Knowledge Strategy: What's Your Reality Check?
In my role as a consultant I frequently come across many knowledge (management) strategies. Most are well written and have a sensible list of strategies based on what others have successfully achieved. In fact, many of them look as if they have come straight of the text book - perhaps they have! - identifying the need to change culture, to conduct a knowledge audit, to implement an expertise database, to implement an integrated help-desk, and so on. All good stuff, but why do such strategies get thrown out, or not given the resources they need to carry them out. I've even seen strategies that have been approved by executive boards, yet one year later are going nowhere. So what goes wrong?
Typical of the comments I hear are:
- "it's too theoretical"
- "in this time of budget cut-backs we haven't got enough to invest"
- "it's a great wish-list, but what are the real priorities?"
- "Which can we do as a quick win"
- "you haven't demonstrated how it impacts the bottom line"
- "that's a great report" (then nothing happens)
- "they liked it and said to get started" (on my own).
The two commons threads through these, and many similar situations, is that the knowledge management strategy, although build on sound principles, has omitted one fundamental. It is not grounded in reality. There are several realities - the management realities and the realities of implementing knowledge management.
As far as management reality is concerned, knowledge has to be on their agenda, and they have to have ownership in one form or another. The management nod - where something is accepted 'in principle', but where nothing happens, is the kiss of death for any new initiative. Here are some typical realities that senior managers are facing every day:
- They are bombarded with many sound bites and requests - how many of these are building up the case for knowledge management?
- They are busy, attend meetings and make a lots of decisions face-to-face - how well will they react to a 10-20 page strategy proposal, however well written?
- They have goals and aspirations - how does a knowledge strategy help them towards meeting them?
- They want to be successful - and everyone knows that culture change is difficult and takes time, so leave that to their successor
- They are busy - isn't a new venture like knowledge management a distraction?
- short, what's in it for them if they take on the difficult challenge of knowledge management, which crosses departmental boundaries and which needs the active cooperation of their fellow managers?
Knowledge Management Realities
Regarding some knowledge management realities:
the up-front costs are very visible (people, software, training etc.), but the benefits come later (often months or years later) and are likely to be very diffuse
it is very difficult to demonstrate whether particular bottom line improvements are the result of good knowledge management or of other factors
many knowledgeable people don't have the time to share knowledge - it's something they have to do in addition to their 'day job'
established processes and pressures on teams are not conducive to knowledge sharing across organizational boundaries
since many knowledge processes need to be enterprise-side (or wider) to have an impact, they must be built into the infrastructure and cannot be done in isolation
many of the originators of knowledge programmes are not trained knowledge professionals, and therefore do not use the best tools and techniques available (conducting a knowledge audit - often the first serious activity in a KM programme - is one examples where there are tried and tested methods which are frequently not followed)
it's not as exciting as e-business, CRM (customer relationship management) or any of the other 'new' initiatives that are going around (although it goes hand-in-hand with all of them!).
As those of you who are actively involved with knowledge management know only too well, implementing KM is a challenging job, involving many facets of organizational life and individual psychology. It can easily get bogged down in the organizational mire and sidetracked as a 'nice to do' or 'difficult' activity. It's all very well having a good strategy, but it has to be acceptable to senior management and practical in its implementation.
The Nub of The Challenge
As the above realities indicate, knowledge management needs a concerted effort to get embedded into an organization's day to day activities and get senior management acceptance. If knowledge management is to have any relevance or impact, it must be grounded in organizational reality, be widely visible and be seen to be making a worthwhile contribution to the bottom line. As one sceptical board executive (and believe me, there are still many of them!), once said to me "knowledge management is nothing unless it helps real people doing real jobs".
Here are some suggestions to help ground your knowledge strategy or investment proposal in reality and get the support and commitment you need to succeed:
- Start with the concerns of senior management - what keeps them awake at night? what are their hot issues? What is jeopardizing their career? Now identify potential hot spots where better access to knowledge can make a difference e.g. in reducing risk, improving efficiency, increasing customer satisfaction, or bringing innovative new products to market.
- Look at the corporate strategic plan and operating plans. Is the contribution of information or knowledge even acknowledged. If it is not, start with key goals and outputs, and work back as to what processes (tasks, projects, activities) and inputs are needed to achieve them. What knowledge inputs are needed? How can improvements in information and knowledge flows contribute?
- Consider recent organizational failures and disasters e.g. bad product launches, failed strategies, cost of rework etc. Can you find a few examples where inadequate knowledge was a contributory cause?
- Examine more closely performance reports - both financial reports and those of key business indicators. Are there extra costs or lost opportunities that have been caused by poor use (or reuse) and flow of knowledge?
- Talk to customers - what is their experience of dealing with the company. Are they frustrated with customer service? Do they complain that the left hand does not know what the right hand is doing? Do they comment on how your organization does not speak with one voice or is "not joined up" or that it does not listen to their concerns? All are symptoms of failure of knowledge sharing.
- Look at time sheet analyses and monthly management reports. Are there clear examples of time being spent to develop knowledge that already exists elsewhere. Sadly, many knowledge-intensive organizations do not take time sheets seriously, and therefore have no real sense of how one of their most valuable knowledge assets - people - (as well as their financial costs) are being deployed.
- Look even deeper at your organization performance management system. How does it address knowledge (if you are using the EFQM system the current version now has a sub-category on knowledge management) and how can better knowledge management contribute to key performance indicators?
- Consider how important decisions - those that have bottom line impact - are made. How are the decision makers informed? Often it is not through formal documents but informal knowledge flow? How well do existing mechanisms such as office layout or staff meetings contribute to better decision making?
In other words, a knowledge strategy should start from existing strategies, plans and the modus operandi of an organization. It should explicitly identify specific areas of inefficiency, lost opportunities, of costly mistakes where a good KM practice would improve productivity and minimize risks. It should seek to support people throughout the organization in performing their daily tasks efficiently and effectively. It should identify how knowledge can create new opportunities - in innovative customer solutions, in business processes or in new products and services. Unless knowledge management is 'connected' to this real world of customers, goals and strategies, business and management processes, and performance systems, it will remain theoretical and detached.
I am reminded of a comment made by a BP person about knowledge management: "where's the oil?". It's a knowledge manager's job to show where the 'oil' is in your KM strategy.
Email: David J. Skyrme
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