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The strategy of knowledge management

The first and perhaps most difficult of launching a knowledge management program is is to put in place a strategy for sharing knowledge. It entails a collective visioning as to how sharing knowledge can enhance organizational performance, and the reaching of a consensus among the senior management of the organization that the course of action involved in sharing knowledge will in fact be pursued. Implicit in such a process is a set of decisions about the particular variety of knowledge management that the organization intends to pursue, including:

What knowledge to share? Knowledge-sharing programs may aim at making available various types of content. The program will be very different depending on whether the intent is to share know-how, best or good practices, or knowledge of clients or customers, or competitive intelligence, or knowledge of processes. The knowledge-sharing program will differ considerably depending on the type of knowledge being shared. Comprehensive, organization-wide programs for sharing knowledge typically emerge when the organization’s know-how is perceived as critical to its mission, where the value of the organization’s knowledge is high, and where the enterprise is geographically dispersed. Some examples: the knowledge management strategies and programs at Ernst & Young, Arthur Andersen, and the World Bank. In other cases, knowledge sharing programs are limited to a specific function, such as sales and marketing, or research, or a specific area of expertise such as engineering.

The question of “what to share” includes not only the type of knowledge, but also its quality. In organizing knowledge-sharing programs, it is common to put processes in place to ensure that the content that is shared reaches a certain minimal threshold of value and reliability. Some programs make no explicit distinction between different levels of reliability of the material offered, once the initial threshold has been met, thus allowing users to reach their own conclusions as to its ultimate value. Other programs, particularly those that offer external knowledge sharing, provide explicit guidance on whether the material has been authenticated, so that users can make inferences about its reliability. Most knowledge-sharing systems also allow in varying degrees the inclusion of new and promising ideas that have not yet been authenticated and in this sense are not yet knowledge.

Choices about what knowledge to share must go beyond generic prescriptions. As discussed in the previous section, knowledge-sharing programs have to cope with the issue of adapting know-how to the local context in which it is to be applied. Where the know-how is extremely robust and the local context largely predictable, this may not pose so much of a problem. But in most areas of complex activities or in areas of rapid development, know-how is typically less than fully robust, with continuous evolution, and the local context is often unpredictable; hence knowledge of the local context and local know-how become very important. Often in complex environments, problems will appear as wicked problems, in which the issue is not so much finding the answer to a defined problem, as it is one of defining the problem to which one is trying to solve. Once the problem is successfully defined, the answer may be obvious.

  • With whom to share knowledge? One of the major decisions concerns the intended beneficiaries of the knowledge-sharing system. Knowledge sharing programs may aim at sharing with either an internal or an external audience. Internal knowledge sharing programs typically aim at making the existing business work better, faster or cheaper, by arming the front-line staff of an organization with higher quality, more up-to-date and easily accessible tools and inputs to do their jobs, and so add value for clients or save costs. External knowledge sharing poses greater risks than internal sharing programs — raising complex issues of confidentiality, copyright, and in the case of the private sector, the protection of proprietary assets — but it may also offer greater potential benefits.

  • How will knowledge be shared? There needs to be a consensus within the organization as to the principal channels by which knowledge will be shared, whether face-to-face, or by way of help desks, by telephone, fax, email, collaborative tools or the web, or some combination of the above. It is important not to ignore face-to-face communications, since this is still the best and highest quality to transfer knowledge between individuals. Many organizations have also found that communities of practice cannot be successfully launched and sustained unless there is face-to-face contact.

  • Why will knowledge be shared? Knowledge management is not something that is undertaken for its own sake, but rather something that supports the business of the organization. Reaching explicit agreement as to why knowledge is being shared, and its likely contribution to organizational performance, is crucial to sustaining support over the medium term. These motivations may relate to

  • increasing speed,
    lowering costs of operation,
    accelerating innovation, or
    widening the client base.

    Since pursuing all of these worthy objectives simultaneously may result in a failure to achieve any of them, it will be useful to make an explicit choice about objectives from the outset. Moreover, agreement on objectives can help keep focus: since knowledge management in a large organization is inevitably a long-term process involving many people in different units of the organization, there is a tendency for people to forget why the organization is pursuing knowledge management in the first place, and become distracted with peripheral activities. Finally, since knowledge management programs inevitably have a cost, expenditures will need to be justified, and defended against those who would prefer to spend the resources on other activities.

    Having explicit KM objectives can help win these budget battles. For instance, in a large global organization where the explicit objective of knowledge management was improved quality and responsiveness, attacks on the KM budget on the grounds that it did not lower costs of operation were unsuccessful in part because the explicit objectives had never included lowering the costs of operation.

  • Will knowledge be shared? In large organizations, discussions of strategy can go on for long periods, sometimes years, without ever coming to closure on the components. In the end, actually crossing the Rubicon and unambiguously deciding to share and communicating that decision explicitly throughout the organization is a key step in launching a knowledge sharing strategy. An explicit decision is critical because knowledge management typically involves a shift from a vertical hierarchical mode of operation to a horizontal boundary-crossing mode of operation: such a shift is unlikely to occur on a sustained basis unless that there is an explicit decision at the very top of the organization that it should occur. Without such a decision, the opponents of KM will sooner or later be able to block the shift, and so thwart the organization's systematic ability to share its knowledge.

  • References:

    Stephen Denning, The Springboard: How Storytelling Ignites Action in Knowledge-Era Organizations. Boston, London, Butterworth Heinemann, October 2000.

    Stephen Denning: The Leader's Guide to Storytelling (Jossey-Bass, 2005) chapter 8.

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