Innovation has become critical to the survival (never mind growth) prospects of many businesses competing in volatile markets. The continuous deployment of compelling new products and services through streamlined processes has simply become BAU. These organisations have to be adept at combining signals from the marketplace with internal know-how. In other words, to beat the competition, they have to be good at ‘managing’ knowledge.
Yet despite the large-scale investments made by companies over the last 2 decades, evidence suggests that knowledge management (KM) has failed to live up to expectations. According to the latest research, the problem lies in the flawed assumption that knowledge can somehow be packaged up and transferred across different parts of an enterprise using information technologies. Whilst technology certainly plays an important enabling role, KM success demands a framework, aligned with overall business strategy, which also considers process and people-related issues.
Technology enables the efficient capture, aggregation and transfer of data. Large organisations can also benefit from technologies that help to locate and connect individuals with specialist skills and experience (know-who). However, data is not equivalent to knowledge! Objective data is ‘interpreted’ by individuals or groups to create subjective knowledge. Commonly badged as insight (know-why) or intelligence (so-what), knowledge is inherently tacit and ‘managed’ by people.
The fly in the ointment is that knowledge sharing cultures, critical to KM success, are few and far between. Research suggests that specialist knowledge often represents a source of power that individuals will ‘hoard’ to improve their pay and promotion prospects. Knowledge hoarding cultures are also characterised by low levels of trust and inter-departmental conflict. So, a thorny problem, that requires Human Resources Management to take centre stage. HRM policies should be developed that bring the ‘right’ people on board, and which reward and recognise teamwork and knowledge sharing behaviours. Since cultures are not dismantled overnight, KM should therefore be viewed as a long-term initiative which may not lend itself to traditional financial measures of return.
Finally, there has to be a reason for doing KM! Time and money should be directed towards those business processes e.g. new product development, which are knowledge-hungry and drive competitive advantage. Focusing on the specific knowledge needs of people involved in specific activities helps to create value, channels investment towards the right enabling technologies, and secures buy-in from stakeholders. On the other hand, generic approaches to KM are likely to result in the creation of large unloved data and document repositories that quickly become out-dated.
To summarise, if knowledge is the lifeblood of your business then KM matters! Getting it right will take time and the alignment of 3 vital ingredients. Investing in technologies that enable knowledge creation within strategically important processes is necessary but not sufficient. What may equally be needed is the adoption of a one team spirit, and a change in the mind set of your people towards sharing more of what they know.