Knowledge Management: Finding Quick Wins and Long Term Value

 dilbert 2
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Dilbert, by Scott Adams

Two questions Iím most often asked by people just given responsibility for Knowledge Management in their organizations:

  • What KM projects are most likely to achieve ‘quick wins’ — to get something out there quickly and inexpensively that will impress management and users and get more attention and resources for KM?
  • What longer-term KM programs are likely to offer the best value for money?

Most people are surprised that none of my answers involves creating big central ‘knowledge bases’, or websites, or community of practice ‘collaboration spaces’. While every organization is different, my experience is that these types of initiatives tend to produce disappointing results. As the top cartoon above suggests, these are easy to do, and often fun, which is perhaps why theyíre so tempting.

Again, itís dangerous to generalize, but I think programs that focus more on context than content, and more on connection than collection, often pay the biggest dividends. So hereís a list of possibilities that I think would apply in most organizations:

Six ‘Quick Win, Low Hanging Fruit’ KM Projects

  1. Make it easy for your people to identify and connect with subject matter experts: Create focused, managed directories of acknowledge experts in subjects that matter to a lot of people in your organization. Don’t try to create a directory of everyone and everything, because the maintenance and quality control involved are likely to be disproportionate to the return. And be careful of self-appointed experts: the list should come not from the organization chart or what people self-identify as their areas of expertise, but from who other people have identified as accessible experts both inside and outside the organization. It’s a reputation system, so the names of the people recommending each expert should be shown as well, and updated frequently based on feedback. You will probably find that some people will be very anxious to get on this list. That’s a good thing, but don’t compromise whatever standard you set for peer recommendation being the basis for inclusion on the list. Make sure the directory lists phone number and e-mail/IM contact info, and advises which is the expert’s preferred way and preferred time for receiving calls and requests for information. If the expert has a blog or personal web page, link to it too.
  2. Help people manage the content and organization of their desktop: Most people are hopeless at personal content management but don’t want to admit it. Provide them with a desktop search tool and show them how to use it effectively. Provide ‘cheat sheets’ to users that show how to organize (and name) documents on your hard drive and messages in your e-mail folders flexibly, memorably and consistently.
  3. Help people identify and use the most appropriate communication tool: Give them a one-page cheat sheet on when not to use e-mail and why not, and what to use instead. Create a simple ‘tool-chooser’ or decision tree with links to where they can learn more about each tool available. Make tools like IM and desktop videoconferencing available (they’re virtually free). Use every device you can to facilitate more context-rich conversations.
  4. Make it easy for people to publish their knowledge and subscribe to the information they want:. Use RSS to make all the essential information your people produce and use subscribable, and set up an aggregator ‘news’ page for each person. Encourage people to publish their information on blogs (or at least on personal web pages inside the firewall), and make these pages RSS-subscribable too. Likewise newsletters ñ don’t allow them to be sent by e-mail or to clutter up your Intranet or Extranet. The number of voluntary subscribers will tell you which ones are really valuable.
  5. Create a facility for just-in-time canvassing for information: Drawing on the expertise directories from project #1 above, and on existing mailing lists of communities of practice, create a template for requesting information that is needed in a hurry where the requestor isn’t sure who to ask for it. Make the template simple and easy to complete, and allow the requester to check which lists of experts and community members to send the request to. Whether you transmit the resultant requests by e-mail, IM or other routing system, make sure the subject makes it clear that it’s an urgent, targeted canvass and what exactly the requestor is looking for. Ideally, have a follow-up ‘information found’ message that the requestor can send onceís they’ve got what they’re looking for, so others who were canvassed don’t keep looking for it.
  6. Teach people how to do research, not just search: This skill isn’t just for information professionals (though there are many cases where the IP specialist really should do the research instead of the generalist), but if people are going to do their own research, they need to learn how to do it competently. Most of the people I know can’t.

Six Longer-Term Big Payoff KM Programs

  1. Make your information professionals anthropologists: Get them out of the library or research centre, and have them observe and interview users of the organization’s knowledge and technology resources, and show users how to use these resources more effectively. Just a 2% improvement in effectiveness of using these resources can provide a huge return on investment, and teach information professionals more about the organization’s business in the process, which will help them do their jobs better as well, as they learn what’s needed, not just what’s available.
  2. Embed intelligence in systems, processes and tools: Most of what we learn we forget before we use it. Exactly how you embed learning and knowledge into what people do at the point they do it depends on your organization and industry ñ in hospitals, for example, it could include putting posters showing proper procedure for putting on and taking off protective devices and clothing right beside the shelves containing those devices. In data entry it could include context-sensitive help. Whatever the business or application, make it just-in-time, instead of the less effective just-in-case.
  3. Teach your information professionals to be sense-making specialists: Upgrade their skills from rip-and-ship data managers to distillers, analysts, interpreters, visualizers, modelers, synthesizers. Most IPs have a natural flair for adding meaning and value to information, that precious few get the chance to exercise.
  4. Use knowledge to drive innovation: If KM elicits a yawn from management, just show them how innovation is impossible without it.
  5. Canvass the wisdom of crowds: Develop and institute tools that engage and elicit information from your organization’s employees and customers. It will help your organization make better decisions, predict the future more accurately, gather all the pertinent facts better, and better understand cause and effect in the market’s dynamics. 
  6. Collect, and attract people to use, stories and anecdotes: Most information that is collected and stored in anonymous, central repositories is context-poor. Stories and anecdotes take longer to read, but they provide the missing context that can prevent people from misusing and underutilizing the organization’s information and experiences. Except for hands-on practice experience and demonstration, there is no more effective way to learn something useful than by reading stories. And they’re often fun to read, so they’re a painless and low-risk way to learn as well. And they’re subversive ñ you can get people to change their approach or behaviour (for the better) using stories, by essentially making the readers think the change was their own idea. What’s more, stories can provoke remarkable creativity and insight, because they can reveal patterns, sometimes serendipitously, from disparate experiences and ideas. Finding patterns and applying them to problem-solving is something we’re all surprisingly good it.

If you’re new to KM, or an ambitious information professional striving to make a difference, you have a real challenge ahead of you. I hope thelists above can make your task a little easier.

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4 Responses to Knowledge Management: Finding Quick Wins and Long Term Value

  1. David G. Jones says:

    Short on the people element I’m afraid. The first step in personal and organizational KM is for people to talk to each other.

  2. Toby Ward says:

    Great article Dave. I’ve just highlighted in on One thing that you didn’t mention: an effective intranet supported by a solid information architecture and search engine (emphasis on search). Any thoughts?

  3. Carrie says:

    Dave, thank you for this great article. I’m fairly new to the idea of knowledge management, but I can see that such an initiative would help our organization better streamline its systems for collecting, sharing and disseminating information. As a first step, do you recommend hiring a KM consultant to help kick off such a project? Thanks,Carrie

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