The field of knowledge management (KM) is constantly changing, and adding to its arsenal of tools, technologies and objectives. The combination of skills and expertise, data, search, communication and technology that KM encompasses means that it's vital to stay current in order to provide access to information for both employees and customers. In this article we are going to look at the state of KM in 2020 in a rapidly changing market.
Giovanni Piazza, global head of knowledge management at Takeda Pharmaceutical, described the current state of KM as follows: "Knowledge management is fundamentally four things these days: Search and findability. Then there is the one thing that everybody's been chasing since the beginning of the inception of the discipline, expertise location, finding who knows what. It's a trend that has been developing in the past 5-7 years, when we realize that people are another type of content. And then, once you have expertise location, the next thing you have is digital communities, or more precisely, digitally enabled communities, aka Communities of Practice. And the fourth thing is innovative technologies."
Remote Workforce Brings Knowledge Management to the Forefront
The pandemic crisis has greatly accelerated the use of remote workers and a distributed workforce. Thankfully, knowledge management has helped to drive more effective collaboration across these remote teams of workers.
Gretchen Anderson, product strategy consultant, author and speaker, sees the shift towards a distributed workforce as a positive move, stating that "supporting asynchronous, distributed work was always important, but now companies are finding it the status quo. The shifts are about sharing work in progress in settings that aren't F2F that don't allow people to control the dialogue. This is great, actually."
Piazza said that in the past, businesses "were discouraging remote work, and all of a sudden now, in the past month or so, they've catapulted themselves to the forefront. Because now they are using Zoom and WebEx and Microsoft Teams, etc. That is all knowledge management. The future of knowledge management is going to be the [remote] digital workplace."
According to Piazza, "the future of the KM discipline is all these things, all these components articulating for other things: people, process, content and technology. Imagine a four by four matrix. The emphasis until recently was on search and findability usually, and a little bit of expertise location. Now, with the lockdown, many companies that thought it was impossible for them to operate in a virtual world realize that when they're forced to do it, it isn't that bad." He feels that "the toolbox of knowledge management has been evolving. It's been an evolution and evolutionary journey, but not a revolutionary journey."
The evolution in KM has been happening for a while now, Piazza believes. "There is a change in direction because even before the pandemic, knowledge management was evolving toward the digital workplace. Knowledge management hasn't changed directionally. It's not that we're doing things that we were not doing before. We all do things that we were doing before, the balance has shifted toward the creation assistance of digital communities and the creation of the digital workplace. That is the change that businesses are seeing."
AI and Knowledge Management
One of the most interesting technological trends this year is the use of artificial intelligence in conjunction with knowledge management. As an example, one subset of KM is providing information to customers who have specific questions regarding a company they are doing business with. In the past, this involved an online knowledge base, a series of web pages describing their products or services, or perhaps a Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) page, and if those documents failed to provide an answer, an email address was provided that customers could use to ask their questions to a customer support person from the business. All of this required a certain level of commitment and persistence by the customer, as well as a lengthy back and forth communications process.
Through the use of AI and bots, that is, automated AI-based chat software, businesses are now able to instantly respond to customers directly on the business' website, in real time. Chatbots are not new — they have been used for over a decade now. In 2008, Alaska Airlines debuted its Ask Jenn chat bot, and Expedia announced their own customer service bot in 2011. The majority of these early chatbots used automated sequences that were triggered by the use of keywords in the user interactions with the bot. A decision tree enabled the chatbot to determine which response was appropriate for the ongoing conversation.
An AI chatbot, on the other hand, is designed to function more on its own through the use of natural language processing, (NLP) and artificial intelligence that is based on human data. This enables the AI chatbot to continually improve and become more spontaneous, more human-like in its responses, providing the customer with a conversation that is often difficult to differentiate from a conversation with a real person. The old Turing test, in which the goal is to create a conversation between a human and a machine, has officially been beaten.
The advantages that AI chatbots have over more traditional automated chatbots is that an AI chatbot is better able to understand behavioral patterns, analyze sentiment, and can actively learn and adapt to individual customer requirements. This is just one example of how AI can be used to facilitate a more effective presentation and articulation of knowledge.
Piazza sees the value of AI, but is hesitant to use a technology for KM just because it's available. "Knowledge management practitioners have often been our own worst enemies, because too many of us have jumped to embrace the latest shiny object without making a cost benefit or simply an effectiveness assessment. So many times, we fell prey to the latest fad. As a result, knowledge management got a black eye more often than not."
That said, he is emphatic that "Machine learning and artificial intelligence are here to stay. And anybody who does not pay attention is making a big mistake." Piazza goes on to say that "Artificial intelligence lives well in a given ecosystem characterized by high volumes, deterministic predictability of all the possible combinations of the elements, etc. But if you have 10 million documents, which in a company of medium-to-large size is not unheard of, and they are in six or seven systems, knowledge repositories and different platforms, you have something on SharePoint, something on shared drives, AI is not going to do anything for you."
