The knowledge management (KM) concept has been kicking around for over 20 years now, to the point where I thought we were permanently lingering in a post-hype disillusionment phase.
But lately I've seen it creeping back into business cases for collaboration tools and digital workplaces. Leaders worried about the poor knowledge sharing practices of their teams and the existence of knowledge silos in the workplaces are looking for technology to provide part of the answer.
Here’s a technique to help you think about knowledge flows and how to plan beyond simple technology changes. I created it because KM discussions either regress to information management or become too philosophical to pinpoint solutions.
Knowledge naturally flows when people ask for it, but it can get blocked. This diagnostic approach helps you identify and fix those blocks.
Model the Simple Scenario First
The starting point is to simplify any scenario by thinking about the flow of knowledge between just two people: A and B. You can use personas if you like, or think about two real people, but the main thing is to tackle how knowledge flows in a specific scenario, rather than ill-defined groups.
Imagine Person A as the one who knows something that Person B would also like to know. It might be how to fix a pump, interpret a data set, give a sales pitch or advise on relevant employment law. Try to keep your scenario reasonably specific and limit the question to one that can be answered in five to 20 minutes. Bigger scenarios are often a set of these smaller ones.
The Simple Scenario: Direct Knowledge Flow
In the simplest scenario, knowledge flows when two people communicate. This happens naturally when people are face to face, and reasonably with video conferencing for most kinds of exchange.
So what steps, blockers and solutions present themselves in this scenario?
1. Awareness of need
2. Appropriate communication
Person A and Person B need a way to communicate. Face to face is great, but not always practical.
This is where the ready availability of video calls (Skype, Google Hangouts, Slack, etc.) have made a huge difference. Voice or email are fine if the knowledge can be easily verbalized, but sometimes you need to show people. Tools that allow desktop sharing, which most web meeting tools now offer, can also be invaluable for demonstration, and are still one of the most under-utilized tools outside of the IT profession.
3. Shareable knowledge
Some knowledge isn’t readily shareable, it has to be re-learned by each individual rather than transferred. This is particularly true of motor skills.
For example, to learn to ski a good teacher gets the student to do drills so that their body feels the right sensations — they form a muscle memory. You can’t learn skiing from a conversation. Emotional skills are similar. In both cases, a more structured approach is needed than simple knowledge flow, but digital tools can support the learning process.
The Not-so-Simple Scenario: Indirect Knowledge Flow
The direct route above isn't always feasible or practical in business. It doesn’t scale easily and relies on both parties being available at the same time. If the time gap is months or years, Person A may have even left the company.
This makes an indirect route, where the knowledge flow is asynchronous, more attractive.
For the indirect route, some blockers and enablers are:
4. Readiness to share
Person A doesn’t — or won't — share it. A lot has been written on what motivates or inhibits knowledge sharing. Politics and power dynamics aside, remember that people help people, they don’t help databases. So if you expect people to document knowledge, be prepared to sponsor and resource that directly as an activity.
Also keep in mind that some cultures may view making expertise visible to all as arrogant, so having somebody else handle the publishing can help. Chat tools like Slack claim to capture knowledge as a side-effect, but often fall foul of point seven: appropriate format.
5. Ability to share
Most collaboration tools are optimized for words. Not everyone is comfortable with this.
Video, particularly YouTube, has a rich archive of “how to” material from people who would never write a book, but happily post videos on how to strip down an engine. In the digital workplace, video-sharing via Yammer, Jive and apps like SeenIt all help if Person A wants have knowledge to share but no desire to write about it.
6. Ability to find
Even if Person A has documented something useful, often Person B can’t find it. Of course search, metadata, taxonomy and all the other fun things apply here.
But other subtle barriers impede findability. One possibility is B’s lack of knowledge may mean he doesn't use the right terminology. He might search for “AI” but all the answers are under “Machine Learning.”
Structured publishing can help here: navigation, or navigation plus local search can still beat broad search for vague terms. The other route is "social search." A good social network lets B ask in general terms and establish what the more precise term is.
7. Appropriate format
Even if a document technically contains an answer, its format can make it hard to use. For example, an engineering paper on networking might explain how to configure a router, but a novice would need step-by-step instructions. Knowledge can be most succinctly shared when the purpose if very specific. If you document in advance, you can’t always know the purpose, and covering the “What if” scenarios turn it into a book. Stable processes are most suitable for the indirect route.
8. Foundation knowledge
Imagine you needed a new kidney but your healthcare wouldn't cover it. “Don’t worry,” I'd say, “I’ve read a book on transplants — I’ll do it for free.”
Would you trust me? Hopefully not.
The reality with any knowledge flow is it needs to build on a preexisting base for Person B. If this is your final blocker, you should consider more substantial interventions like formal training, shadowing and apprenticeships.
Making the Diagnostic Work for You
Every company will inevitably have different requirements. This diagnostic is meant to help you figure out what works best for your organization.
When making a change, such as introducing a new collaboration tool with the goal of "improving knowledge sharing," it can be helpful to ask “What knowledge?” “Who will share it?” “How?” and then sketch out a figure like the one above.
The sketch zooms out from a narrow tool-related focus, and asks the broader question of what needs to happen before and after to support the knowledge exchange. It can switch the balance of resources from going into the tool only into supporting the coaching and other processes involved.
Ask Me Anything (With a Beer in Hand)
Many people argue you can't store knowledge. And while this may technically be true, we probably don’t need to worry about semantics if the end result is that Person B is now able to do what Person A can do.
We get too hung up on tacit, explicit definitions of information versus knowledge too — in practice, most business decisions involve a combination of all of them. And if there's anything you'd like to know from me, I’m willing to share more knowledge for beer — and the final advantage? Supporting cocktail napkin drawings!