Holding onto Knowledge0
By Frank J. Rich
We spend a good part of our lives accumulating knowledge, building skills that are its natural tools, and informed and engaged lives that benefit from it. We seem to value “intelligence” (the ability to learn) in others, an organized mind, and the approaches that obtain. If only we could hold onto it, we think, our success—in all things—would be so much greater.
If a better memory would, but is there anything else that quickly cobbles the connections to knowledge bits that can serve us, in both our personal and professional lives? And, how do we capture, use and keep it?
The answer lies in the question. Information, by its nature, is static and linear; out of context it has little meaning and little implication for the future. It must relate to and form a pattern of consistent behavior to be most useful. Not coincidentally, the approach tracks the human experience—the subconscious mind compares what the “conscious” offers up against what is stored in the “unconscious”–accumulated experience and understanding. Knowledge management systems do no more than this fundamental task. In organizations they must, however, be managed carefully where organic automation of the process is absent. Intelligent creation, capture, classification, and sharing are necessary.
There is much discussion these days about comprehensive knowledge management (KM) solutions; also, confusion about where to find them, how to use them, and their likely impact. While some claims are the magniloquence of the eager, KM is in fact, producing powerful results, often under the names of data mining or best practices sharing.
There are three areas where knowledge management seems to be working well: Opportunity ID, Support, and Process Improvement. It’s not a technology issue, though technology plays a part. It’s about the thinking in solutions finding, and the data that reveal and facilitate it. We have all come upon a data service that is the fulfillment of our long-held desire to better inform decisions. When we see it the opportunities hidden in the task of building such a system pop out at us. So too, support, which at its basic level requires the steady review and distribution of helpful data. Finally, everything benefits from process management, the sine qua non of performance improvement.
As you prepare a KM system of your own, think about the concept as it applies to your entire organization. Rebuild the image of critical information flowing through the functional areas of the business, and how it aligns with organizational goals. Then seek out tools you can use with relative ease. As you do, remember; there are no “push button” solutions, as many enterprise-level providers would have you believe.
• Look at all functional processes; don’t just focus on IS.
• Consider the need for and effective use of all KM elements–
Creation, Capture, Classification, and Sharing.
• Make sure all systems—accounting, IT, hiring, training, rewards,
everything–support the organizational purpose.
• Apply the KISS principle to all things. In this regard, remember there
are only four phases of KM. Narrow your efforts on areas likely to produce the greatest results, such as “strategic focus” and key “process management.”
Csikszentmihalyi’s interpretation of complexity may be helpful. It pivots on the degree to which things are simultaneously differentiated and integrated. The idea is that complexity evolves along a corridor—what is more highly differentiated and integrated is more complex. Thus, high levels of differentiation without integration promote complexity, while things highly integrated without differentiation produces the mundane. Since we avoid complexity and shun the mundane, somewhere in the middle is most attractive (and useful) to us. In simple terms, reduce the number of components (differentiation) and increase the interconnections (integration) between data that ultimately reveals the common sense (mundane) in it.
Not an end in itself
KM is best thought of as a means to accomplish important things. They are simply conceived, and universally applied to all businesses and organizations, though uniquely labeled from age to age. If you’ve survived the “formula fifties,” the “sensitive sixties,” the “strategic seventies,” the “excellent eighties,” the “nanosecond nineties,” and are toddling through the “OD 0’s,” you are among a wizened group of the battle ready. KM ought to present few “real” challenges.
Simply, it means to better prepare us for a few important things. Knowledge Management–most things–are important to the extent they improve the organization’s ability to develop and effectively manage these four areas.
Mission: What we wish to accomplish.
Competition: How we gain a competitive edge.
Performance: How we deliver the results.
Change: How we manage change.
The value of Knowledge Management relates directly to the effectiveness with which the managed knowledge enables organizations to deal with today’s situations and effectively envision and create their future.
Using Sales Support as an example, KM provides access to customer records, typical behavior, presentations, research, and technical manuals—everything needed to serve the sales process. Next, give sales people access to each other through “listservs” or “chats” to share help tips and beneficial experiences. Further, develop application files (notes & testimonials) learned in one customer category that can be applied in another. Encourage the collection of customer lore; then add it to a database everyone uses.
Establishing sound processes using KM requires just a few simple things, common to the human experience. Feel confident, and do the following:
Associate data—Think of a food recipe in which flour and sugar relate well. Notice that in a supermarket they are stocked together. Called “data mining” you don’t need software to do this. Use logical “trial & error” for optimization.
Look at your data from different angles. Sort by order size, date, time, product and product combinations, profitability, anything.
Inventory your intellectual assets. Ask, “what do we know that’s valuable,” and “where else can we use it?”
Expose information flows that feed all processes.
ID hidden knowledge by asking: “What do we lose when key people leave?” or “What do we have to teach every new person?” Then find ways to secure these data in the knowledge base.
Change your mindset from “training” to “facilitating learning.” Put job aids and learning tools in the hands of employees, where 70% of learning happens.
Improve data availability—Put data in the hands of stakeholders where it increases the efficiency of support staff and functions. IT is a good place to start.