So you have finally convinced the board of the advantages of implementing a knowledge management system in your company – but you’re unsure of what to do next. Follow our 10-point guide to get your staff sharing information
The advantages of sharing expertise as a means of getting ahead are rarely contested. In the "knowledge economy" an organisation whose employees share best practice and skills will win a competitive edge.
The concept of knowledge management started to emerge five years ago and is closely associated with the development of intranets. Many experts now see a close relationship between it and e-learning, with the Web being used to disseminate knowledge as well as deliver skills. That makes the topic as much a matter for people managers as for IT. HR’s role is critical in encouraging staff to abandon habits of hoarding knowledge and training them in effective use of the systems.
"Knowledge management is extremely relevant to the HR professional," says Helen Watts, training technology manager at the Unicorn Training Partnership. "Embracing the potential offered by knowledge management within HR strategy can have a fundamental effect on the development of the whole organisation."
Experts continue to be critical of HR’s failure to be proactive in this area, which they often see as part of a wider indifference to strategic business issues. However, the level of activity is increasing: research by consultancy Create shows that just over half of HR projects have a beneficial effect on knowledge-sharing behaviours.
Chief executive Amin Rajan uses the analogy of a car journey and IT training issues: "Last year I was arguing HR was barely hanging on to the bumper, but now they are at least on the back seat," he says.
When planning a knowledge management project there are a number of steps and IT training issues to consider.
1 Determine the business issues
Decide what it is that you want to achieve in encouraging employees to share what they know. Setting up systems and procedures are complex tasks and will accomplish little without an end in view. "You need to understand the driving force behind it: if there isn’t one, it is never going to happen," says Mark Stimson, technical director at Click2Learn.com.
Typical uses are to swap advice on specific projects, share best practice across the organisation or pass on tips for saving time and money. However, success is measured not in how well employees do this, but by the degree to which it impacts on efficiency and services the whole value chain of the business.
Knowing the purpose of your knowledge management also has implications for the systems and processes you put in place, points out Jacky Swann, a Warwick Business School researcher, who recently co-wrote a report on the subject for the CIPD. "If you want to use it for exploitation, to capture what already exists so that it can be re-used in other parts of the organisation, you will need skills databases," she says. "But if you want it for exploration, to create new ideas or new forms of knowledge, practices for developing and supporting social networks are more critical."
2 Make alliances
Knowledge management involves contributions from different parts of the business and HR can act as a facilitator to get everyone working together. "You will need a good cross-functional team, so you need to get across the message that this requires collaboration," says Elizabeth Lank, head of ICL’s mobilising knowledge programme.
Forging alliances with board members and heads of department is essential to ensure organisation-wide commitment. But you will also need to convince line managers and other key employees of the benefits of sharing knowledge.
"HR has a knowledge of the people in the business, their skillsets and areas of excellence," says Stimson. "As trainers we find that integrating with HR systems is a valuable way of capturing what a business already has. That is important when you are trying to target information that is relevant for specific people."
You will also need to have a relationship with your counterpart in IT to establish the extent to which existing systems will serve the project’s purposes and to find out what may need to be added or modified.
"There is a bit of an exaggeration about not involving IT on the grounds that they are only enablers," says Andrew Ettinger, director of learning resources at Ashridge. "But they are the ones who implement the systems and, as long as they have understanding of the business, you need to consult them fully."
3 Identify the solution
You will need a consistent infrastructure such as a readily accessible intranet system. But bear in mind that no single supplier will necessarily deliver everything you need.
Part of the solution may be available off-the-shelf, but it is likely to need some specialised development as well. Make sure you understand your requirements first or risk being sold a system that does not satisfy the unique potential within your business.
"With large companies we have to deliver a range of formats and you will need an audit of what there already is," says Stimson. "Some parts of the organisation will be using an intranet, while others may use Lotus Notes or CD-Roms."
Use your influence with the board to address the physical dimension. "Where there are long corridors and separate offices it is likely that people are not being encouraged to share information," explains Lank. "A collaborative working environment does not have a lot of barriers, providing open-plan offices, coffee lounges and other places for people to meet and talk."
4 Create new roles
Think about the new roles that may be needed to support knowledge sharing. In the US, the position of chief knowledge officer is well accepted and this is becoming more common in Europe as a means of coordinating all aspects of the programme.
One way of achieving buy-in from employees is to share tasks as widely as possible. Try appointing individuals to oversee communities of interest on the internet and give them the responsibility to ensure web pages are kept up-to-date and the freedom to use the facility in a way that they consider provides most benefit.
Helping employees take advantage of the system may also require an input from the IT training function, with managers appointed to oversee its use and overcome technical difficulties.
