Implementing KM, Part I: Concepts & Approach

by Robert Simmons of the Forsythe Solutions Group

A winning knowledge management program (KMP), one that increases staff productivity, product and service quality, and deliverable consistency by capitalizing upon codified intellectual and knowledge-based assets, cannot subsist on technology solutions alone, It must also consider people, processes, structure, and culture.

Many organizations leap into a knowledge management (KM) solution (document management, data mining, blogging, community forums, and the like) without first considering the purpose or objectives they wish to fulfill or how the organization will adopt and follow best practices for managing its knowledge assets long term.

This is the first in a series of three articles in which I will present a phased approach for implementing and sustaining a successful KMP. Part I introduces some key KM terms and concepts and then presents the eight-phase approach at a high level. Respectively, Parts II and III discuss phases 1 thru 4 and 5 thru 8 in more detail.

Terminology and Concepts

While Knowledge Management as a discipline is relatively young having started in the ’70’s, KM terminology, models, and best practices are still being established and adopted. I’ve listed the more widely accepted terms and concepts below. They should provide some awareness and basic principles upon which to build your organization’s KMP.

KM best practices specify different types of knowledge. The types most often referenced are tacit knowledge and explicit knowledge.

Tacit knowledge represents internalized knowledge that an individual may not be consciously aware of, such as how he or she accomplishes particular tasks.

Explicit knowledge represents knowledge that the individual holds consciously in mental focus, in a form that’s easily communicated to others.

In 1995, Nonaka and Takeuchi introduced the Socialization-Externalization-Combination-Internalization (SECI) model (Fig. 1) in their book The Knowledge Creating Company wherein tacit knowledge is extracted to become explicit knowledge, and explicit knowledge is re-internalized into tacit knowledge. It demonstrates a continual evolution of knowledge through socialization, externalization, combination, and internalization.

In 2007, the IT Infrastructure Library v3 (ITIL v3) introduced a Knowledge Management process including definitions for data, information, knowledge, and wisdom.

Data is a set of discrete facts about events.

Information comes from providing context to data.

Knowledge is composed of the tacit experiences, ideas, insights, values and judgments of individuals as well as from the analysis of information and data.

And wisdom gives the ultimate discernment of the material and having the application and contextual awareness to provide a strong, common sense judgment. The Data-Information-Knowledge-Wisdom (DIKW) structure (Fig. 2) demonstrates phases of increased context and understanding and how data is transformed into information, then knowledge, and finally wisdom.

ITIL v3 also refers to a Service Knowledge Management System (SKMS) as set of tools and databases used to manage knowledge and information. While ITIL’s application of KM is primarily focused on the development, delivery, support, and improvement of IT services, the architecture of the SKMS (Fig. 3) has relevance from a business perpective, as well.

Understanding this archtecture — how data and information is stored, related, and integrated (data and integration layers) and how people will want to access and utilize the information (knowledge processing and presentation layers) — is the first step in addressing the technology needs of a knowledge management system (KMS) solution.

As mentioned at the beginning of this article, a successful KMP will consider more than just technology. The core components of KM include people, processes, technology, structure, and culture (Fig. 4).

People represents how you increase the ability of individuals within the organization to influence others with their knowledge.

Processes involves how you establish best practices and governance for the efficient and accurate identification, management, and dissemination of knowledge.

Technology addresses how you choose, configure, and utilize tools and automation to enable KM.

Structure implies how you transform organizational structures to facilitate and encourage cross-discipline awareness and expertise.

And culture embodies how you establish and cultivate a knowledge-sharing, knowledge-driven culture. The eight-phase approach explained below addresses all areas of the KM framework.

Eight Phases

Implementing a KPM is no easy feat. You will encounter many challenges along the way including many of the following:

  • Inability to recognize or articulate knowledge; turning tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge.
  • Geographical distance and/or language barriers in an international company.
  • Limitations of Information and Communication technologies.
  • Loosely defined areas of expertise.
  • Internal conflicts – professional territoriality.
  • Lack of incentives or performance management goals.
  • Poor training or mentoring programs.
  • Cultural barriers – this is how we’ve always done it.

The following eight-phase approach will enable you to identify these challenges early on so that you can plan for them, thus minimizing the risks and maximizing the rewards. This approach was developed based on logical, tried-and-true activities for implementing any new organizational program. The early phases involve strategy, planning, and requirements gathering while the later phases focus on execution and continual improvement.

Phase 1: Establish program objectives – Before selecting a tool, defining a process, developing workflows you must envision and articulate the end-state. Different organizations may have different reasons for implementing a KMP, but in order to establish the appropriate program objectives, identify and document the business problems that need resolution and the business drivers that will provide momentum and justification for the endeavor.

Provide both short term and long term objectives that address the business problems and support the business drivers. Short term objectives should seek to provide validation that the program is on the right path while long term objectives will help to create and communicate the big picture.

Phase 2: Prepare for change – KM is more than just an application of technology. It involves cultural changes in the way employees perceive and share knowledge they develop or possess. One common cultural hurdle to increasing the sharing of knowledge is that companies primarily reward individual performance. This practice promotes a “knowledge is power” behavior that contradicts the desired knowledge-sharing, knowledge-driven culture end-state you are after.

Successfully implementing a new KMP may require changes within the organization’s norms and shared values; changes that some people might resist or even attempt to quash. To minimize the negative impact of such changes, it’s wise to follow an established approach for managing cultural change such as John Kotter’s 8-step change process, which will be covered in more detail in part II of this series.