secret about the intranet search engine being 'useless' is finally out in the open, despite the expensive web re-design earlier in the year.
Who are the key audiences? There may be multiple audiences and they may need to be approached in different ways. The senior management team needs a strategic view. They will want to know key results, recommendations and resource implications. They need to know the risks of not taking action, the costs and potential benefits of taking action and what the schedule of work might be.
Staff who have been involved in the audit, or have heard about it will want to know what impact it will have on them. Their starting point is likely to be the famous 'what's in it for me?' And quite right too.
The audit may impact upon strategic partners, suppliers, customers, third-party organisations and agencies. If the key messages are appropriate, they might need to hear them as well.
Communicating the key messages
Microsoft’s Bill Gates can get away with an open-neck shirt and casual attitude. He's one of the richest people in the world and can really do a presentation in any way that he likes. Even so, he pays attention to the process and the delivery. Therefore, so should you.
If people are expecting a written report then do a clear, concise executive summary. A single page is all that is required. This is because most people will want to read a short report with the key findings, empirical evidence to support them, conclusions and recommendations. Do not baffle people with science at this point, it is a sign of weakness and demonstrates a lack of understanding.
If there is a great thick wad of findings, collect them altogether and call it 'evidence'. This can be put on a web page and made available on the corporate intranet for anyone who wants or needs such a level of detail.
It is also good practice to acknowledge the help and support of people, but at the same time, to always respect requests for anonymity.
Writing clearly is not a skill that many people get much training in, which is puzzling considering the amount people are expected to write in their working lives. However, there are many excellent guidebooks, journals and web resources that can consulted for help – use them if you are not a confident writer.
The style and tone of any report are especially important. They need to reflect the culture of the key audiences the report is being written for and be in tune with the nature of the work completed. It can be very jarring to read a report of an audit covering a serious complex issue which is full of quotes from someone's favourite football manager or, even worse, politician.
Having said that, quotes from people who took part in the audit can be an invaluable means of getting a point across. A sprinkling of quotes can act like photographs by painting mental pictures and amplifying the imaginations of readers. This, for example, is from a knowledge audit within a health organisation on communications. The audit was focused on health professionals but also included some work with their clients. One elderly woman responded by saying, “If I send someone an e-mail, they will never know that I am blind, they never make any assumptions about me. It makes me absolutely equal with the rest of the world”.
It is always good to bring a project to a conclusion by doing a PowerPoint-style presentation. But again, keep it brief. When I was at college, a lecturer would challenge his students to explain their ideas, 'within ten minutes... to someone at a bus stop'. It can be useful to think of presentations in the same way. If they are too long and too complex, the audience will tune out.
Good communication is a skill. Excellent communication should be considered an art form. We can learn about communications every day because we are constantly bombarded by media that demand our attention. This includes television programming, advertising in all its forms and tabloid newspapers. It is worth considering how they present messages and what we can learn from this.
Some messages simply will not make it into the final reports, or be written down. These will be some of the stories that emerge during the work. Use the stories to the advantage of selling the recommendations of the audit. Most people find a good story irresistible.
Danny Budzak is director of The Information Design Company, an information and knowledge-management consultancy. He can be contacted at