While most firms are mindful of the importance of managing assets, projects and people, knowledge management is less frequently considered of primary importance when discussing and setting corporate policy. However, during a recent webinar offered by PwC, the importance of having a comprehensive knowledge management strategy was brought to the forefront.
What is “Knowledge”?
For the purposes of this article, knowledge is defined as the collected wisdom that resides in an organization. It is actionable information, and includes the things we know, the things we don’t know and the things we don’t know that we don’t know. It is also who we know and what they know.
Knowledge is information an organization has that can be used to help the customer or employee make a decision. However, information only becomes knowledge in the hands of someone who knows what to do with it.
Driving Business with Secure Knowledge Management
It is essential that knowledge be managed as carefully as any other asset. By ensuring that everyone in an organization has access to it, barriers between segmented and isolated parts of a company are eliminated. Information can easily be shared across segments within the business, outside the business and with global locations where experts may not exist, or where they may not speak the local language.
The importance of managing that knowledge becomes evident when you ask, “What happens if a process is stopped because of an accident or outage?” If relatively junior or inexperienced operators are on the site at the time, it is absolutely critical that they know how and where to get the right information to solve the problem quickly.
While handbooks and standard procedures may be available that cover most eventualities, it’s very likely situations will arise that are not covered in the manuals. There will be times when the only person who has the knowledge needed to fix a problem is an industry veteran who may or may not be there at the time. And while that veteran may be reachable this time, what happens when he retires and takes with him decades of knowledge that has not been added to any database accessible by others?
As companies grow and new employees are hired, ensuring they have ready access to current information reduces the amount of time and money needed to train them. They need to be able to find processes easily, or they won’t use them. This also ensures the company can enforce consistent work practices. This is especially critical in the oil and gas industry where the workforce is often widely distributed geographically, where there are many and varied human safety issues, and environmental regulations are constantly evolving and standards must be met.
When a company standardizes and adopts a knowledge management procedure, it improves the safety and reliability of operations. If things are operated in “the company way” throughout physical locations, employees can move across and through the organization knowing exactly how knowledge is organized on all sites.
When best practices are shared reliably and in a timely manner, the knowledge can lead to continuous improvement in the way tasks are handled. This leads to faster-gain efficiency and improved profitability.
Trends Affecting Knowledge Management
Four trends aided by technology—analytics, social media, the “cloud” and the mobility of the workforce—have shaped a knowledge management base that is radically different than that managed even five years ago.
Historically, knowledge management focused on capturing and formalizing organizational information. Stocks of knowledge were curated and maintained in centralized knowledge bases, something like a library. It was all about capturing information, formalizing it and pushing it forward on what was essentially a one way street—top to bottom.
However, those stocks of knowledge captured only a small percentage of the wealth of information and experience that organizations could share. Today, the people-to-people connection made possible by technology has taken the lead and tacit knowledge is being compiled and collected through more collaborative means. Sharing of that knowledge now goes through stages from sources within and outside the organization. This helps develop a maturity that was lacking in the older, uni-directional model of knowledge management.
The Ideal vs. Reality
While the ideal is to think of information management working like a hub, pulling information from many sources and then disseminating it in an easily accessible, organized manner, globally speaking, there are very few organizations that have reached that state.
You can recognize the companies that have achieved this state, though. They are very quick to act on issues of support and service in the consumer world. In the industrial world, those that are able to react quickly to changes in the field have probably reached this stage.
So how does an organization reach that pinnacle of knowledge management?
Solving the Problem
Where and how does the current workforce access information? How much time do they spend looking for it? In many organizations, 15% of each day is lost as employees look to subject matter experts within a company. That is a significant loss of efficiency alone, but then another 14% of each day is looking for information that the employee already knows exists. He or she just cannot find it. How much time is actually spent working on things, and how much time is spent looking for the information that allows the work to happen? A great deal of inefficiency can be eliminated just by improving that ratio.
To do this, there must be a holistic approach to knowledge management philosophy. That includes:
- Recognizing the excellent work that has already been done by present members. Capture it. Often all the tacit knowledge that resides in people’s notes and notebooks and laptops is not shared. It is difficult to share that in a centralized depository, so it’s important for the company to develop an internal social networking platform. Develop the capacity to share: post a document, share a template, a link, best practices. Add a trail to the information, just like an online community forum. Add what did and didn’t work, rate responses, join groups, etc.
- Enable curation of that information. Get subject matter experts to elevate information into more formalized and officially recognized content.
- With so much information organizations must then implement reliable search capabilities. Also it’s important to ensure that different groups and individuals can get to the knowledge when it resides in multiple systems. Make sure that no person or system is inhibiting transfer of knowledge and that the process uses natural language.
- Version control is also essential; the most recent version of information must be available.
- Make employees feel valued for contributions and define experts in the company. Research has shown that there are a couple of things that must be done to achieve this. The reward doesn’t have to be financial, but employees must be made to realize the intrinsic value that they bring to the database. For example, people like to leave a legacy, especially as they consider retirement. They can in fact live on through their contributions to the organization. If it is someone new to the company, they may be bringing knowledge from their previous experience, and it’s good for them to understand their value to the company.
The knowledge management model is similar to personal social media, but with the benefit of curation and fact checking, intrinsic knowledge and institutional information can be melded into a powerful asset.
Successful knowledge management can be achieved through motivated collaboration and participation by all employees in an organization. To make it an asset that can be accessed and appreciated by everyone in that organization, the location and source of whatever is being shared must be trustworthy and important, and it must be available 24/7. People will use and share it if they feel connected to the community creating the database and if they are confident it is accurate, with up-to-date information.
Editor’s Note: If you would like to learn more about this, the presentation that was the inspiration for this article is available here from PwC.