Guide to Knowledge Management and the role of a knowledge base
Catherine Heath | November 25, 2019
Your organization’s unique store of knowledge is a competitive business advantage. This knowledge must be preserved and shared if your business is to reach its full potential for productivity. According to data, Fortune 500 companies waste $31.5 billion every year because they fail to share knowledge.
Knowledge Management is an important way to preserve and share the knowledge contained within your company. Many modern jobs are defined as being “knowledge workers” where an employee’s ability to handle and work with information and data is crucially important. Unfortunately, 40% of employees are rated as poor at sharing knowledge.
“The most valuable asset of a 21st-century institution (whether business or nonbusiness) will be its knowledge workers and their productivity,” said management consultant Peter Drucker.
A knowledge base is a tool you can use to further your Knowledge Management efforts. Think of Knowledge Management using the idea of a leaky bucket, with the bucket representing your company and the water representing your knowledge. The goal is to prevent this knowledge from leaking out of the bucket and being lost forever.
What is Knowledge Management?
There are many dimensions to your Knowledge Management strategy, ranging from your use of technological solutions to developing knowledge communities within your organization. Knowledge Management facilitates learning on an organizational scale, and relates to your attempt to capture any internal knowledge relating to your business.
Here’s a formal definition of Knowledge Management:
"Knowledge management is a discipline that promotes an integrated approach to identifying, capturing, evaluating, retrieving, and sharing all of an enterprise's information assets. These assets may include databases, documents, policies, procedures, and previously un-captured expertise and experience in individual workers." – Gartner
Knowledge Management concerns the capture, preservation, and sharing of knowledge – that which is learned through study or experience, and includes know-how, know-what, experience, understanding, insight and contextual information. The goal of Knowledge Management is to create a competitive advantage for businesses.
What Knowledge Management looks like in practice
There is quite a difference between the academic discipline of Knowledge Management, Knowledge Management in the enterprise, and general knowledge management in the workplace. Any organization, large or small, can benefit from KM, but needs will differ across organizations.
It’s not necessary to undertake a degree to gain benefits from Knowledge Management. Within a business, KM is inextricably concerned with people and their relationships. You should place an emphasis on your knowledge-sharing communities, knowledge-sharing culture, and internal social relationships, while supporting them with the right technology.
“Knowledge work requires continuous learning on the part of the knowledge worker, but equally continuous teaching on the part of the knowledge worker,” said Peter Drucker. Unfortunately, more than one third of companies still do not collect specialized knowledge, resulting in significant knowledge loss.
KM is about putting into place the right tools, strategies and structures to enable your people to share their knowledge and learn from others. For example, you may want to store information relating to your customer sales funnel, product information, guidelines and frameworks, departmental structures, troubleshooting issues, or your customer support escalation policies.
Types of knowledge
Next, you need to understand about the different types of knowledge in the workplace. Within the Knowledge Management field, knowledge can be grouped into either explicit, implicit, tacit, or embedded knowledge, and these types affect how you will try to collect knowledge.
Explicit knowledge – knowledge that is formalized in documents, notes, memos, etc. It’s concerned with know-what. Can be easily stored in a Knowledge Management System like a knowledge base.
Implicit knowledge – the practical application of explicit knowledge, along with transferable best practices and skills. Best collected by communities of practice.
Tacit knowledge – knowledge that is held by people and is based on experience, and is more challenging to work with than explicit knowledge. At the same time, tacit knowledge is more valuable for organizations than explicit knowledge. It concerns know-how, know-why, and know-who. It’s transmitted most effectively through personal relationships such as mentoring, or peer-to-peer working, using technology as a support.
Embedded knowledge – knowledge that is held in processes, products, routines and structures rather than people or documents.
Knowledge is typically subjective and context-dependent, defined by the people who possess such knowledge and their relationship to the structure of your organization.
Tacit and explicit knowledge exist on a spectrum and knowledge is always a mixture of both. It is possible to convert some tacit and implicit knowledge into explicit knowledge by creating relevant documentation. Investing in a powerful internal knowledge base is a useful way to convert tacit/implicit knowledge to explicit knowledge.
