They are the ones who carry around the experience and the information that makes up your company’s lifeblood – its main corporate and competitive advantage. But how do you get this knowledge out of people’s heads so that it can be shared? Therein lies the conundrum of knowledge management, or KM as it is sometimes called.The concept of thinking of people as corporate assets is actually still fairly new, but quickly becoming a lot more popular, said Colleen Moorehead, president and CEO of Toronto-based skills development firm Nexient Learning Inc.
“There is a better acceptance that the talent, the human capital, is a piece of IT – that it’s intellectual property,” Moorehead said.
Programs that support succession planning and knowledge transfer are also very big right now, she said, especially as a large percentage of knowledge workers are starting to hit middle age. “The concern is that as people retire they are going to be walking out of organizations with critical business information,” she said.
But staff retirement is obviously not the only way companies lose employees. In fact, a recent IDC study found that there is very little loyalty among workers today, particularly within the younger workforce. Over half of all workers surveyed were considering a new job at any given time. About 38 percent have already had six or more employers, and almost half will change jobs every three to five years.
With all this in mind, focusing on staff retention is clearly very important, Moorehead said. One way to build loyalty is to add to your employee’s individual value by offering training and accreditation. During the 90’s, many firms didn’t want to invest heavily in IT training, because “job hopping” was standard practice. Employees would often use corporate and IT training as a stepping stone to a better-paying job elsewhere.
“That view of the past is a very dangerous position for a company to take,” Moorehead said. “You have to always assume that your staff is an asset that gets to walk in and out the door everyday. And investing in them appropriately will yield the right results for you as an organization.”
But if all you are doing is investing in your people’s knowledge and experience, and don’t have a clear vision of how to share, store and manage that information within a company, you will ultimately fail in your efforts.
“You can’t just manage your people – because they come and go,” said Bryan Davis, founder and president of the Toronto-based Kaieteur Institute For Knowledge Management.
“You also have to structuralize what people know so that it stays behind, and you have some continuity and sustainability in the organization.”
This can be about the physical environment as well as the social relationships, Davis said. “Suppose you have an office environment that has very poor ergonomics. There are very few places for people to meet and hang out. This isn’t designed with a knowledge ecology in mind.”
A social environment can also be a “virtual water cooler” kind of world online or on computer network, but the tools must be accessible or people will not feel comfortable using them.
So how do you embark on this? It doesn’t help that the term “knowledge management” is often used as a vague panacea, and that people like to define it in ways which are convenient to them, said Randall Craig, president of Toronto-based management consultant firm Pinetree Advisors Inc.
But KM simplified is really nothing more than collecting an organization’s knowledge, so it can be accessed by those who need it, when they need it.
“Of course, the devil’s in the details,” he said. “How do you collect the knowledge, who should have access, and how do you make it available?”
To complicate matters even further, people often confuse the terms “data,” “information,” “intelligence” and “knowledge,” he said.
Data is just the stuff that comes pouring in. It isn’t organized and doesn’t mean anything really. Information is that same stuff, but organized. Intelligence is the implications of that information. “And knowledge management is what helps move up that continuum,” Craig said.
It’s just stuff
One of the big problems with KM is that it is a very hard thing to measure, said George Goodall, a research analyst with London, Ont.-based Info Tech Research Group.
The good news is that trends driven by Web 2.0 technologies – contributor-heavy social apps such as blogs, wikis, and Facebook – are starting to be used to capture knowledge within an organization.
A company called cyn.in, for example, has created what it calls a “bliki,” combining a blogging engine with a wiki-style collaboration application to manage, organize, store, version and search through enterprise data. Another firm, ConnectBeam, offers a hardware appliance that sits behind a corporate firewall. The product is designed to bring together social bookmarking, tagging, social networking, expertise location and live profiles, along with social search.
“But those base issues around measuring knowledge haven’t gone away. We’ve got better tools that we can use, but we are still not sure what we are measuring.”
Because of this, it’s important to establish a simple business continuity plan and other base information before a higher level of sophistication or buying KM software tools should even be considered, Goodall said.
Getting your core business practices in order can mean things like writing basic job descriptions for each employee and having clearly mapped out policies and procedures so that things don’t happen on an ad hoc basis. Companies should also institute a series of “run books,” which are logs of standard server settings so that more people can fix servers if they fail, for example.
“That’s often the type of thing that exists in the DBA’s head, but isn’t necessarily written down,” Goodall said.
When writing job descriptions, include an expectation of training or certification. This is very important, Goodall said, because it establishes base qualifications for certain roles. Not only will this help to provide an inventory of what type of knowledge exists, but it also establishes a level of communication between like individuals within an organization.
“You’d be surprised the number of clients we talk to who don’t do those base things,” he said. “A number of IT shops really run in an ad hoc manner, especially the smaller ones. Those are very operationally focused shops, and there are not a lot of spare cycles to do what might be considered non-core. It’s all about just keeping the lights on.”
There can actually be a lot of tension and resistance, within smaller organizations especially, to actually institute some of the policies, follow them and get some of the those very basic requirements done, he said.
“Really, policy isn’t fun. When we look at certain smaller companies, they are all about innovation and change. So the introduction of bureaucracy can often be a big cultural shift.”
One area of a company where bureaucratic ideas often don’t go over so well is software development. This also happens to be an area where a lot of proprietary knowledge gets thrown around. Documentation is a step many will talk about as being important, but according to Bruce Johnson, documentation plays much less of a role than you would think.
“Developers like doing stuff that’s cool,” said Johnson, a principal consultant with Toronto-based software development consulting firm ObjectSharp Consulting. “They like making things slick and more efficient, even though somebody coming along later on will have no clue as to what they did, or how it might work, or what its potential problems might be.”
Not so fast
The blame doesn’t all lie with the developers however. Often they are pressured to do things in the fastest, cheapest way. Running tests and writing documentation takes time and money.“When it comes to those time pressures, management is at as much fault as the developers,” Johnson said. What’s more important than documentation in this case, he said, is coding clearly.
“If you try to do something ‘cute’ that needs documentation, odds are pretty good that you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place. If the intent is not clear, I should have a damn good reason for writing the code that way,” Johnson said.
“And, to be honest with you, the developers aren’t reading the documentation, even if the documentation exists,” he added.
Ironically, most developers are used to collaborative efforts and may be less resistant to sharing information, so they are ahead of the game in KM in some ways. In fact, the open source community on the Internet and in newsgroups is an example of a early type of knowledge-sharing.
When knowledge management efforts are done poorly, it reminds Craig of Star Trek’s Borg. “It assimilates everything and anyone that it touches, yet doesn’t provide any value back.”
When it’s done well though, knowledge management can make people’s jobs much more effective, because they are using the knowledge that already exists within the company to make the best business decisions in the timeliest manner, all without redoing work that has already been done.