Making Knowledge Management Work

Published in January 2006

Knowledge management systems are ones that harness technique and technology to facilitate knowledge transfer. The resulting collaboration is a signature component of any knowledge management
system. Collaboration in forums like is one form of knowledge management. Knowledge management systems, like ones you’ll find among thought leaders today, are ones that harness technique
and technology to facilitate knowledge transfer. Successful facilitation of knowledge transfer can compress dissemination of proven practices from weeks to days.

So what is Knowledge Management, Really?

Knowledge management is first and foremost a process, one that has life, one that has rules, and one that has deliverables. One of the primary activities of a knowledge management process is to
identify data and information that’s important, important enough to share. Clearly, all data are not created equal. A patent disclosure may have more economic value than last year’s sales
figures. Last year’s sales figures may be data you’d like to share widely, but can it be used to generate knowledge? Maybe yes, and maybe no. That largely depends on context, purpose, and end

Probably the most important idea in knowledge management is this: most people in your organization probably have a lot of skill in their area of expertise. But most of the data that enables that
skill are locked away in their heads. Until we perfect telepathy, that doesn’t do other people in your organization a lot of good. Knowledge management is a process to unlock that potential by
making the tacit information locked away in people’s heads visible and explicit throughout the enterprise
. This encoding process, where people’s memory and experience is documented and
disseminated, is another signature characteristic of knowledge management systems.

Another key feature of knowledge management is the environment used to share. That environment isn’t necessarily technology based. For instance, forums, conferences, and meetings meet all the
criteria of a generic system, and these can be decidedly low tech. The key is that you have a systematic way of getting data and information from one person to another. When you do add technology,
you create the potential for high bandwidth. This amplification of bandwidth is what technology-based systems strive for today, but it’s not your critical success factor,

Making Knowledge Management Work

So, you ask, if knowledge management isn’t really about technology, than what’s the big idea I can use? This is where I dispel the “silver bullet” myth. I submit, without apology, that many
companies aren’t ready for knowledge management, at least not enterprise-wide. I know ours isn’t. Even within specialized practices, we get very mixed reactions. Trouble is: there’s a wide range
of behavior patterns in a typical organization, generally ranging from a reactive type to people who are quite proactive. Proactivity, taking initiative, being accountable for results, and to some
extent, risk taking, are all prerequisites for making this work.

What else should you expect of your culture? That’s not an easy question, nor is there a quick fix. But one writer, Peter Senge, author of The 5th Discipline, has tried to systematize what
he calls the Learning Organization. His claim is that the Learning Organization is the only kind fit for survival in the 21st century. Without the organic drive to learn, the best product producers
and service providers all eventually become obsolete, and with change accelerating as quickly as it is today, the life expectancy of many organizations will be quite short.

Like all organizations and societies, a company is made up of individuals. The first discipline of any individual is to become masterful at his or her trade. This mastery is the heart of expertise,
and expertise is key knowledge we want to capture in a knowledge management system.

Mental models are one of the big guns experts use to solve problems. Data models practitioners like us use are a bit more technical, but have many similar characteristics. Models are good for one
of three things: describing, diagnosing, or prescribing. Mental models, be they for applying individual skill or for making corporate decisions, are problem-solving tools that turn data into
information. So, robust mental models are the engines for knowledge creation, and knowledge creation is a key activity of the Learning Organization.

A shared vision is a concept described by many authors, and I won’t dwell too much on it here. The key idea is that for a knowledge repository to be useful, its scope and focus must necessarily be
somewhat limited, or at least segmented by audience. When the corporate or department vision is shared, there’s usually little debate about the knowledge that should be shared.

Lastly, there has to be a commitment from all to the growth of the team, teams at all levels and all compositions. People must truly believe, and management must reinforce, that individual worth is
not diminished when other people know what they know. This ability and willingness to share will neither be enhanced nor diminished by the introduction of technology. It’s something your culture
has or it doesn’t.

Getting Started

Not all data, information, and knowledge are created equal. Some data are clearly more valuable than others. The data contained in a patent has measurably higher value than an invoice for one
shipment. Some people, embarking on knowledge management for the first time, think their repository is going to be the “be all end all” for definitive data and information. Let me dissuade you
from that notion right away. In terms of the size and scope of a knowledge repository, less is more. You’ll only want to capture stuff that’s clearly useful to advance your enterprise’s agenda.
If your repository’s scope is “everything conceivable,” you’ll create an administrative and operational nightmare.

