Someone I met through Facebook sent me this document, titled “Knowledge Managers: Who They Are and What They Do“, by James D. McKeen and D. Sandy Staples. She asked me what I thought about the subject, so I thought I’d post this hastily-written reply for later food for thought.
I’ve been out of the corporate world for a few years, so my knowledge is a bit out of date, but here’s what I’ve seen about Knowledge management in my experience.
The Knowledge Manager role is really useful in theory, but it’s fairly challenging, for several reasons.
The culture is not always set up for “knowledge managers” to get involved in the places where they can be most useful. For example, trying to get people to remember to tell the knowledge manager about stuff they created on a project. Nobody really takes the time to do that, unless there’s a specific performance metric tied to generating “knowledge assets”, or the KM is charismatic enough that sharing with them is fun, or savvy enough to figure out benefits to sharing beyond just the intrinsic value.
Technology can play a role in helping a KM role, or hinder it. For example, using tools where people keep the information in their email, presentations, and documents versus encouraging / requiring the use of wikis and other tools that expose the information to an easy-to-use search engine. If you put the repository in front of people, and make it really easy to contribute, then technology can help. If it’s an extra login, or a convoluted process of filing, the people with the most information (who are always the busiest) will not go through extra steps.
Where I’ve seen knowledge management succeed is in organizations where sharing knowledge is part of the cultural fabric. Companies like Automattic, which has a distributed workforce, require all conversations to take place on blogs and in logged chatrooms. They create the data and automatically it becomes part of a searchable repository. Nobody has to go in and put “knowledge” somewhere. The whole thing was set up to be unified and shareable in the first place. There are also fewer than 300 employees, so that may have something to do with it.
Where I’ve seen it fail is in environments where “knowledge manager” is a position that’s assigned without the realization that it really requires deep involvement in how the organization works. For example, a knowledge manager that’s in a marketing organization doesn’t always have access to IT systems – or a KM who’s in an IT organization, but isn’t allowed or encouraged to talk to the business divisions that make high-level decisions. In IT, you might have access to all the data, but it’s not really knowledge unless it’s matched up to the intent that produced it in the first place.
This is why some companies create a KM position that reports directly to the CEO – this can remove access barriers. And this is why they hire motivated, curious, self-starters to stir up the gunk.
I’m curious to know how many “knowledge management” positions made it through the previous two boom and bust periods in the last decade. Certainly the ability to generate information has increased, and technology systems have been designed to be more accessible to sharing. Business Intelligence systems can scrape and sort quantillions more data units than ever. However, I haven’t observed that people have changed. Knowledge is still power in the enterprise.