Search for a description of knowledge management (KM) and you’re likely to have a better chance of finding an agreed version of the best Avenger hero. Atlassian describes KM as “the process of creating, curating, sharing, using and managing knowledge across an organization, even across industries”. Gartner takes a similar view, positing that “KM promotes a collaborative and integrative approach to the creation, capture, organization, access and use of information assets, including the tacit, uncaptured knowledge of people” – but there still remains no single, accepted definition.
This positions KM as an esoteric discipline, but consensus suggests that when it is implemented effectively, KM is a collective endeavour; an organisational movement where technology intersects with the levers of people, process, tools and content.
Of these parts, people are arguably the key to successfully embedding KM into an organisation. They are asked to perform outside the perceived constructs of their role, for which they’re unlikely to receive plaudits. Such outputs might include profiling content with metadata using clear, unambiguous language so it can be easily found or joining a community of practice and participating in knowledge-sharing sessions (in addition to existing roles and responsibilities).
What is knowledge management?
In whatever form KM activities manifest for the individual, it will involve applying intent to their activities and an understanding of how those activities intersect with other areas of the organisation. So these activities must have tangible benefits for the employee and the organisation.
Monica Danese-Perrin is head of knowledge management at digital business services firm Emergn and was tasked with creating communities of practice at Lloyds Banking Group as part of a move to an agile working model. Employees were required to upskill as part of the transformation project and, as part of the process, agile coaches were brought in to identify capability gaps.
Danese-Perrin used the hub-and-spoke model to scale and connect capability across the organisation. Parts of this process were to drive new capture processes to improve knowledge findability, and these tools were effectively used for knowledge creation, sharing and storage. At least 70,000 employees use the tools Danese-Perrin introduced and this initiative was shortlisted for the Henley Forum Advancing Organisational Change and Development Practice award.
Understanding the objectives of a project from a KM purview can save an organisation significant rectification costs. “Any KM initiative has a commercial consideration, in terms of what it can save or make the organisation, so approaching it with a clear purpose and intention is critical.”
Organisational silos can result in money sinkholes with disconnected business functions soliciting ‘silver-bullet software’ in a vacuum.
Microsoft Viva is marketed as an employee experience platform – its holistic offerings are a beguiling proposition. Viva Topics teases the holy grail of information findability, using AI technology and other dependencies in the Microsoft suite. Layering AI onto a content database that hasn’t been organised, classified or governed with life-span management practices won’t of itself bring about the desired outcome. Without embedded KM processes, the underlying interdependencies might all too easily be overlooked.
How knowledge management systems help organisations
By contrast, software provider ClearPeople has a digital workplace product, Atlas, which leverages the capabilities of SharePoint Syntex (a lesser-known AI-based Microsoft product). The synthesis of these products presupposes an existing taxonomy, metadata, information architecture and governance.
Silos aren’t an issue at global law firm Shearman & Sterling. Jon Beaumont, senior knowledge manager, describes the collaborative relationship between CTO and chief knowledge officer which was pivotal to the success of a project to move from a disparate on-premise file-share system to a cloud-based document management system, iManage 10, at the height of lockdown. The system has delivered increased security and centralisation of documents, and has future-proofed search capability initiatives. But it hasn’t been implemented entirely without issue, with the occasional inconsistent document profile and metadata-tagging by content owners.
In 2020, technology pivoted to facilitate a raft of business-critical requirements, one of which was remote contract exchange and esignatures. Jenni Tellyn is a KM consultant at 3Kites Consulting, who worked on a project to implement DocuSign. The contract exchange and esignature platform was a key business enabler for the organisation during the pandemic, providing a sustainable and risk-averse approach to contract completion.
While she believes that “KM bridges the gap between technologists and the wider business”, Tellyn identifies the critical role which people play in the process of KM delivery. “People often wish to subscribe to the benefits offered by KM but without having actively contributed to them,” she observes – a sentiment that is echoed by Beaumont.
There is another red flag that can be tied back to the lever of people and the imperative of providing a clear narrative around the ‘why’ of KM application, alongside the ‘how’ of technology. When the case for KM no longer needs to be argued, it will become the connective tissue of the organisation and critical to digital sustainability endeavours through the robust management of software, content and media assets.
The spirit of this outlook is summed up in Danese-Perrin’s definition of KM, which transcends its otherwise utilitarian essence: “KM is couture for data. It’s made to measure – and good KM should be both intentional and invisible.”