5 Measure the effects
A successful knowledge management programme is one that is seen to deliver tangible benefits. So provide mechanisms that can pick up on instances where the sharing of expertise has won competitive advantages. For instance, BP pointed to savings of £66m in new drilling projects achieved at a cost of only £2m, while knowledge sharing at Unilever enabled the company to double its soap production without having to build additional factories.
Not all the effects will be on this scale. But where time and money has been saved or extra business won as a result of the project, talk it up whenever possible. That ensures continuing commitment from the board to provide resources and from individual employees to use the system effectively.
6 Get the message across
For the project to work, employees need to understand both what is required of them and how that will add to the business. Your expertise in setting up and exploiting channels of communication will be essential.
Coordinated announcements across a variety of channels will alert the workforce to the project. But these need to be followed up with more concerted messages, ideally through workshops that involve managers in the process.
Once the project is running, be sure to return to the theme on a regular basis. For instance, a newsletter might have a regular update column drawing attention to particular instances of new business being won or costs being saved through timely knowledge sharing. Or you could try an idea used by Buckman Laboratories, a pioneer of knowledge management in the US. The company issued its employees with a code of ethics set out on a laminated card as a constant reminder of the need for respect and trust in a knowledge-sharing environment.
7 Provide rewards and recognition
Experts increasingly stress the importance of incentives as a means of involving staff in the process of knowledge sharing. "A lot of improvements in knowledge behaviour are occurring as a result of changes in the recognition system, which is becoming much more sophisticated in many companies," says Create’s Rajan.
"Incentives can take a variety of forms, not all of them necessarily controlled by senior management," says Warwick’s Swann. For instance, an employee can benefit themselves from the tips and shortcuts provided by a colleague.
Other intangible rewards come in the form of status, reputation and recognition, which can be conferred on knowledge leaders in a particular field through honorary titles and awards. Swann cites the use of innovative approaches, such as HP distributing free Lotus Notes licences to encourage trainers and educators to submit ideas to knowledge bases. When these were first set up, the company also offered 2,000 free Air Miles to the first 50 readers and another 500 to anyone who posted a submission.
Employees can be shown how the system can help them manage their individual personal development, providing both the motivation and the tools to encourage learning and progress. "Knowledge management is empowerment, not control," says Unicorn’s Watts. "It can provide the opportunity to track and record the things they have learned, the courses they’ve been on, the tests they’ve taken and the feedback they’ve been given."
8 Create a collaborative culture
No system or process for knowledge sharing will work unless employees buy into it. In most cases that means training is required to help them understand the benefits and what they can do to contribute. However, it is important to avoid using the term "training", warns Paul Butler, CEO of KnowledgePool. "When you talk about an application, staff will see it as something that they are being required to learn, but here it is more about getting them to think differently," he says. "You can’t train people to share what is inside their heads, but you can make sure they understand the value associated with inputting their knowledge into the whole."
In particular, there is a need to address the issue of knowledge hoarding, where individuals are reluctant to give up sole control of what they regard as their personal property.
One way to put knowledge sharing in a positive light, Butler suggests, is to mobilise the system for general as well as specific business information. In KnowledgePool, the database contains material on employees’ hobbies, which are as disparate as Rioja wine, flying kites and fly-fishing in Florida. "If you can get people used to inputting information on things that interest them, they will start to see the point of it," Butler says.
9 Provide on-line support
When it comes to the use of Web-delivery systems, the issues for knowledge sharing are similar to those for e-learning, and on-line facilitators should be provided to help employees make the most of the technology.
"Trainers have to show people how to use the information that is posted up and use it efficiently," says Tim Drewett, worldwide manager professional e-learning services for McGraw-Hill Lifetime Learning.
For instance, in newsgroups a trainer can show participants how to capture knowledge and experience, filter it correctly and push it back out.
That can be done by extracting the important information from a conversation and putting it into the form of frequently asked questions that employees can refer to.
Where newsgroup conversation tends to be superficial, the trainer might join in to probe for concrete information that is likely to be of more use to others. The trainer can also identify the "lurkers" – individuals who watch other people exchanging ideas and information without taking part themselves – and encourage them to make their own contributions.
10 Don’t overdo it
Remember that HR’s role is to help make the process work, not to take control. If knowledge sharing is seen to be an organisation-wide enterprise with the responsibility and ownership shared across all departments, you will have succeeded. Involving other departments will also prevent the project bearing the stamp of HR alone, limited to the range of its vision.
"You have to be very careful with knowledge management because it can be a control mechanism," says Ashridge’s Ettinger. "Some of the consultancies have gone too far, with everyone sharing everything in a way that simply turns them into clones. But in most organisations a little anarchic behaviour is a good thing."
By Rob McLuhan