posted 18 Dec 2006 in Volume 10 Issue 4
Cover feature: Knowledge audit
The knowledge audit is a valuable first step in any KM journey – as well as a gauge of the effectiveness of an organisation’s existing strategy.
By Graeme Burton
The knowledge audit is a much discussed element of knowledge management (KM). It is not only an essential pre-requisite for a knowledge manager, especially one new to their role and eager to make their mark, but for providing a KM reality check and giving an organisation an idea of what it needs to do next. Without it, how will a knowledge manager know what to do, what to target, an organisation’s knowledge-sharing strengths – and its weaknesses?
Ana Neves, a knowledge network manager at the NHS Modernisation Agency, part of the UK’s National Health Service (NHS), carried out a knowledge audit in 2004. Its purpose was not just to gain a greater awareness of the Agency’s knowledge-related requirements, but also to gauge the success of its ongoing KM programme.
“No matter what stage your organisation is at, a knowledge audit can help you,” says Neves. She describes a knowledge audit as a qualitative evaluation and investigation into an organisation’s ‘knowledge health’. “It is about understanding the knowledge required to deliver the organisation’s core business, being aware of the knowledge available and the processes to store, retrieve and share it,” she adds.
A final part of the process involves identifying what she calls ‘missing knowledge’ and the processes around receiving, generating or acquiring it. Naturally, this final stage can best be facilitated with support from the top in order to overcome potential scepticism or opposition.
Every which way
However, there are a multitude of recognised approaches – from an almost-casual series of chats with staff, to pseudo-scientific methods that utilise such modern management techniques as balanced scorecarding to provide a precise picture. The precise approach will depend, of course, on the focus of the exercise. Broadly speaking, it can be broken down into four main areas, believes Neves:
1. The actual knowledge or information within the organisation. For example, in a manufacturing company where knowledge is a direct input to a finished product);
2. Knowledge-related infrastructure. For example, in a pharmaceuticals company in which regulatory and health and safety concerns are paramount;
3. Organisational processes. For example, in an investment bank that is supposed to have so-called ‘Chinese walls’ between certain departments;
4. Culture. For example, in a law firm where certain staff may seek to ‘protect’ their position by hoarding knowledge, rather than sharing it.
Most commonly, says Neves, knowledge audits focus on the first point, knowledge and information. That is to say, the knowledge manager wants to find out what the organisation knows and where that key knowledge resides in a bid to work out how it can best be shared and exploited for the benefit of the organisation as a whole. More specifically, they aim to identify the following elements:
a. The knowledge required by the organisation to meet its business plan and other key strategic aims;
b. The knowledge the organisation currently holds internally;
c. The gaps between ‘a’ and ‘b’;
d. Existing knowledge sources, both internal and external.
Infrastructural audits examine the systems organisations have in place that have an influence on knowledge processes: knowledge-management roles, means for staff to share their knowledge all the way down to the design of the office. Does it encourage staff to talk to each other or hide away?
Knowledge audits examining organisational processes and culture are very much more subtle and may, indeed, arise as a result of an information-based knowledge audit or an organisational knowledge audit.
Indeed, the knowledge audit carried out by Mark Collins when he arrived at international law firm Davies Arnold Cooper (DAC), a virgin site for KM, covered information, infrastructure and organisation and also, as a result, gave him a good indication of the law firms knowledge-sharing culture at the same time.
The cultural aspect was important – it gave him a clearer idea of what would be possible and how receptive the firm might be to his proposals. It also enabled him to fine-tune those proposals accordingly.
His approach to the knowledge audit was, quite simply, to talk to people: to find out what they knew and how they shared knowledge. This was not necessarily a scientific process under-pinned by a specific methodology, but it enabled him to gain a feel for the firm and the ways in which knowledge is shared – and how this could be improved.
Does a knowledge audit need to be any more scientific than this? “I booked an hour with every equity partner and every support head. I set up group sessions with the secretaries, the associates and the trainees. Most of the time, these appointments were kept and were extremely fruitful,” says Collins.
For Collins, it gave him an opportunity to introduce himself to pretty-much everyone in the firm, as well as the time and information to accurately assess what staff really needed in order to be able to do their jobs better. His audit process formed the basis for the strategy that he presented to the firm’s partners six months after his arrival.
This was based on his observations about where the key knowledge resided at the firm, how the ‘owners’ of that knowledge shared it among other members of staff and the kind of knowledge sharing – and supporting processes – already employed.
The knowledge audit process also served another purpose. “Through my consultation I had discovered those people who would be champions for KM and who would help take the initiative forward,” says Collins. His case study on his first 200 days building KM at DAC appeared in November 2006’s Inside Knowledge.
