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How to Make KM a Reality

October 1, 1998
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Let’s face it, knowledge management (KM) remains a somewhat murky concept. Every organization interprets and approaches KM differently. Nevertheless, certain key factors can determine whether a KM initiative turns heads or falls flat on its face. Here are seven ways to ensure that knowledge management takes hold at your firm:

  1. Provide leadership. It's essential to ensure that senior management understands the value of knowledge management and supports the development of programs and policies to make it a reality. “Organizations that succeed with knowledge management always have high-level support,” says Mark T. Stone, director of internal knowledge management for Arthur Andersen’s Atlanta-based business consulting division.

    But leadership translates into more than tossing money and verbal support behind a KM initiative. Senior executives must understand what knowledge management offers and play an active role in the decision-making process. Executive input is essential because KM touches almost everyone in the organization, and affects specific programs and policies. Many of the processes in knowledge management involve human interaction, so the support of top HR executives is important.

  2. Establish cross-functional teams to map knowledge and plan an initiative. Not only is it crucial to capture the right knowledge, it’s necessary to present it so people can find exactly what they’re looking for. For most companies, this underscores the importance of creating a cross-functional team comprised of technologists and non-technologists from various departments. Without the team, “you’re at risk of developing a system that isn’t relevant for the end user because it has been designed by a few people who are focused solely on their needs,” notes Stone.

    Yet it’s often an enormous challenge to manage a cross-functional team comprised of people who aren’t accustomed to working together. “Part of the challenge is to ensure that collaboration takes place, but also ensure that everyone’s needs are met. It’s easy to get bogged down in the process to the point at which it’s impossible to identify the critical knowledge and then design technology around it,” he adds. Above all else, stay focused on key knowledge that’ll work best when shared -- think about what will make the biggest impact.

  3. Ensure that a process is in place. Mapping the knowledge through your organization is part of the battle. It’s also critical to develop a system for gathering and disseminating information once it has been created. That typically involves humans who can organize, analyze and verify the integrity of the knowledge that has been fed into the system. At Arthur Andersen, specialists scrutinize every tidbit of knowledge that enters the system so they can provide a “value” rating. Submissions of questionable value are weeded out. All this is necessary to avoid swimming in a sea of useless information or drowning in poorly organized knowledge. “Without a well-designed process, all the knowledge in the world is useless,” says Thomas Koulopoulos, president of the Delphi Group, a Boston-based consulting firm specializing in knowledge management.

  4. Develop or implement the technology to make knowledge management flourish. There’s no hard and fast rule about the appropriate technology to ensure that a knowledge management initiative succeeds, but it’s clear that an intranet is one of the most powerful tools for achieving results within this arena. It allows point-to-point communication on a just-in-time basis, and offers a way to update knowledge instantaneously. With hooks into various systems within the organization -- including the HRMS, general ledger, sales automation, supply chain and so on -- it’s possible to break down the walls and let the knowledge flow.

  5. Nurture a sharing culture. “No knowledge management system can work without an organization undergoing a significant cultural change,” says The Delphi Group’s Koulopoulos. Such change is typically required on several levels. Incentives must exist, usually in the form of compensation and rewards, to promote the sharing of knowledge. Those who contribute to the knowledge base and post the most useful or frequently used information might receive a cash bonus, a plaque or a trip to Hawaii.

    However, knowledge management isn’t just about rewards. It’s about creating a climate in which sharing knowledge is encouraged, or even demanded. Stone believes it’s an environment in which there’s “a social obligation to share.” Ultimately, it’s HR’s responsibility to educate employees and help them undergo the essential change in mindset.

  6. Demonstrate the value of knowledge management to encourage buy-in. Workers must understand why the organization has turned to KM and what payoff exists. “Most of us were raised in a culture that doesn’t believe in sharing. We’ve built our careers around proprietary ideas, information and knowledge,” observes Koulopoulos.

    Yet education can go only so far in breaking down the barriers. Workers must see exactly how sharing knowledge makes their job easier or better. The upshot? By starting with a KM capability that benefits a large number of employees and fits the needs of the entire organization, it’s possible to gain a greater buy-in upfront. Once again, HR can play an important role by providing news, updates and training.

  7. View KM as a work in progress. Knowledge management always creeps into uncharted territory, even at organizations such as Arthur Andersen that have realized enormous gains using it. Part of the problem is that every organization is different, and there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. What works at one company doesn’t necessarily work at another.

    What’s more, a company’s level of sophistication and expertise surrounding KM tends to change quickly once an initiative is put in place. As a result, it’s best to experiment, stay flexible and make changes on the fly. It might become necessary to pull the plug on a particular program, or completely redesign it, at a moment’s notice. And just because a KM process works does not mean it can’t be improved. “You can’t expect it to be perfect because it never will be. Ultimately, it falls somewhere between art and science,” explains Stone.

Workforce, October 1998, Vol. 77, No. 10, pp. 90-91.

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