Since I first came on the scene as a knowledge manager in 2008, knowledge managers have debated (and debated) the purpose of knowledge management (KM).

What exactly is it? Why are we doing it? 

Is it about collaboration or about capturing what we know? Is it about sharing what we know?

Unfortunately, knowledge managers have largely been buried within corporate structures: typically within an enterprise team that sits in a corporate dungeon. Meaning, somewhere in the dark — like IT — in respect to the rest of the organization. They tend to focus on providing document or content solutions to the business, whether they need them or not.

Many of the conferences I attended as a younger, more impressionable individual presented case after case of successful KM tool implementations — lots of lovely statistics on user numbers, documents uploaded, pages created. All good stuff. People are creating knowledge. Job done, let's go home.

But is this really what KM is all about? 

Fast forward to the present. This year I've attended a few KM conferences and despite the odd case study on tool adoption — and who can resist these? — what really stood out were the references to the customer. 

The customer. That person who ultimately pays for us to remain employed. Suddenly, the focus seems to be shifting from technology solutions to customer needs. 

But what does this actually look like? And how can this work for those of us who typically don't interact with our customers?

Our Knowledge Diversity: The Essential Tool for Meeting Customer Needs

Understanding our customer's needs can no longer be relegated to a small number of frontline people. As an organization, we need to react quicker and more innovatively than ever before. 

And it's the collective knowledge of our workforce that can provide the answers. 

The gold lies in this diversity of knowledge: we're not just after the thoughts of the sales team. Every team in the organization can contribute — the barriers to delivering work from project managers, the techniques that our competitors are doing well gleaned from those who have friends in these organizations, the tactics we've learned at conferences from our HR team. Everyone has valuable input to help improve the customer's experience.

In an era of customers expecting more from less and where technology evolves faster then we can keep up, it's the collective knowledge of an organization that provides the most value to our customers.

The next question is, how do we exploit that? How do we channel that knowledge directly to meet our customer's needs, particularly the unmet needs?

Reboot Team Meetings: Look Outwards

Everyone must learn how to follow people and sources outside of their team, and outside of their area of expertise.

Team meetings are the best way to bring in outside thinking, to challenge why we do things the way we do them. 

Project and task updates? Ditch them! Collaboration and project management tools make it easy for us to share and track tasks. Valuable team meeting time shouldn't be wasted on navel gazing, instead we should spend the time connecting what we do to the wider world. 

And when we focus on internal projects and processes — well, don't. Bring in clients, stakeholders, any of the people who our work impacts and talk to them. Don't assume anything. Find out why they need our services, even if they are not a client. 

Many practitioners, myself included, believe the smallest effective unit within an organization is not the individual, it's the team. How the team collaborates and rethinks the way it works will be crucial to an organization's success.

Connect Social Collaboration to Business Process

Business processes frustrate us, but also help us do things the right way. Streamlined processes represent high business value. Connecting a business process with a social channel can create an important source of rich, helpful knowledge that we might otherwise miss.

Think of all that valuable (non-confidential), untapped information in business processes. Client relationship knowledge, project management knowledge — information typically limited on a 'need to know' basis. 

But don't we all need to know? Aren't these clients and these projects the reasons we drag ourselves into the office each day? Shouldn't we be thinking of who else it could be useful for?

Keep it simple. All we need in our social collaboration channels are the building blocks for conversations: content, people and actions. What do we know? Who is doing it? What are they doing? 

We can take this is a step further and move the workflow of a process into a social collaboration group. This turns a standard process into a social process — it enables us to more easily contribute, share and learn.

Conversations: Knowledge to Innovation

The more conversations that take place between people from diverse backgrounds — from the front line to the back of house — creates more opportunities to connect client needs to new thinking and insights. 

Management needs to encourage and facilitate building relationships outside of immediate teams. Intersecting one team's knowledge with the knowledge of others through conversation is one of the most powerful fuels for innovation.

Getting the intelligence and insights about our customers, indeed even directly from our customers, into a conversation is the starting point. We then need to apply our unique perspectives and abilities to this knowledge. 

Disrupt the everyday thinking we all fall into, and talk with a wider network. Feed this back into our circles, form ideas, challenge the status quo. 

We don't know exactly where these conversations will take us, and that's the beauty. We have to rely less on the knowns and more on innovation as a way of using our collective knowledge to produce surprising ideas, all directed towards a better experience for our clients. 

That's the difference, the value-add, the sustainable competitive advantage. We just need to continuously work on it by talking, not presuming. 

And this is where KM can add huge value. It's as simple as connecting our collective knowledge to clients though conversations. We just have to open ourselves up to forming relationships outside of our immediate environs. If the KM conferences I've been to this year are any indication, I'm hopeful that as collaboration and innovation practitioners, we're on the way.