“Knowledge management is change management, and, if you don’t understand people’s perspective, all the strategy and technology in the world means very little,” says Carol Kinsey Goman, president of Kinsey Consulting Services.
Levels of organizational knowledge
As well as being grouped into different types, knowledge within an organization can exist on a number of different levels.
Individual – personal, tacit knowledge of how to do something. Highly subjective and context-dependent.
Groups/community/teams – knowledge held by specific groups that are isolated from the rest of the organization. Also called communities of practice, and sources of embedded, tacit and explicit knowledge.
Structural – embedded knowledge within company culture and processes rather than people, and can include outdated routines that were once useful.
Organizational – the sum total of knowledge resources contained within an organization that can be used for competitive advantage.
Extra-organizational – external knowledge resources relating to organizational partners, clients, or suppliers.
We’re looking at knowledge that exists on an individual and group level, that could be captured by a knowledge base and reused more effectively.
Benefits of Knowledge Management
So now we understand what Knowledge Management is, it will be good to look at some of the benefits of investing in this type of work.
First, a good Knowledge Management strategy defines knowledge as being a beneficial asset rather than something intangible. It enables companies to dedicate more financial resources to knowledge capture by tying it to tangible goals and KPIs.
Effective Knowledge Management initiatives promote collaboration and knowledge sharing between employees and teams. They save time on employees searching for information – sharing knowledge improves productivity by 35%.
It can remove some of the obstacles associated with teams working in silos, and teams that are distributed across different locations potentially separated by large time differences. A shared repository of knowledge is an important internal communication resource.
Make the most of your existing store of knowledge and redeploy your knowledge assets where the company can gain more value from them. KM increases the company’s ability to innovate within its field or industry.
KM lessens the effects of employee attrition, employee illness, parental leave, or retirement. Knowledge that is held only inside the heads of individual employees can be captured for future use.
Raise your bottom line
In working at an individual employee level, KM preserves overall organizational knowledge, which has been shown to save businesses up to $31.5 billion per year. Studies have shown that knowledge workers waste $5.7 billion every year on searching for information that could have been easily found using a knowledge sharing system.
Crucially, KM helps avoid costly accidents and mistakes. For example, in 2006, BP was responsible for accidentally leaking 900,000 liters of oil into the ocean. During the enquiry, it was discovered that the accident had been caused by the company failing to replace the employee who would have been responsible, leaving no one with the specialized knowledge necessary to prevent the accident.
Failure to share knowledge had resulted in millions of dollars in damage, and fuel shortages across the US. Knowledge Management, therefore, can reduce corporate risk.
Organizations operate on many unspoken assumptions, and there is often a lack of internal transparency and visibility. KM results in increased accountability for knowledge that is taken for granted, with a means for people to challenge wrong information and get it changed.
Improve employee engagement
Knowledge Management initiatives can also have secondary benefits. They show that you value the knowledge possessed by your employees and therefore improve employee morale.
You also have increased opportunities for social interaction in an organization, such when using collaborative sharing tools.
Knowledge Management means you make the most of your existing employees and try to grow them as an asset. “Knowledge workers [...] own the means of production. That knowledge between their ears is a totally portable and enormous capital asset,” said Peter Drucker.
Obstacles to effective Knowledge Management
As important as Knowledge Management is for organizations, there are many obstacles to potentially overcome when implementing a strategy.
On a strategic level:
- There could be a failure of decision-makers to understand the concept of, or value of, Knowledge Management
- An inability of decision-makers to identify measurable benefits of Knowledge Management
- A lack of time to invest in Knowledge Management initiatives due to other priorities that take precedence
- A lack of ownership over Knowledge Management initiatives from key individuals
- A lack of dedicated budget for Knowledge Management, leading to implementation failures
On an employee level:
- There could be a lack of interest from employees about creating or consuming content
- Particular employees being possessive over their knowledge, resulting in a failure to share
- An absence of the right culture for knowledge sharing: a competitive rather than collaborative culture
- Employees fail to use the tools because they don’t fit with existing processes, or are too difficult to use
- Employees are overwhelmed by the amount of information available and give up engaging with the system
On an execution level:
- Tools don’t fit with the existing culture, processes and workflows, and there is a lack of user capability and skill
- Absence of appropriate technological tools for Knowledge Management, or expecting too much from the technologies
- A failure to manage content effectively so that it becomes unusable
- Captured knowledge becoming out-of-date or inaccurate, leading to lack of faith in the resources
The best way to begin to overcome these obstacles is by:
- Focusing on your users – who are they and what do they need?