Visual Knowledge Management Is Becoming More Prominent
Data visualization — a graphical representation of information and data — is becoming more pervasive in knowledge management practices. We are a visual society, and are driven by the desire for instant access to information. From the success of the 30-minute (or less) tutorials that pervade YouTube on every topic imaginable, to Google's reverse image search that allows users to take a picture with their smartphone and use that picture to return search results, point to more of a societal dependence and reliance on visual media.
Websites such as AnswerThePublic are using visual displays of their keyword search results to graphically display phrases or questions based on the keywords that have been searched, providing a greater insight for its clients.
For those in KM, the use of visual paradigms provided by software such as MindMapper, DeepaMehta, eyePlorer, and others has provided the opportunity to graphically display datasets on virtually any topic. Through the use of visual elements such as search clouds, maps, charts, and graphs, these tools provide users with a visually accessible method of recognizing the trends, and patterns and ideas that are expressed in the data.
Agile Methodology Is Still Vital to KM
Piazza is a huge proponent of Agile methodology in KM, and makes no apologies for his endorsement of it. Agile Knowledge Management refers to the speed at which one is able to address the challenges of business and operational performance, as well as the development and implementation of a KM-based strategy and the methodologies that can be successfully used. Agile methodology, which usually focuses on iteration, collaboration, self-organization, and customer-centric design, has been widely used by knowledge managers.
"I am a big fan of agile methodology, a big, big, big fan." He believes that an agile methodology "goes hand in glove with the user centered design. The traditional scenario is about users, who are not IT, they're end users. Sure, they dialog with IT, and spend the innumerable hours writing the specification document, their requirements, the specs - they're as thick as a phone book. And then IT goes away, reads the specs, and they come back six months later, and the user looks at what they say. 'That's not what I wanted.' 'Here it says, chapter three section four, paragraph z. See, it says this and I did it exactly as it says."
Instead, Piazza suggests that using agile methodologies such as design thinking allow us to "spend as little time as you can, understanding what the user wants. Go away, bring back a prototype, or a non-working prototype, which is a simulation. Then you go back, [refine the ideas] and you come back [with another prototype]. By the time you're done iterating with prototypes, you've only spent 10% of the time, 10% of the money, and the user sees what the final product is going to look like, and can tell you 'yes, no, yes'. That is the way to go about it."
Knowledge Management Drives Enhanced Collaboration
Knowledge management professionals have a common goal that focuses on the dissemination of knowledge to an employee or employees who are actively looking for information and data. The methodology of sharing this data is usually through tools such as Sharepoint, an internal intranet or wiki, and informational alerts and messages through collaboration software such as Slack or Microsoft Teams. Today's KM has begun to evolve into collaborative knowledge management, or as some have termed it, Knowledge Collaboration, a process of structuring group interactions to facilitate problem solving and the sharing of knowledge.
Based on knowledge alliances, or "marriages," as Piazza refers to them, knowledge collaboration relies upon four traits: willingness to cooperate, learning abilities, knowledge attributes and knowledge activities, which is very much affected by the division, flow, sharing and creation of knowledge.
In today's typically siloed work environments, sharing knowledge between individuals across various departments is a collaborative effect that facilitates knowledge innovation and provides a benefit and cohesiveness that is otherwise difficult to achieve. By recognizing and working towards the common goal of providing more effective access by employees to knowledge and data through these mechanisms, KM actually progresses towards literally being collaborative knowledge management.
Largely, it goes back to what Piazza said at the beginning of this article: a focus on the core principles of KM, that is, people, process, content and technology. "Today, if you only look at the Microsoft offer, which is extremely rich to the point of confusion, because they have SharePoint,Office 365, Teams, Skype, they have Graphs. So it's not very coherent as a digital strategy, but it is incredibly rich. If you are a knowledge manager, or a knowledge executive, you can, in a matter of a few weeks, go figure out for yourself and your company, a very complete digital workplace enablement infrastructure."
As Piazza sees it, there aren't any specific technologies that have recently become available that have changed KM, but rather, "a renewed emphasis on some of the aspects, more of a shift of the balance" to effectively use a widely available set of tools and methodologies to achieve the goal of collaboratively shared knowledge. Anderson says that it's vital to continue to encourage creativity and engagement through the use of the technologies that are available now for remote and distributed workers. She reminds leaders that "it's not just about video conferencing that replicates in person, synchronous communication. Tools that help people co-create and comment on work are critical."
Anderson — whose recent book, "Mastering Collaboration," suggests that predefined solutions are just not going to cut it if leaders want to improve cross-functional teamwork — reminds us that "collaboration is about people. Listening, facilitation, and objective setting all still critical."
Knowledge management is not experiencing a revolution in 2020, but it is continuing to evolve to be more collaborative in a highly digital workplace, and has been a key part of helping businesses to survive in the crisis of our lifetimes. By learning to more effectively use all the collaboration, project management and communication methodologies that are available, along with the selective use of a few new technologies such as AI and visual data display, knowledge workers continue to play a vital role in enterprise business.