The knowledge management (KM) concept has been around a long time, and I thought it was lingering in a post-hype disillusionment phase.
But lately I’ve seen it creeping back into business cases for collaboration tools and digital workplaces. Leaders still worry that teams don’t share enough knowledge and that it is locked in departmental silos so they are looking for technology to provide part of the answer.
Here’s a technique that helps you think about knowledge flows and how to plan beyond simple technology changes. I created it because KM discussions either regress to information management, become too philosophical to pinpoint solutions.
Knowledge naturally flows when people ask for it, but it can get blocked. This is a diagnostic approach that helps you identify and fix those blocks.
The simple scenario: Direct knowledge flow
In the simplest scenario, knowledge flows when two people communicate. It happens naturally when people are face to face, and reasonably with video conferencing for most kinds of exchange.
So let’s have a look at steps, blockers and solutions.
- Awareness of need. Person B needs to ask the question. It sounds simple, but potentially B doesn’t know who to ask. Expert profiles on enterprise directories and ESNs can help here.
- Appropriate communication. Person A and Person B need a way to communicate. Face to face is great, but not always practical. This is where the ready availability of video calls (Skype, Google Hangouts etc.) have made a huge difference. Voice or email are fine if the knowledge can be easily verbalized, but sometimes you need to show people. Desktop-sharing tools available in most web-meeting tools can also be invaluable for demonstration, and still seem to be under-utilized outside of IT professionals.
- Shareable knowledge. Some knowledge isn’t readily shareable, it has to be re-learned by each individual rather than transferred. This is particularly true of motor skills. To learn to ski, for example, a good teacher gets the student to do drills so that their own body feels the right sensations. You can’t learn skiing from a conversation. Emotional skills are similar, for example being a good counsellor, actor or motivator. In both cases, a more structured approach is needed than simple knowledge flow, but digital tools can support the learning process.
The not-so-simple Scenario: Indirect knowledge flow
The direct route above isn’t always feasible or practical in business.
It doesn’t scale easily and relies on both parties being available at the same time. If the time gap is months or years, Person A may even have left the company.
This makes an indirect route, where the knowledge flow is asynchronous more attractive.
For the indirect route, some blockers and enablers are:
- Readiness to share. Person A doesn’t (want to) share it. There’s much written on what motivates or inhibits knowledge sharing. Politics and power aside though, one thing to bear in mind is that people help people, they don’t help databases. So if you expect people to document knowledge, be prepared to sponsor and resource that directly as an activity.
Also keep in mind that some cultures may view making expertise visible to all as arrogant, so having somebody else handle the publishing can help. Chat tools like Slack claim to capture knowledge as a side-effect, but often fall foul of point seven: appropriate format.
- Ability to share. Most collaboration tools are optimized for words. Not everyone is comfortable with this. Video, particularly YouTube has a rich archive of “how to” material from people who would never write a book, but happily post videos on how to strip down an engine. In the digital workplace, video-sharing via Yammer, Jive and apps like SeenIt all help if Person A wants to share but not write about it.
- Ability to find. Even if Person A has documented something useful, often Person B can’t find it. Of course search, metadata and all that good stuff apply here.
But there are other subtle barriers. One is that B’s lack of knowledge may mean they don’t use the right terminology. They might search for “AI” but all the answers are under “Machine Learning”. Structured publishing can help here : navigation, or navigation plus local search can still beat broad search for vague terms.
The other route is ‘social search’ – a good social network lets B ask in general terms and establish what the more precise term is.
- Appropriate format. Even if a document technically contains an answer, its format can make it hard to use. For example, an engineering paper on networking might talk about how to configure a router, but a novice would need step-by-step instructions. Knowledge can be most succinctly shared when the purpose if very specific. If you document in advance, you can’t always know the purpose, and covering the “What if’s” turn it into a book. Stable processes are most suitable for this Indirect route.
- Foundation knowledge. Imagine you needed a new kidney but your healthcare didn’t cover it. “Don’t worry” I cry “I’ve read a book on transplants, I’ll do it for free”. Would you trust me? Hopefully not. The reality with any knowledge flow is that it needs to build on a pre-existing base for Person B. If this is your final blocker, then more substantial interventions like formal training, shadowing and apprenticeships need to be considered.
Making the diagnostic work for You
Every company will inevitably have different requirements. This diagnostic is meant to help you figure out what works best for your organization.
When making a change, such as introducing a new collaboration tool with the goal of “improving knowledge sharing,” it can be helpful to ask “What knowledge?” “Who will share it?” “How?” and then sketch out a figure like the one above.
The sketch zooms out from a narrow tool-related focus, and asks the broader question of what needs to happen before and after to support the knowledge exchange. It can switch the balance of resources from going into the tool only into supporting the coaching and other processes involved.
Save it for beer time
Many argue that knowledge can’t be stored and while this may be technically true, we probably don’t need to care if the end result is that Person B is now able to do what Person A can do.
We get too hung up on tacit, explicit definitions or information vs. knowledge too – in practice, most business decisions involve a combination of all of them. On this last point, I’m willing to share more knowledge for beer (and the final advantage of this approach is that it will all fit on a napkin).
A version of this article was originally published over at CMSWire.