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What Every Business Leader Should Know about Knowledge Management

By Bill Ringle |

"I sure wish I had access to the project proposals we've bid on. It would be really great if I could access just the ones that are relevant to the proposal that I'm working on now," Ron muttered as he clicked through the folders on the company fileserver at 7:15 one evening.

"Clyde has been around for 8 years and has been key in building the relationship with our best customer," John told Pat over a cup of coffee. "We never expected that he'd be snatched up by one of those new dotcom's. What will we ever do to replace him?"

At a time when the three R's in business -- recruitment, retention, and retraining -- are being pressured by industry trends, the idea and practice of cultivating the wisdom gained through experience of your people has never been more important.

Knowledge Management (KM) is more than reshuffling the org chart and a few job titles. It's about transforming the way business captures, manages, distributes, and interacts with its critical information. KM uses breakthrough tools, techniques, and strategies to develop an integrated knowledge-based organization.

Here are five key ideas of getting a handle on Knowledge Management that you can put to use in your organization. I've witnessed these ideas working and have helped implement them in a variety of settings, from a manufacturing plant to a large professional development association.

  1. You need to know what's knowledge from what's data.
    No matter what business you're in, you've got to know what information is critical to your cash flow, satisfying your customers, and strengthening your market position. Sure you may nod when asked the question, but I would adopt the Missourian stance of "show me" just to be sure.

  2. You need a champion.
    Managing critical knowledge means cross-functional representation. And you need a decision maker onboard with the perspectives, smarts, and guts to overcome the inevitable stumbling blocks and rough patches of road you'll encounter. Any significant change initiative requires someone who has the vision and willingness to move to a higher ground.

  3. You need to see where to start.
    Before "communities of knowledge" can be built to share information and best practices, you've got to assess where you are with respect to information sharing, your greatest obstacles and greatest opportunities. The technology will be the easy part compared to changing the culture, even when you know this to be true at the outset.

  4. You need to invest in a jumpstart.
    Nothing speaks louder than success. Design and pilot a process to succeed so that others within the company can see that real people are achieving real results. Learning quickly often means failing quickly, picking through the experience for what lessons can be learned, and iterating improvements in the program. Bring in the resources internally and externally to increase your odds of success.

  5. You've got to track results for feedback.
    Put another way, "You cannot manage what you do not measure." Determine the quantitative and qualitative metrics for succeeding with KM. It might be improving post-sales customer satisfaction as measured by the quantity and distribution of support calls. You might set a KM goal of using your extranet to share inventory information with partner suppliers to improve the efficiency of your on-hand parts stock. It might be embracing a new set of collaboration tools to decrease travel costs while increasing review cycles during the design stage of a new product or program using team members inside the organization as well as consultants with specialized knowledge and experience.
The benefits to your organization of pursuing this path are numerous and allow you to leverage the most important assets your organization has: it's human capital. KM is not a cure all, and clear guidelines for getting a measurable ROI are necessary and elusive. However, the Internet is raising the expectations of your suppliers, distributors, staff and especially your customers for to be more responsive, more accessible, and more reliable. KM elevates those qualities, among others. Knowledge management, when done well, is good business no matter what it is called. It's up to you to lead your teams to craft, communicate, and instill KM practices throughout your organization.

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