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PHOTO: Kelly Sikkema | unsplash

Let’s be honest. Before COVID-19 upended everything, very few organizations were doing knowledge management (KM) well. In their defense, KM — and I mean really good and effective KM — is hard. It can be expensive, takes a level of dedication many organizations don’t have the capacity for, and the payoff often takes longer than expected, leading some to think it's a lower-value activity. Knowledge management utopia simply did not exist for many organizations. Instead, people turned to the “sneaker net” — the network of go-to colleagues who always had the answers on various topics or at least knew where (and in which system) to find them.

Then everything changed.

The increase in physical distances stressed connections between people. The flow of information became more reliant on the digital tools and virtual experiences to communicate and nurture the work being done. Asking questions and seeking answers became an exclusively electronic experience as our usual access to knowledge, content and information transformed into something that felt just as distant as our work colleagues had suddenly become. We intentionally enacted social distancing at the physical and personal level, but the unintended consequence was virtual distancing of the information and knowledge upon which we so heavily relied.

As the pandemic progressed and safety routines established a new normal, organizations were able to take a moment and re-examine many aspects of themselves. The forced digital transformation most of us underwent helped accelerate our thinking and appreciation of digital workplace concepts like remote work, people-centered processes and experience, and the value proposition of good KM practices. If only we had had good KM practices in place, the crisis may not have been so impactful on the organization and its normal operations.

Maybe.

If the organization was lucky, they had well-managed knowledge assets readily available prior to 2020. But what if those assets pertained to the old way of doing business? During a crisis like the pandemic, do those assets still apply to any new or digitally transformed ways of doing business? Maybe, maybe not, but they were likely ahead of the game due to their commitment to KM practices in general.

The unlucky (and probably more common) organizations didn’t have those things in place, and therefore probably suffered twice over. Not only did they have to adapt, adjust, and in some cases fully reinvent their processes without an in-place and reliably well managed KM program, they also potentially had a whole new set of knowledge assets to manage in some way. They had to design, build and fly the KM aircraft all at the same time (while recovering from a pandemic). Yikes.

More Technology Is the Answer to Our KM Woes, Right?

No, not entirely. The tendency to throw technology at a problem and to think that digital transformation is all about the digital part is a tempting fall-back approach, particularly for those of us in the unlucky camp described above. But that attitude is part of what made us unprepared or not agile enough to handle a crisis like a pandemic. Also, remember the old days when a “crisis” was defined as rushing around at the last minute to gather all the information needed to answer specific questions from your boss, or to present to the CEO or Board of Directors? Chances are those processes may not have been all that efficient due to a lack of good KM practices and an overreliance on the notion that technology would simply solve all those efficiency problems.

To be and do better, we need better practices and processes. Technology can amplify the work being done. It can increase the pace and increase the volume fairly reliably. But if that work really isn’t working in the first place, then what is the point of spending the money to do more of it faster?

The pandemic showed everyone the importance of things like good KM. It also showed us that business processes not only need to be resilient, but they should be simpler, with predictable outcomes. Process standardization, especially for the processes that are the most common and controllable, are ripe for simplification and standardization. Taking the complexities out of a process helps ensure it is completed as expected. This in turn directly relates to a better experience for the employees managing and using the process, but also for the customers or end users consuming the end results of that process. Better experiences in turn lead to better engagements, and a new positive cycle can begin and strengthen itself. Build into those process methods for capturing and categorizing knowledge and the beginnings of a solid KM program can start to take shape.

Related Article: One Business Outcome of the Pandemic: Organizational Knowledge Loss

Rethinking Knowledge Management Post-Pandemic

As we now contemplate our next steps in the workplace, it's a good time to intentionally revisit knowledge management. Knowledge management probably doesn't need to be redefined, we just need to start incorporating it into the potentially new ways we are working post-pandemic. The basic practices in KM have been around for a while. Take these known good KM practices and find ways to insert them — naturally — into the work that is being rethought and refined.

  • Begin by keeping the basics in mind. Align the clarified and new business actions with your organization’s stated goals and strategies, as well as with the expected outcomes and desired experiences of the customers and users. What do they want and how can you deliver that to them according to your organization’s identity? Intentional shifts such as focusing as much on the employee’s needs as you do your customer will establish positive cycles moving forward.
  • Establish, demonstrate and support the concept that contextual information and intrinsic knowledge (not just hard data and numbers) drives business value. While this notion may seem obvious, formalizing it in a meaningful way is often difficult for organizations. It's just not a part of the culture. The challenge is to demonstrate that knowledge is absolutely an asset and that having it readily available makes the work more productive and the end results of that work more valuable to the customers and users. Managing that knowledge well is good for the bottom line. Managing it poorly can hurt the bottom line in a number of ways.
  • To ease some of the burdens of traditional approaches to KM, find ways to capture it as part of normal operations. Automate the capture and categorization with the judicious and intentional use of technology. If a given business process has specific documents or information moving from Human Resources to Finance following a specific process, capture and use the metadata of the document as well as information from the process itself to build a comprehensive story about the entire operation. There are potential answers to yet unasked questions in that story, but you have it managed already!
  • Start small and find repeatable processes with predictable information flows and outcomes. Seek to standardize the experience as well as the process. Implement technology such as the automation of a few steps or even AI to augment and support that automation. Training a chatbot against a list of questions and answers from your helpdesk is a common low-hanging fruit, but if the ways the questions are being asked and the ways the answers are being provided has too much variation, the chatbot may not learn the right answers to the most common questions. So again, look at simplifying and standardizing the help desk Q&A experience as much as possible, then apply the technology, then extract the knowledge value to build more cases.

This organic reboot of KM activities for your organization post-pandemic may begin as a response to changes brought on by COVID-19, but hopefully your rediscovered recognition of the value of well-managed knowledge can continue to grow and even culminate with a more formalized, yet still deeply ingrained, KM program. By then, your organization may need a KM manager. Or perhaps your organization could benefit from hiring one now to help guide and implement the reboot. In any case, let’s all try and make the most of this opportunity to realign our work and refamiliarize ourselves with the value of knowledge.

Related Article: The State of Knowledge Management in 2020