A few years ago, while working for an engineering design consultancy, the chief executive wanted to transform the way written knowledge and unstructured information were captured and disseminated across the firm. Since I was working on a PhD looking at improving the effectiveness of information management, he asked me to help.
For him, the rationale was very clear. As the firm moved from one generation to another, details of past projects—including mistakes made and lessons learned—were not being captured and passed on to new recruits. Lessons and key innovations developed in one part of the firm were not effectively shared with others. This was a problem, as projects increasingly required multiple offices, disciplines, and groups to work seamlessly together, sharing information and knowledge.
So the decision and the rationale were clear, but where to start?
There are dozens of case studies about organizations that have had similar strategic needs. Some went on to invest in technologies—often very expensive enterprise content management systems—thinking that doing so will be their solution to managing knowledge. While a small number had success, there are quite a few horror stories about failed projects or companies still waiting for their investment to pay off.
In all such cases, there seemed to be a consistent theme. Very few companies had actually defined what knowledge meant to them and therefore what the purpose of these processes and systems was meant to be. There was an almost blind belief that, having defined their vision and procured the solution, it should just work. So why doesn’t it?
If the management of information and knowledge is to be for the benefit of those who are actually doing the work on a day-to-day basis, the starting point must be to determine the value of it to them and to the firm.
Juani Swart, from the University of Bath, called this process learning to know what you know. His point: Organizations need to know what they need to know before determining how best to manage it. Staff who carry out day-to-day duties—and whose productivity you’re looking to improve—should ultimately be the source for defining what knowledge they need and what knowledge they know is valuable to others.
Working with the CEO, a series of small internal working groups helped define knowledge for this firm as “ideas, solutions and their applications on projects.” What the teams articulated, and subsequently tested with others outside the group, was the need for a system that allowed the firm to capture ideas readily and log their authors, share them with others, and allow others to retrieve them easily and connect with the author(s). Knowledge had now become tangible and quantifiable.
So what does knowledge actually mean?
For CEOs, chief information officers, and senior managers who are passionate about improving knowledge management, knowledge can mean everything and therefore mean nothing. The true starting question you should ask is, what does knowledge actually mean to the staff that produces and consumes it? Why would it be valuable and how does that link into your business strategy? Once you have these answers, you have a good starting point on which to build an effective delivery strategy, make informed choices, and ultimately measure success.