Fsce knowledge management


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Fast, Simple, Cheap, Effective knowledge management

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Fsce knowledge management

  1. 1. Fast, simple, cheap, effectiveKnowledge ManagementBarry Thomas, Shirlaws Business Coach“Knowledge management” is a buzzword only a consultant could love but, whateveryou call it, the underlying concept is an important competency for any business. Thesum total of things that your business knows - how things get built, how services getdelivered, how stakeholders are engaged, how competitors are competed with, howregulators are appeased, and so on - is by far your most valuable asset. Knowingwhat you know, and being able to access all that knowledge when and where youneed it, is a fundamental prerequisite for a successful, long-lived and consistentlygrowing business.Knowledge management does, however, have a well deserved reputation for highcosts, high failure rates and commensurately shaky returns on investment. In largepart this is because of the common assumption that knowledge management is ahard problem best solved by the application of sophisticated technology. In fact thecore issues are almost entirely behavioural rather than technical, and even thetechnical challenges can be addressed with inexpensive and relativelyunsophisticated tools.Keep it simpleThe model outlined here is perhaps best suited to smaller businesses (say, 25 to100 employees) that have found themselves growing into knowledge managementproblems but the underlying principles could be applied at any scale. Theseprinciples are:Principle 1: Use a WikiThere are plenty of sophisticated knowledge management platforms available andmany of them have very impressive capabilities - but knowledge management is anarea where simple open source software can deliver most of the necessary bang forvery little buck1 .“Wiki” is a Hawaiian word meaning “fast” but on the Web it has come to mean asimple online database that may be edited and added to by many people. Wikiʼs are1 This is particularly true where hosted or “cloud” based software is used.© Barry Thomas 2010! 1 of 5
  2. 2. simple to use and manage, very cheap to run, and well-proven at even the vastestof scales (Wikipedia is, as the name suggests, a simple wiki at heart). The cost ofestablishing and operating a wiki is so low that you can easily afford to experimentand make mistakes along the way.A wiki completely changes the dynamics of knowledge capture and dissemination.Wikiʼs inherently encourage collaborative and piecemeal writing - that is, they makeit easy to quickly create a new topic for others to complete or to add a paragraph ortwo to a topic created by someone else. If you get something wrong itʼs easy to goback and fix it because the wiki, as a single “source of truth”, need only be correctedonce - thereʼs never any need to recall and replace copies of outdateddocumentation. Conversely if your fix is itself wrong itʼs easy to roll back to anearlier, correct version because wikiʼs have comprehensive versioning and audittrails built in.In traditional knowledge management the role of the wiki is usually taken by anElectronic Document Management System (EDMS) of some kind. These systemstypically enforce some form of categorisation of documents via a formal taxonomywith the aim of ensuring that every document can quickly be found again. This was avery sensible idea in times past but these days powerful search engines can reliablyfind a needle in any sized haystack. Thus it now makes sense to do away with allthe arcane rules and allow users to label documents with whatever tags (theimpressive-sounding term for these tags is “metadata”) that they think make sense2 .Again wikiʼs are well adapted to this approach.Principle 2: Rough and ready beats slick and unfinishedOne reason why capturing knowledge (or, to use knowledge managementterminology, “making implicit knowledge explicit”) can be so difficult is that thepeople who know the most valuable things rarely have the time, inclination or thewriting skills to produce well-crafted documentation. Insecurity about grammar andexpression is an under-appreciated barrier to people sharing what they know - sohaving a knowledge base that looks a little rough can actually be a big positive. Itgives permission to contributors to just express themselves naturally. Ideally yourstaff should see contributing to the knowledge base as being more like dashing off a2For a more detailed justification of this approach the book “Everything is Miscellaneous” byDavid Weinberger is highly recommended.© Barry Thomas 2010! 2 of 5
  3. 3. quick email than composing a formal policy or procedure3. Once the raw material isin place a professional writer will be able to quickly turn the important content intoprofessionally structured and edited documentation, should that be considerednecessary.Principle 3: Make it a habit, make it socialBulding knowledge management into a business is mostly about changing habits.Modern neuroscience tells us that the best way to change a habit is to give thedesired new behaviour sustained and focussed attention. In practical terms what thismeans is that the knowledge base (be it wiki-based or built on some otherframework) must be made a fixture of daily life for staff. Failure to achieve this is theroot cause of the white elephant status of many knowledge management programsand systems.So how do you get people to use the knowledge base often enough to make it ahabit? Make it social - that is, borrow some ideas from hugely popular social mediasites like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. For