- Understanding company culture – what are the values and assumptions that shape your company?
- Examining your processes – what are the ways your employees already share information?
- Identifying your goals – what are you trying to achieve with better Knowledge Management?
- Finding the right tools – this could potentially be an internal knowledge base, or something else.
Knowledge Management software
Knowledge Management is a field that is concerned with creating and spreading organizational knowledge. Knowledge Management Systems are tools to assist with this practice.
There are several different subcategories of software associated with Knowledge Management. Knowledge base software is one such subcategory. Here’s a broad overview of the types of software you will come across:
- Intranets – software that creates a secure private network in an enterprise for the purpose of sharing information, documents, and collaboration.
- Collaboration tools – software that enables a team to work together from a shared resource, such as Slack, Microsoft Sharepoint, or Atlassian Confluence. Improves the transfer of tacit knowledge by promoting social relationships.
- Document management tools – tools to store and organize different types of documents, aiding in the capture and sharing of explicit knowledge. Includes DropBox and PandaDoc.
- Wikis – tools for crowdsourcing content from a wide authoring pool, such as MediaWiki.
- Static Site Generators – typically free and open source tools aimed at content writers with access to developer expertise. For example, Jekyll or Hugo.
- Help Authoring Tools – aimed at professional technical writers managing a large amount of content, and includes tools like Madcap Flare and RoboHelp.
- SaaS knowledge bases! – both standalone knowledge base software and add-on knowledge bases for other tools. They are Content Management Systems that store and share explicit, implicit, and tacit knowledge. Includes our own KnowledgeOwl.
- Help Desk software – aimed at customer support or IT teams collaboratively managing customer issues. Includes software like JIRA service desk, or Help Scout.
It’s helpful to think of these kinds of tools as existing along a spectrum:
Collaborative knowledge sharing <<----->> Single source of truth
To decide on the type of product you need for Knowledge Management, identify whether you want to create a collaborative knowledge sharing system for a wide audience participation, or a static resource for employees to interact with (single source of truth).
A knowledge base solution like KnowledgeOwl is on the single source of truth end of the spectrum, whereas other tools like Slack are on the collaborative end of the spectrum.
Uses for Knowledge Management
Knowledge Management can be extremely effective for many different teams. We’ll use knowledge management for customer support teams as an example. Without capturing knowledge properly, your support agents will be unnecessarily duplicating their efforts to help customers, and spending too much time searching for information.
That’s where an internal knowledge base can come into play as part of your Knowledge Management strategy. The leaders of your customer support team, who are responsible for guiding and supporting your agents, can invest in these tools to improve productivity and efficiency.
The right tools can positively impact support KPIs such as average handle time (AHT), customer satisfaction (CSAT), and first call resolution (FCR). Knowledge base software like KnowledgeOwl can integrate with your other customer support tools, making articles contextually available within other apps.
KnowledgeOwl integrates with other support software, so agent answers to customers can be easily turned into knowledge base articles.
One of the biggest dangers inherent in typical Knowledge Management attempts is relying too much on tools. This comes at the expense of making the most of your people and their knowledge.
“Of central importance is the changing nature of competitive advantage - not based on market position, size and power as in times past, but on the incorporation of knowledge into all of an organization's activities,” says Leif Edvinsson, Swedish Intellectual Capital guru in Corporate Longitude.
When you invest in a tool like a knowledge base, it should be after fully considering the needs of your people and the wider organizational culture. Technology should fit into your existing processing and structures, enhancing the knowledge-sharing that is already taking place between individuals in your company.
Invest in your Knowledge Management strategy now. Take our knowledge base software for a test spin.