posted 5 Apr 2004 in Volume 7 Issue 7
Your say: Personal knowledge management
Focusing knowledge-management initiatives on the individual should not be a groundbreaking move within an organisation. However, few companies have taken the time to equip employees with the appropriate tools and techniques to support their personal-knowledge and information-management needs. Even fewer have identified and built on their employees’ competencies, or ensured they are motivated to deliver the best of their work and share knowledge. Sandra Higgison finds out why personal knowledge management has been ignored by organisations and traditional KM initiatives for so long.
One of the founding principles for KM is that you don’t know what you know, until you need it. This fact has huge implications for any organisation putting a knowledge-management initiative in place: if individual employees don’t know what they know, how can a company capture, harness and exploit this knowledge? The same can be said for information. How many times have you tried looking in vain for a document or e-mail you are sure you filed somewhere very carefully? Companies should be asking themselves, how much time do individuals waste because they lack the tools or techniques to work effectively? How much value could be generated if each employee made best use of their knowledge? What difference would it make if employees felt motivated and empowered? Although solutions exist that respond to these and many personal knowledge-management (PKM) issues, few companies have yet to realise they even need them. Indeed, organisations stand by the stock statement that ‘our people are our greatest asset’, but in practice they remain unreceptive to concepts such as PKM.
Although personal knowledge management is not a new subject, adoption has been slow. As David Skyrme, principal at David Skyrme Associates, says, “it’s been in the background since the early days of knowledge management, but the connection between personal and organisational effectiveness has so far been ignored.” Setting the scene for PKM’s evolution over the years, Jim McGee, director at Huron Consulting Group, describes the typical firm that existed at the dawn of his career. “Organisations had secretaries, graphics departments, filing clerks and a host of support functions that were essentially the company’s KM system,” he says. “Over the years we have equipped everyone with PCs and taken these support positions away, but we have neglected to tell the knowledge workers that they have been given new tasks. Worse still, we have since made 95 per cent of work invisible.” McGee notes that it is easy to see a messy, disorganised office, but a messy, disorganised hard drive or e-mail inbox is invisible. And exacerbating the problem further is our ability to create more information and knowledge than ever before. However, as Tom Davenport, president’s distinguished professor at Babson College and Accenture fellow, points out, we are still in the early days of PKM; the number of companies actively addressing these issues is very low.
Definitions of PKM revolve around a set of core issues: managing and supporting personal knowledge and information so that it is accessible, meaningful and valuable to the individual; maintaining networks, contacts and communities; making life easier and more enjoyable; and exploiting personal capital. “Employers do not own personal knowledge, they merely tap into that part that employees are willing to share,” says Skyrme. Indeed, individuals must be able and willing to exploit their knowledge, which Mick Cope, managing director at WizOz, calls personal capital. “It consists of two primary factors – explicit and tacit knowledge – and has affective, cognitive and behavioural dimensions,” he says. On an information-management level, PKM involves filtering and making sense of information, organising paper and digital archives, e-mails and bookmark collections.
PKM and traditional knowledge management differ depending on whether an organisational or personal perspective is adopted. Lilia Efimova, researcher at the Telematica Instituut in the Netherlands, believes that for either approach to work they need to form two sides of the same coin. “The organisational viewpoint focuses on creating an environment where knowledge is created, shared and used. The personal side tries to understand how a knowledge worker’s activities contribute to their performance. It is this side that is often neglected as KM initiatives do not correlate with an individual’s existing practices.” Skyrme agrees that PKM is something individuals can and should do for themselves, but from an organisational perspective there is a belated recognition that the individual should be a focus for holistic KM strategies. “I like the approach that the EU promotes, ‘human-centric KM’,” says Skyrme. “PKM is part of it, along with culture change, reward systems, storytelling techniques and so on.”
The objectives for PKM extend further than giving employees access to intranets, systems and standards. “Most organisations do not release or optimise the value in their people,” says Cope. “If they stopped spending so much time and money on process and technology solutions and uncovered the latent potential in employees, then real value and differentiation would be harnessed through PKM.” The goal is to make knowledge workers better at capturing, sharing and using knowledge, and maximising their personal effectiveness in the social and relationship-building part of their jobs. As Davenport says, “The knowledge-based organisation is no more effective than the sum of its knowledge workers’ effectiveness.” By addressing basic productivity issues employees could spend more time on higher value work. “Surveys find that the average knowledge worker spends 30 per cent or more of their time searching for information and knowledge,” says Skyrme. Addressing information overload can be the first step towards harnessing PKM’s benefit.
