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Knowledge Management

Digital Library > Building and Inspiring an Organization > Decision making “Knowledge Management”

Everybody in your organization has ideas, but do you know how to tap into this gold mine of information? Foster an environment of gaining and sharing information by learning to manage knowledge throughout your company.

OVERVIEW [top]

Would you have a competitive advantage if all the units of your operation — R&D, production, marketing, office support operations and management — operated just as efficiently as possible?

Would the people in those units operate more efficiently and make better decisions if each and all were familiar with best-practice options for their functions?

Knowledge management (KM) comprises methods for making important knowledge about each function easily available whenever it is needed. The most common manifestation of KM is a database in Lotus Notes or a similar database-management system with records of who at a company is expert at what, and of what worked well and what didn’t as decisions were made and as procedures were established in various work settings.

In this Quick-Read you will find:

  • Perspective on KM’s potential time demands and value.
  • Tips for getting started at KM.

SOLUTION [top]

KM is simply this: systematically seeing that expert knowledge is found and used whenever it is needed for decisions and work tasks. Companies of all sizes have used KM systems for years. The office card file or Rolodex® of people to contact for information is a KM database in directory form. Procedure manuals with tables of contents or indexes are KM databases that provide access to recorded best practices in book format. Modern KM systems are just more comprehensive and more widely shared variations of the Rolodex® and procedure manual collections.

As your company expands and departmentalizes, the risk increases that expertise in one unit won’t be available, or even known about, when it is needed in another. The more you grow, the more you need KM.

Unless you have a special need for explicit-expertise KM, it makes sense to start by establishing a directory-of-experts database, and tackle the tougher database of recorded knowledge later if at all.

Getting a Directory-of-Experts Database Started

  1. List and prioritize the kinds of knowledge and skills that you want to make easier to find, for example, market research, one-on-one selling, team presentations and office design.
  2. Survey employees to find out to whom they would turn for the kinds of expertise you assigned high priority — both inside and outside the company.
  3. Assign your head of Human Resources to check resumes and personnel files and make an organized listing of all special skills — not just those you selected as high priority.
  4. Consider supplementing the general listings by surveying employees to confirm which ones consider themselves or co-workers to be experts on what. If you use a checklist, be sure to ask an open-ended "For what other expertise should other workers come to you?"
  5. Enter the information that has been gathered into a Lotus Notes file or as a database on your Intranet. Then publicize it.
  6. Make a knowledge worker who has access to personnel files responsible for updating the database as employees get training and as they come and go.

Once you have projected your needs for expertise and listed what is available, take action to fill in the gaps. Hire the talent that you need, get the right people trained, or provide incentives for employees to seek training where it is most needed.

Getting an Explicit-Knowledge Database Started

If you want to establish a KM system for sharing explicit knowledge, you can control its cost by controlling its size. Starting small will make ultimate success more likely by enabling you to test and debug the system before you take on the major task of convincing everyone to use it. Starting within just one unit also will allow you to determine the best ways to convince your experts to contribute to the database through trial and error before you do it company-wide.

  1. Select a function to start with. What shared expertise would add the most return on investment? Perspective on your market? Sales techniques? Product knowledge (yours and the competition’s)? Technical production know-how? Office management techniques? Think about future needs as well as present needs — especially if you expect your business to grow rapidly.
  2. Decide what knowledge contributions to future decisions or operations will contribute most to the bottom line. For example, should you include management lessons learned: Why do staff members think a product line had to be abandoned or failed to deliver the expected return on investment? What would a project manager have done differently with the benefit of hindsight?
  3. Decide who should manage the database. If you can identify one or more information gatekeepers — those to whom others turn most often for advice or referrals — they are prime candidates.
  4. Arrange for KM training. This Quick-Read and the Resources listed at the end provide general perspective, not the detailed experience-based training your database managers need. Training opportunities can be found by searching for knowledge management and workshop with your favorite Web browser. The Quick-Read titled "Offering Training and Continuing Education Opportunities" gives tips for confirming that a training source is reputable.
  5. Work with the database manager to define the system. Will useful articles from outside your workplace be used? Will there be a limit to the length of items? The number? Will there be a formal content-quality control system? Who will have the right to add comments or make changes in items? Will you need to provide different content views to different users because of classified or sensitive details?

It will be comparatively easy to set up the database. The major hurdles will be convincing experts to give up their unique value to the company by contributing their special knowledge for others to apply, and then motivating those others to find and use that special knowledge when it will do the most good.

REAL-LIFE EXAMPLE [top]

The Quick-Read you are reading right now at the Edward Lowe Foundation Web site is a record in a general-management KM database that lists options to apply in specific situations and indicates what has and hasn’t worked in a variety of work settings.

The database is being built by paying professional authors to find and interview experts on topics that are known to require management decisions at growing companies. The authors add their knowledge and organizational expertise. Then the professional staff at the foundation edits each item, adds index terms to make it findable, and publishes it on the Web for your use.

Features you may want to emulate include providing incentive for contributors to make their expertise public; using a standard, brief record format; limiting content to known problem areas; and providing supplemental references or links to knowledge resources outside the system.

DO IT [top]

  1. Reward employees who share knowledge with praise when you see it happen, and note each instance for reward again at evaluation time.
  2. Don’t let your experts retire without having them coach others and share what they know. If you are developing an explicit-knowledge database, be sure they contribute before they depart, perhaps by assigning a knowledge worker to interview them extensively. Keep them in your directory of experts as long as they have potential value as consultants.
  3. Make the HR worker who maintains the KM directory database responsible for adding entries for new-hire expertise and for recording the training received by all employees.
  4. Make the same person responsible for showing the new hires how to use the database.
  5. If you establish a database of explicit knowledge as well as a directory of experts, be sure contributors get credit. It will make them feel valuable and be more likely to contribute in the future, and it will make it easy for someone else who needs their expertise to find them.
  6. Always ask in decision situations if the KM database has been consulted.

RESOURCES [top]

Books

Knowledge Management Handbook, edited by Jay Liebowitz (CRC, 1999). Chapter 3: "Introducing Knowledge Management into the Enterprise" by Karl M. Wiig is an academic review article with several checklists likely to be useful to managers.

Internet Sites

KMNetwork. brint.com.

Knowledge Management Resource Center. IKM Corporation.

KmWiki. Denham Grey.

35 essential knowledge management sites. lucasmcdonnell.com.

Journal articles

KMWorld. Find magazine articles by using the search blank. Many of the articles are on information management systems, not KM systems.

Knowledge Management Magazine, 1998-2001. Here too, in spite of the title, a lot of the articles are on information management, not KM.

Article Contributors

Writer: Richard Blue

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