instance:• Make detailed profiles of each staff member (perhaps including responsibilities, KPIʼs and key skills) a part of the knowledge base and allow staff to add whatever additional material they like• Enable staff to post status messages (e.g. to announce what they are working on or to pose questions) on their personal profile page, and to “follow” status message streams from co-workers as a way of keeping in touch• Integrate Instant Messaging (IM) into the knowledge base so being logged in allows staff to communicate easily with each other, regardless of physical location• Use the knowledge base as the repository and access point for transient information (company announcements, requests for information, even football tipping competitions) as well as for formal documents• Enable collaborative editing of the knowledge base - i.e. make the knowledge base the place where explicit knowledge is created, not just the place where it is stored• Allow staff to establish their own workspaces within the knowledge base - say, for short-term team collaboration on a particular project - whenever they see the need3Thatʼs not to say that you donʼt need “proper” documentation as well - thereʼs a need forboth - but generally speaking a clumsily worded and poorly spelled document made easilyavailable on a wiki is worth vastly more than a carefully written document languishing half-finished on a local drive somewhere.© Barry Thomas 2010! 3 of 5
  4. 4. to do so. Content that has longer-term value can always be ported to the “formal” knowledge base later if desired, but in any case the ability to search across the whole knowledge base means nothing will ever get lost in a metaphorical dark corner.None of the above ideas need be difficult to implement - in fact they are standardfeatures of some popular hosted wiki platforms.Principle 4: Be permissive with access rightsIn the open source software community it is well recognised that, “given enougheyeballs, all bugs are shallow”4. The same principle holds true for documentation -the more people who can see a document the greater the chance that errors, andopportunities for improvements, will be identified. This means that the commonbusiness tendency to treat all documents as confidential unless proven otherwisemust be turned on its head.This principle can even be extended beyond the boundaries of the company itself.Knowledge sharing, and collaborative knowledge development, can be a powerfultactic with partners, suppliers and even with customers. Flexible access rightsmanagement (to allow different groups to have different levels of access) is astandard feature of most wiki platforms.This is not to deny that there are some classes of document that need to be keptsecret - but being clear about what is truly secret and what is not will free upresources for ensuring that genuinely proprietary knowledge is properly protected.Principle 5: Recognise and reward your gurusThe single most important reason why knowledge management projects fail orunderperform is that people generally donʼt like documenting what they do. Evenwhen documentation is formally added to their job descriptions or financial bonusesare offered people generally wonʼt shift to a knowledge sharing mentality. Luckilylittle things can mean a lot when it comes to motivation.One simple approach would be to ask all staff to vote for the individuals they believedo most to share useful knowledge within the business - i.e. for who they think arethe true knowledge gurus. Votes accrued by each individual (perhaps transformedinto an allocation of one to five stars or titles ranging from, say, “worker bee” to“grand master”) would be displayed on the individualʼs profile or even on each post4 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Linus_Law© Barry Thomas 2010! 4 of 5
  5. 5. they make to the wiki. Everyone will thus have an awareness of precisely who is(and isnʼt!) perceived as a guru within the business by the people doing the actualday-to-day work.The motivational power of this idea should not be underestimated but can be takenup several notches more by then inviting the top gurus to the companyʼs annualmanagement retreat (or similar event). Doing this gives the most valuable andengaged staff a chance to contribute to the business at a strategic level while alsoensuring that strategy development is done with the assistance of precisely thosepeople who know the most about the business. A true win-win.This concept will have impacts within the business well beyond mere documentationto knowledge sharing behaviour of all kinds. To gain guru votes employees may wellresort to volunteering to run training sessions, prepare webinars or mentor new staff.A business that takes active steps to uncover, encourage and make use of itsinternal experts can be energetically a very different workplace from the norm.ConclusionA knowledge sharing business is culturally different from a knowledge hiding one.Technology is secondary and on no account should be allowed to drive the process.Cultural change can sometimes seem hard to achieve but all it really requires is aninformed and deliberate choice - in this case a choice to properly value yourcorporate memory, backed up by some simple technology allied with an enlightenedattitude to openness.If youʼre interested in exploring practical knowledge management in more detailShirlaws can help. From training at a conceptual level on Functionality, Capabilityand Communication down to the fine details of planning and implementing aknowledge management program Shirlaws has the expertise to deliver success.Contact Shirlaws for more information.© Barry Thomas 2010! 5 of 5