There are good reasons and bad reasons to use a knowledge management approach. Let me tell you first hand, given the expense and challenge of knowledge management, the good reasons boil down to
just a few: becoming more intimate with your customer, becoming a product leader in your market, or striving for operational excellence. Anything else you might be thinking of can be approached
with more traditional means. Likewise, if your goal isn’t to dominate through excellence, go down another road; your organization won’t have the corporate will to stick with this. Don’t try to
do more than one of these, either. Each one implies different tactical approaches in your implementation. Success depends on a clear vision and tightly defined scope, even more so than in
traditional projects. You want to keep a laser focus on the goal, and you’ll need crisp boundary conditions to do so.

Once you’ve discovered your value proposition, you’re in a position to build the business case. Let emphasize again, “reducing costs” or “increasing speed to market” are not reasons, in and
of themselves, to go down this road. Clearly, they’re supporting players, and you won’t get funding without them, but as for creating a compelling mission, they won’t be enough to sell the idea.
And your big idea must be compelling! Knowledge management is not like an Accounts Payable system, a Data Warehouse, or any other transactional or analytic system. It’s definitely a different kind
of animal. And many people won’t get it the first time you talk about it. Some people won’t get it even after they’ve seen an operational prototype. But, if you can take your big idea-your value
proposition-and show how traditional business measures are enhanced by it, then you’ve got a chance. At our company, we had a compelling proposition and business case: we were starting up in new
markets and we had to get expertise into the hands of people who needed it quickly, and we were successful. Without that focused mission, and without that quick win, I wouldn’t be talking to you
today. So remember: the value proposition will get you off the launch pad; the business case will get you into orbit.

Remember the Big Picture

The biggest idea is that knowledge management does not work without people who are accountable for making it work-at all stages of the knowledge creation chain. Further, people have to feel
comfortable sharing what they know. These feelings of comfort come in many ways. First, they must be assured that they’ll be spared criticism or blame for ideas that may be out of the mainstream.
Second, receivers of knowledge have to refrain from defensive behavior when it’s suggested to them that their concept of “proven practice” may not be the same as one being advertised. But most
importantly, everyone involved must truly believe that sharing knowledge is a win-win proposition, not one that dilutes their standing in their department or among their peers. There are lots of
stories about information hoarding as a means of creating job security. If personal survival is your key motivator, you’re probably not going to fair well in a collaborative environment. This fear
of survival is rooted in what some authors call a Scarcity Mentality, the belief that the pie is only so big and if you get a bigger piece, mine will be smaller. People with an Abundance Mentality
believe the pie is always big enough, and if not, we can always grow a bigger pie.

Knowledge management can also facilitate enterprise maturity by actually writing stuff down, knowing where to go to find it, and also in managing your policies and practices. Do not spend a lot of
money on hardware, software, packaged systems, or any other of the traditional capital expenses associated with information systems too soon. Without the enabling conditions found in your people
systems, knowledge management won’t work. Organizational culture is the key enabling factor, and most cultures have a long way to go. A Learning Culture, one that values true team learning and
egoless behavior, is critical for the exchange and sharing of information with one goal and one goal only: the growth of the enterprise.

Maybe most importantly, knowledge management is a tool for the micro-society you call your business. Knowledge that isn’t shared or sharable has no value. Unless and until knowledge is used by
someone to solve a real-world problem, it’s not even knowledge at all by my definitions, just something in the waves of data that flood us all everyday. Transfer utilities like search engines, a
white board, or an oratory, let people try on knowledge for size, determine its utility, and find useful purposes for it in the real world.


Covey, Stephen R. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Simon & Schuster, New York, 1989.

O’Dell, Carla and C. Jackson Grayson. If We Only Knew What We Know. Simon & Schuster, New York, 1998.

Senge, Peter M. The Fifth Discipline. Doubleday, New York, 1990.

© 2005 James McQuade


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About James McQuade

James McQuade is Data Administrator for a large regional retail merchandiser and would like to thank Bob Guy for contributing to the intellectual capital of this article. This article is, in part, is a synopsis of a conference session Jim presented at the DAMA Int’l Symposium at Orlando, 2005, and he is indebted to countless individuals there.