“Everyone is talking about the weather but nobody is doing anything about it.” —Mark Twain
Organizations recognize that knowledge among team members is an invaluable resource, but many companies have yet to succeed in fully executing a knowledge management solution. The main reason for failure is that knowledge management often, and insufficiently, begins and ends with technology. Corporate executives maintain extensive databases full of information for employees to reference. Worse, companies invest large amounts of money in IT solutions and receive few sustainable results. In reality, knowledge management involves people, culture, and a new way of thinking. Technology is merely an enabler.
Understanding how to implement a successful knowledge management program begins with recognizing barriers to success, which can be categorized as lack of employee involvement, rigid organizational structure, and overdependence on technology.
Lack of Employee Involvement
Regardless of how knowledge management is promoted by executives, it is not considered critical in day-to-day operations. Employees typically come to work with a task list, or an idea of what they plan to accomplish before the work day ends. Because knowledge management is likely not included in this, employees don’t often set aside time for it. Lack of employee involvement is a common cause of failure.
Knowledge is power, or so they say. In today’s business environment, jobs and promotions are highly competitive. Employees often view tacit knowledge as a means for survival, while disregarding the benefits of sharing what they know and learn. Using knowledge to increase personal value often decreases the organization’s value.
Rigid Organizational Structure
The structure of an organization can greatly impact knowledge management, as hierarchies and reporting relationships can restrict knowledge flow. Employees are generally content to work strictly within departmental and regional confines. Company culture also has great influence; an inflexible culture may not encourage the flow of knowledge as an open culture might.
Many knowledge management programs are hastily thrown together and have little input from those who hold the coveted knowledge. Knowledge systems end up as a collection of old information rather than a source of learning.
Overdependence on Technology
Companies often invest money in technical solutions which merely become poor substitutes for personal interaction. Interpersonal communication is the backbone of knowledge management. Face-to-face interaction fosters learning and allows employees to ask questions and brainstorm together. It’s easier to ask for a solution than dig through documents in a database. Technology and social interactions should complement each other, not replace each other.
Knowledge management systems can be hampered by a lack of ownership. A large data repository is great, but if no one is assigned to manage it, data can accumulate and become disorganized. Employees will be less likely to utilize a muddled, cumbersome system, resulting in a stagnant database.
Steps to Success
- Define the knowledge components that are critical to the organization’s success and determine which key business processes enable knowledge management. Then, map the flow of existing critical knowledge.
- Identify organizational roles for each knowledge management component. Individuals and teams in an organization will play varying roles, from knowledge source to knowledge receiver.
- Advocate the importance of knowledge management programs. The level at which these programs are supported by leadership will affect how employees respond. Employee buy-in is the tipping point between success and failure.
- Integrate knowledge management into all business processes and operations. This can take time, but it ensures knowledge is continuously shared and improved upon. Knowledge management is a journey, not a quick fix.
- Identify where high-risk knowledge leaks might occur. Seasoned employees who plan to retire in the near future are a common source. Apprenticeship or mentoring programs will help cut down on knowledge gaps as people retire or leave the organization. Knowledge management techniques have been successfully used by trade organizations for centuries. How else would artisans and stonemasons pass on their knowledge?
Ultimately, companies want the knowledge and experience developed over many years to stay within their organization as new people are hired and others leave. To achieve this, leadership must view knowledge management as a holistic effort requiring significant process and culture change.