Although Collins was implementing KM in a supposedly virgin site, the audit also found islands of KM practice that he could unite – and potential allies, too.
Ben Ramalingam, a knowledge and learning specialist at the UK’s Overseas Development Institute (ODI), has a more rigid approach. He believes that the ‘auditor’ needs to remain focused on the core goals of the organisation. “In defining and understanding knowledge and learning, the knowledge-audit process should address all knowledge that is used to achieve the overall goals of the organisation,” says Ramalingam.
When Ramalingam joined the ODI with a brief to help formulate the organisation’s KM strategy, one of his first steps was to conduct a knowledge audit. Like Collins’, Ramalingam’s audit took the best part of six months to conduct – a timescale that underscores the complexity of the process.
However, Ramalingam conducted his audit in two stages: the first, to gather data on the existing KM practices and pools of knowledge within the ODI; and, the second to gauge reaction to the initial knowledge-management-strategy plans.
The audit methodology included semi-structured interviews, know-how workshops and after-action reviews, depending on the working practices and preferred communications methods of particular groups.
Raw data from both phases of the audit was analysed in a number of documents and these were made available to all staff on the organisation’s intranet. The idea to publish this data was consistent with the organisation’s culture of openness and also intended to promote debate and encourage buy-in.
Keep it simple
While Neves breaks down the knowledge audit process into four distinct elements, consultant Chris Collison, who has practised KM in a variety of big corporate environments, including oil giant BP and Centrica, the UK gas supplier, believes it is much simpler. “It’s either about capability or it’s about the specific subject-knowledge itself,” he says. “For some people it’s about technology and for others it’s far more behavioural.”
A recent audit Collison and Geoff Parcell, co-author of Learning to Fly (see Resources), undertook for a major UK government department involved helping it to understand its KM capabilities nationwide, across its eleven main offices. Beyond that, the purpose of the audit was to “start the conversation”, he says.
It already had a KM strategy, but it needed inspiration to move that strategy forward. “[They were saying] ‘Okay, now we know where we are, how do we compare relative to our peers? What can we do to collectively improve on all of our targets? What are the steps we need to take first?’”
For this organisation, the audit provided a useful reality check, a pause in which to evaluate next steps, but using input from the staff that the strategy ultimately affects. In addition, by bringing in a outside consultants, they had the benefit of being able to compare their capabilities with best practice elsewhere.
Together with Parcell, Collison has devised his own blueprint for conducting such audits. “There’s a self-assessment tool that we use that divides KM into five areas: strategy; leadership behaviours; learning before, during and after; knowledge; and, communications and networks,” he says, “We’ve seen it work really well in a wide variety of organisations, both private and public sector.”
This framework encompasses the entire gamut of organisational knowledge-management practice and potential.
For each of those five categories there are five levels – making a five-by-five matrix. And he applied this methodology to the audit discussed above. “We got a cross-section of staff from each of the offices – some were pro-KM, while others were healthy sceptics – then really it was a dialogue: ‘Where would you say we are within this office? Are we level two? Level three? What stories and examples can you share to support that?’”
This dialogue encompassed practices and procedures, many of them unofficial, across the particular office that also served to highlight initiatives that might not have been widely known. After that, Collison encouraged participants to pick two areas that they felt could be improved upon.
Having collated responses from all the offices, Collison was able to help gather together teams with similar interests or projects. For example, if a number of offices were looking to develop communities of practice, Collison was able to put them together to discuss their experiences and to learn from each other.
Particularly illuminating for Collison was the different way in which people at different levels of the organisation responded. “It was the personal assistants (PAs), when we got onto the topic of communities and networking, who would say, ‘We have a PA’s network and we exchange good practice on a variety of things’, whereas some of the senior managers were shaking their heads, saying, ‘No, we don’t do that kind of thing at all’. Just creating an environment where staff could air their experiences and learn from their differences was a breath of fresh air for the department.”
In every meeting, the auditor had a list of the people involved and their ‘grades’ within the organisation to enable them to manage and understand the dynamics better. “It’s meant to be an inclusive process and the whole point is about stimulating the debate and the discussion as to what goes on even within an office, let alone across different offices,” says Collison.
The audit was the easy bit, relatively speaking: The next stage, which Collison and Parcell are dealing with right now, is applying what the organisation learnt in the knowledge-auditing process to how it can apply the practices and process of KM to make a positive difference to its strategic goals.
Indeed, that underscores the very purpose of the audit – to provide a to-do list or a route-map for action; to give the knowledge manager a better idea of what needs to be done next, but one that is well-informed by the needs of the staff it is meant to be helping.