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So you want to do Knowledge Management?

Let’s say you have been inspired by my colleague Nick Milton’s post “Why bother with Knowledge Management?” – or your organisation’s leaders have independently come to the conclusion that knowledge management is important for your organisation’s future. The bad news is that knowledge management tends to be complex, can be messy, and the path to sustainable knowledge management is full of potential pitfalls. This is because knowledge-use touches so many different bits of an organisation’s work, and is embedded in many ingrained processes and habits that will need to be re-calibrated or changed. The good news is that there is now a fairly strong body of knowledge about how to prepare, plan, resource and implement knowledge management in such a way as to avoid or mitigate some of the major pitfalls lying in wait.
Here are some of the major potential pitfalls and how to avoid them.

KM is not introduced with a business focus.

It’s essential to understand how KM contributes to the effectiveness of your business, and to design and measure your KM efforts to ensure it contributes to that effectiveness. Getting to this point requires interaction with and support from your senior leadership, as well as the heads of the different lines of business. If you don’t have a business focus, at some point you are going to lose the support and resources you need to embed KM in a sustainable way. You can avoid this by undertaking a step by step approach, starting with taking a strategic view of KM in your organisation, engaging the various stakeholders in the business, and developing clear connections between your proposed KM efforts and business outcomes.

KM is never embedded in the business.

An organisational learning expert once told me “Organisations are like jelly. You can pretty much achieve anything in a big organisation if you have enough resources, energy and stamina. But as soon as you take your efforts away, the organisation will spring back to its original shape.” What this means is that if you don’t have a process for moving from KM pilots to “growing” KM into the basic fabric of how your organisation works, then your KM efforts will fade away as soon as the resourcing and efforts drop off. You can avoid this by connecting your selection and implementation of pilots to a process of demonstration and persuasion of value to business leaders, and following the pilots with a process of identifying the structural levers in your organisation that need to change in order for a pilot to become a habit. Having a balanced KM framework is a big part of this.

We don’t focus on high value knowledge.

Too many KM efforts have failed from taking a “one size fits all” approach and indiscriminate efforts to manage everything. When this happens, there are a number of consequences. First, you can’t manage everything, so you end up managing the stuff that is most visible and easiest to hand – the explicit knowledge. Second, because you are not working from a close understanding of how knowledge is actually used on the ground, you end up with a very “noisy” and confusing knowledgebase that nobody uses. Anyone in an operational or decision-making role uses knowledge from within a very specific context. Some knowledge assets are more significant than others. If I try to produce a generalised knowledgebase that is not designed to meet common or important tasks, my search results come back with too much irrelevant stuff, and the genuinely useful stuff to me is buried deep inside where I won’t see them. More important, I am not addressing the more tacit knowledge requirements, such as access to experts, discussions, and community interactions.

There are two major ways to avoid this pitfall. The first is by conducting a knowledge assets audit in your preparation stage. The knowledge maps that result from this kind of audit will give you insight into the contexts of knowledge-use, and highlight the knowledge assets – both tacit and explicit – that need to be widely accessible. These are the ones you should prioritise and enable access to. The second way to avoid it is by consciously addressing the “demand” side of KM and not just the “supply” side. This means that you design your KM initiatives to support question asking processes, and knowledge consumption needs in the context of the business process. You don’t just dump a pile of knowledge assets somewhere and expect people to leave what they are doing, and rummage around trying to find what they need.

We know how to do knowledge management.

In The Knowledge Manager’s Handbook, published in April 2016, Nick Milton and I identified nine other major pitfalls that commonly occur in KM implementations, from our own experience, from a survey of KM professionals, and from the research literature. All of these pitfalls can be avoided or mitigated by taking a structured, step by step approach to knowledge management implementation. After 25 years or so of knowledge management practice in its present form, we now know from experience what those steps should be, and this is what we have tried to outline in our book. KM is not easy, but there’s now no excuse for repeating the mistakes of the past. If KM is about learning from experience, then knowledge managers too should access the experience of their peers and forebears. KM can be a powerful enabler – if, as a profession, we use KM ourselves.