posted 2 Jul 2002 in Volume 5 Issue 10
Greater than the sum of its parts
Linking business and information management to drive KM
Any knowledge management initiative that is driven purely by technology is certain to eventually fail. Lesley Robinson outlines the importance of actively involving everyone throughout the organisation, and offers a case example that demonstrates what can be achieved if high-level commitment to KM is allied with the skills of a dedicated information management team.
Uttering the phrase knowledge management evokes all sorts of facial expressions in different audiences, ranging from bewilderment, confusion and nonchalance through to blatant boredom. As an independent consultant working in this area, I am particularly attuned to these types of responses, although I prefer my clients to be bewildered or confused than bored, as this indicates that they realise KM could be important to them but they are not sure how it could impact upon their business. Many also have an underlying enthusiasm for the topic, as there is still a real buzz surrounding the ‘knowledge economy’. Those in the nonchalant and bored categories are much harder to turn around, as they have probably “already tried knowledge management and it didn’t work”. Their initial enthusiasm has turned to cynicism, they do not like being told they got it wrong, and they are typically looking for ways to recoup their investment of both time and money.
Undoubtedly, knowledge management is a huge business topic, and like all important business topics it is multi-faceted and continues to evolve. To write it off in its entirety as passé or old news, or even to disguise it by re-naming it would be foolish, as KM is still very much in it infancy, with a lot of development still to come. As often happens with new business concepts, the first wave of solutions have been driven by technology, and we have seen a number of solutions on the market that purport to help organisations classify, manage and disseminate knowledge. A concurrent area of growth has been in intranet and extranet deployment, and several clients of mine have followed the trend and quickly built themselves an intranet. A technology solution is not necessarily the wrong way to tackle knowledge management – indeed I believe it is an important part of the process – but taking technology as the starting point for KM is probably the easiest trap to fall into.
Recognition at the top
The starting point for any knowledge management programme should be recognition from the top that harnessing knowledge can improve many elements of the business. It doesn’t matter how that conclusion is reached, what is important is how it is implemented and made relevant for the organisation in question. Organisations of different sizes and geographical complexities will be at different evolutionary stages. Some may be looking to KM as a means to cut out inefficiencies in their processes and to help their people perform better and faster; some may be looking for more effective ways of running and organising the business by re-using what they already know; some will be looking for competitive advantage by continually learning from their mistakes, from their successes and from their clients. Some will want to do all of the above, but it is important to prioritise and plan an incremental approach, as failure is otherwise inevitable.
Whatever the KM approach, it has to be consistent with the organisation’s broader business strategy. Indeed, it must actively help to deliver that strategy, hence the importance of buy-in from the top. At the same time, the second critical element for success is the involvement of everyone throughout the organisation. This can often be tantamount to an all-out culture change programme, but the trick is not to issue edicts saying that a culture change is underway (again) but to adapt and enhance company culture gradually while delivering tangible benefits.
Who does this belong to?
Knowledge management should not ‘happen’ to people, as it often does when technological solutions are taken as the starting point. Rather, it should involve them, enhancing their working lives and creating broader thinking. This will only happen when everyone is involved and there is a clear ownership structure within the process. The stakeholders need to be made very clear. One of my clients in the professional services sector had been trying to encourage project teams to capture information that could be useful again in the future and had put processes and systems in place to help realise this. What happened? Nothing. The professionals who were asked to contribute the data did not have the time to capture information. They were fee earners, always under pressure to bill as much chargeable time as possible. In their eyes, capturing information cut into their most valuable resource, at the same time offering no immediate pay-off. It was also not clear what information was vital and what was considered ‘nice to have’. No clear boundaries had been set and members of the top team that had requested that the information be captured were working from different agendas, with different priorities and different professions in the firm. Nobody agreed or took ownership of the process.
This is not an untypical scenario but it is a difficult problem to resolve. This particular organisation went for an early technical solution to KM and built itself an intranet about three years ago. This was to be the home for information about the firm, its processes and the skills of its staff. If you mention the intranet to anyone in the firm today, those facial expressions appear again, only this time ranging from derision to open laughter, all because the intranet did not belong to anyone. Most people thought it belonged to the IT department, and the IT department thought it belonged to the CEO and his top team. With no ownership, the intranet was dead in the water.
Blending the right skills
Many of the problems outlined above stem from both a lack of clarity and a lack of ownership of KM processes. Does this necessarily imply a weak management team at the top? No, it typically indicates a busy management team with a wide range of priorities and some skills gaps. I wonder how many boards or top management teams have the skills to structure, organise and codify information. I bet not many can do this effectively. This is the skill-set of an information professional. Management teams need to work closely with information teams to devise and implement any KM strategy, combining business and industry knowledge with information management skills. Together, they can decide the points in the process where ownership is vital and assign responsibilities.