Although these initiatives can deliver enterprise-wide value, individuals themselves reap significant long-term benefits. Once they have understood their own value, they can make shrewd choices regarding their own personal development programme. “It’s about being aware of your competencies, strengths and weaknesses, working style, and habits,” says Efimova. “This allows you to select or shape the working environment that fits your preferences.” Not only does PKM build on current strengths, it also pinpoints gaps. “I increase my capacity to do effective knowledge work as I build an inventory of materials to draw on and skills to apply,” says McGee. “As I understand and add to my portfolio I also develop a better sense for where the holes are, what I need to learn and who can fill in the rest of the picture.” Individuals will be better equipped to work and, as Davenport says, they will demonstrate better knowledge-based action and decision making, with less time needed to access and synthesise the knowledge needed to act intelligently. Cope offers a prime example of what PKM can achieve. “The TV programme, ‘Faking it’ is a real and tangible example of what can happen when people are given time, support and investment to grow,” he says. “If a burger flipper can be turned into a head chef in four weeks with just a little investment, imagine what a company can turn its people into with serious investment.”
At an organisational level, PKM should be at the heart of any employee-development programme. The value delivered here should not need spelling out. However, as few firms have taken this concept on board it is worth outlining here. “Employees feel motivated if they are given tools and methods that make their lives easier and more employable,” says Skyrme. “Hiring and training costs are reduced and less knowledge is lost as staff-turnover rates are lower.” Ultimately, successful programmes will deliver increased revenues, lower costs and better overall outcomes. “A motivated, self-sufficient and empowered workforce will also make an organisation stand out, ahead of its process and technology-based competitors,” says Cope. But to succeed, PKM and traditional knowledge management must be linked. “Incorporating individual preferences and working styles into corporate KM will ensure a blended approach that does not add work to existing activities.”
As with traditional knowledge-management work, the impact of PKM is difficult to measure, which, as McGee says, is the classic way to kill a new idea. “As we learn we’ll be able to add some useful activity and outcome measures that will guide investments,” he says. “In the near term, we need to rely on systematic observation and stories from pioneers on what does and doesn’t work.” Davenport also considers this an important area. “Measuring the minutes or hours saved does not work as we don’t know how the individual is using the time saved,” he says. “If we measure outputs, such as completed lines of code or client billings, we can determine whether some knowledge workers are more productive than others in the same jobs and industries.” Skyrme agrees that it is difficult to show direct cause and effect, but if organisational performance improves and individuals feel good about PKM, that in itself should be considered a good impact.
The tools and techniques for supporting personal knowledge management are many and varied, although as Efimova and McGee say, emphasis should be on how solutions are used rather than the technology itself. Tools for personal information management are impressive and, if you think about e-mail and portals, are already widely used. “I think tools such as blogs, news aggregators and wikis are a new toolset for PKM,” says McGee. “I’m also a fan of instant messaging in knowledge work and project settings.” Efimova, though, believes that offering too many separate solutions can complicate life rather than make it easier. Indeed, some of the most effective tools do not involve technology. “Perhaps the most important thing is to know yourself,” says Skyrme. He suggests that organisations use psychometric testing, personal profiling and career planning as inputs to personal development plans. In this way people learn what their personal capital looks like, which, according to Cope, gives them the freedom to control it and make choices based on it.
Despite the benefits of PKM and the availability of tools, implementing a programme involves attacking deep-seated attitudes and conventions at both organisational and individual levels. “PKM shifts responsibility for learning and knowledge sharing from the company to individuals, which is a challenge to both sides,” says Efimova. “Organisations need to recognise that employees are investors that bring their expertise to a company and can withdraw it if the ROI is not compelling.” Companies must create the conditions for PKM to emerge among knowledge workers; however the organisation must first want to support employees in this way. “Companies are often too scared to unshackle the giant within because they fear the implications,” says Cope. “I ran a PKM course at a large company and, while the delegates began to understand their value in the business, the client said I couldn’t run another workshop because if their people really knew their worth they would ask for more money or leave!” At the individual level, employees need to be aware of the value PKM brings and want to act on their responsibilities as a knowledge worker. “It is a decision to be mindful about how you do your work,” says McGee.
Overcoming PKM challenges may seem an ominous undertaking, but failing to address them can have a crippling impact. “Knowledge workers will waste more time searching for information and knowledge, and will lose important intelligence that could affect their future and that of the company,” says Davenport. Organisations will lose out to competitors in terms of skilled and high-value employees, and market share. “Companies can distinguish themselves by the expertise of their people and ability to turn this into a unique product,” says Efimova. It is clear that PKM has been neglected for too long. Organisations and employees must open their eyes to making the most of the knowledge held within a company’s most important asset. Otherwise, as Skyrme says, “Smart individuals will address PKM for themselves and find that they are better off elsewhere – either financially or motivationally – leaving organisations with the less-smart individuals.” Is this a situation you would be happy with? Despite evidence to the contrary, one would hope that this question is not too difficult to answer.
1. Wikis is web-based software that supports concepts such as open editing, which allows multiple users to create and edit content on a website.
Mick Cope is managing director at WizOz. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Tom Davenport is president’s distinguished professor at Babson College and Accenture fellow. He can be contacted at email@example.com
Lilia Efimova is a researcher at the Telematica Instituut in the Netherlands. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Jim McGee is director at Huron Consulting Group. He an be contacted at
David Skyrme is principal at David Skyrme Associates. He can be contacted at email@example.com