The return to office debates continue on, even as the Delta variant has forced businesses to push off existing plans. Driving many of the conversations is the argument that the last year and a half provided the final proof that remote working is good for people and good for productivity. The counter argument runs that it worked in an emergency, but stifles creativity by not bringing people together for those much-vaunted water cooler conversations.

As with most broad subject areas, the answer isn't simple. For every introverted employee who thrives in the home office, there is an extrovert whose creativity is kindled at the whiteboard with peers. For every organization that fits well into a remote working model, there is another that does not, and most importantly there are thousands of permutations of these employee- or organizational-centric views.

HR departments struggle to find the sweet spot, although it's perhaps easier in smaller or newer companies than in big old enterprises with ingrained corporate culture. For example, I've worked remotely from Canada for a U.S. software company well before COVID, and I found it very difficult to adjust. I am that whiteboard loving extrovert! But my previous two organizations were both large Canadian banks. Both provided extremely flexible working hours and remote working based on the division and that division's leadership. As you might expect in the digital group at one bank, remote was the norm for many, and I might work remotely two days of the week, and struggle to find a spot to sit when I went into the office. Before that, in the legal group of a different bank, my hours were flexible and I could do some remote working due to my grade, but my team were expected to be at their desks, 9 to 5 (or later, but let’s not go into that). Does remote working not work for legal? Of course it does. It was all about the organizational culture of that group, not about productivity.

So, based on all the articles on the topic, an epic struggle is taking place between flexible or inflexible, in office or remote. And for every “enlightened” business embracing new ways of working, there are two or three others that continue to struggle with organizational culture, and some where the model just does not work due to the nature of the business (let’s face it, it’s difficult to get your car tires changed, or your teeth cleaned remotely).

Where Does Knowledge Management Fit?

We last discussed knowledge management (KM) back in June, when AIIM introduced the term "organizational intelligence." At the end of the day though, labels don’t really matter. Call it what you will, what matters is having a knowledge management or an organizational intelligence strategy. When you have a strategy you can develop plans, policies and procedures to help get your work done.

A KM strategy must start by establishing the great value knowledge provides for an organization. Whether it is tacit knowledge in people’s heads, or explicit knowledge (a.k.a. information) captured in systems, it goes beyond the narrow view of intellectual property.

It's easy to append dollar values to IP like patents, trade secrets trademarks and more, making it a clear sell for senior execs. However, there is also a considerable dollar value in knowing how to fix and set up the robot that attaches all the doors to the cars you are making, or in the deep expertise of a particular team in dealing with complex insurance claims or complex M&A activity.

You may believe managing and nurturing that value is all about your people, and therefore put HR in the lead on KM strategy. Or as more often seems the case, your CIO might chair a KM committee that focuses on the capture and sharing of knowledge through the use of IT systems, software and tools.

I would argue it doesn't matter which approach you take as long as you accept the overall strategic position that managing your knowledge is important. From that foundation, you can examine how to use your KM strategy to enable either long-term remote work, or hybrid flexible models as your "new normal" (call it what you will).

Related Article: Defining the Knowledge-Centric Digital Workplace

Learning Opportunities

Let Your KM Strategy Guide Your Technology Use

An approach like this goes beyond the IT provisioning of appropriate kit and software. You have everyone set up on Teams, or Slack and Zoom or GoToMeeting, great. Everyone can see each other if required, talk to each other from laptops or tablets or phones, and join virtual whiteboarding sessions to get the creative juices flowing. But the big question is, how do you manage the assets they create in these interactions? How do you store them for future retrieval and sharing, and how do you use all these wonderfully feature-filled tools to create, manage and share knowledge?

Again, the key point is your KM strategy should provide the framework for making the most out of your technology investments to help your employees — whether working in the office, at home, in a coffee shop or on a mountain. If you already had a KM strategy prior to the pandemic, it's worth revisiting to see if updates are needed to take into account whatever hybrid, flexible or remote working model now in place.  

The exact policy and recommendations will of course depend on your particular context. All discussions should be recorded for posterity — whether they take place in the appropriate Teams channel (not in email), or in a meeting — for easy reference by everyone involved.

So when you have your next discussion about what your new normal is going to be, don’t get stuck on which tools will enable productivity for office, remote or hybrid employees. Rather, think about how your people actually use those tools to generate, manage and share that incredibly valuable knowledge.

One thing that COVID-19 has not changed is the increasing velocity at which we are generating huge volumes of business data, which adds challenges at every level of data, information and knowledge management. This isn't going to change. So think about how you can help your employees manage the flows as they turn into a deluge. Make it easy for them to create and share value, and remember that when it comes down to it, your people are truly your greatest and most valuable asset.

Related Article: Knowledge Retention in Times of Disruption

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