The role of the chief knowledge officer (CKO) has grown in importance over the last few years and many organisations, often large global companies, now have a CKO on the board. This is the obvious person to link business and knowledge strategies for maximum advantage. There are still many global organisations, along with a large proportion of SMEs, that do not have a CKO, but this is not necessarily because it is an unimportant role for them. Some companies I have worked with see the role as being only a temporary one. Once KM processes have been set up and embedded into the organisation, what does the CKO do then? This approach could help to explain why CKOs are often senior executives from within the organisation who have been promoted or moved into the role for personal development reasons or because they understand their industry and the processes within the organisation. However, they are rarely information professionals and they do not necessarily understand the underlying processes that make KM work. Whether this approach is right or not, and whether there is a CKO or not, there has to be a permanent link between the information professionals and the organisational leaders to drive any KM strategy forwards.
Information professionals need to take ownership of the fundamentals of knowledge management – facilitating others to locate, filter, collate, classify, organise and disseminate information so that the business can use KM to make decisions, judgements and intelligent forecasts. The senior management team needs to take ownership of the business processes. And when you start to relate the fundamentals of knowledge management to the business processes and get these two sets of people working together, extraordinary things can happen. The organisation starts to learn, spots more opportunities and develops a more responsive, flexible outlook.
Confidence brings influence
It may seem silly to suggest that, as an information professional, you should pop upstairs to the CEO’s office (they are usually on the top floor), knock on the door and ask to review a copy of the company’s corporate strategy policy so you can enhance it with your knowledge management initiative. But maybe that is not so fanciful – that bridge needs to be built. There has been a lot of writing and comment on the skills an information professional needs to make the transition to being a knowledge professional, and I won’t go into these again here, but the key attribute I would emphasise is confidence – confidence in your own skills. The way you market and communicate that confidence is also key and will depend very much on your own understanding of how your particular organisation works and on the personalities of the major stakeholders you have to engage.
Looking again at the professional services example I mentioned earlier, the information professionals in each of the UK offices were carrying out fairly traditional library-based roles. They were focused on finding and disseminating external information to answer inquiries, alongside running the usual library functions. However, one of the areas they always struggled with was in finding information about their organisation’s own previous projects. Key questions such as ‘have we done anything like this before?’, ‘what is our current good practice in this area?’ and ‘who is the expert on this in the firm?’ were very difficult to answer. The three-year-old intranet was supposed to help provide the answers but could not deliver on its earlier promise, as data was out-of-date, inaccurate, incomplete and not trusted.
The information teams had not been consulted when the intranet was designed and launched. They were not involved in the gathering or organising of internal information, were not involved in day-to-day projects with the technical teams, and yet they were the first port of call for all knowledge about the firm. An opportunity had been missed, as they had very specific views of their own about the intranet and its content management, about the type of data that would be easy to capture and be of value to the organisation, and expert knowledge about codifying information using a taxonomy. Yet there was a huge mismatch between the image of the information teams and their actual abilities. The information professionals did not have the confidence to tell fee earners what they could do, thus undervaluing their own skills. Not surprisingly, the other professional staff had no idea what the information teams were capable of. They regarded them as librarians in the most traditional sense, with no real connection to the running of the business.
This is a fairly common scenario, but in this particular example the client has now appointed a team leader for the information professionals and will be using their collective information expertise to facilitate project teams in the capture, organisation and dissemination of information. In turn, the information team has encouraged other professional staff to become more self sufficient in gathering external information, freeing the team up to focus its skills on the real area of need: helping the business to manage what it already knows. The team now has a real chance to make an impact on the organisation, and its sphere of influence has been greatly enhanced.
For any partnership between management and information professionals to work, some mutual understanding of skills has to exist. Similarly, the best way to convince a senior executive that something is worth doing is to demonstrate immediate benefits. Taking some examples from other clients of mine in different sectors, information professionals have shown some quick wins by:
- Getting involved with re-organising the layout of intranet pages to make them more intuitive;
- Creating useful links within intranet content to exploit information to the full;
- Simplifying data capture and actively assisting with the capture process, resulting in fast and accurate reporting for the management team;
- Proactively working with teams to identify information needs and knowledge gaps;
- Training staff to use the intranet effectively;
- Facilitating teams to contribute feedback.
As information professionals become more engaged in working with other professional staff in their organisations, the benefits of managing information become more tangible, encouraging people to share knowledge more widely as they recognise the value of doing so. This in turn makes them knowledge managers in their own right. By keeping knowledge development simple, practical, incremental and relevant to the business, there can be few objections to giving new approaches a try, and it might even sway a few hardened cynics back in the right direction. It also provides a solid basis from which to develop more sophisticated knowledge approaches as the organisation reaps the benefits.
Knowledge management is not just about systems; it’s about connecting the right people together. Systems and the supporting technology are vital to effective implementation of the knowledge process, but they should not drive it. Business leaders must commit to it and the people with information management skills should design it. By working together they can deliver the best knowledge solutions for their business.