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Common Elements of Successful Knowledge Management Systems

Knowledge management systems that consistently yield the most effective results for their organizations typically have a few factors in common. The systems incorporate both documented knowledge and the wisdom that is housed exclusively in the minds and practices of experienced employees. They also present that information in formats that match user preferences.

These formats range from paper-based file-and-folder setups to combinations of sophisticated software, and they often are built on existing structures, such as additions to the companys current intranet.

  • The systems include step-by-step procedures for compiling, confirming, circulating, and updating organizational knowledge.
  • Job descriptions are created for every member of the KM system development team to ensure that there is accountability for work done at each of the five stages of the KM development initiative.
  • Where applicable, technology such as specialized software, electronic communication systems, and the use of the organizations intranet makes the accumulated and archived knowledge available to those who need it in distant locations. (Although high-tech tools are not prerequisites for creating a useful KM system, most organizations that have multiple locations find such tools to be necessary components.)
  • To capture the knowledge and expertise of retiring employees, organizations use formal documentation, video and audio recordings, one-on-one interviews, and succession-focused mentoring.
  • The systems establish gathering places, such as online communities of practice or collaborative workspaces where current employees can share knowledge and discuss ongoing projects.
  • The organizations work toward creating cultures of knowledge sharing through various incentives, such as rewarding contributions to the knowledge base, spotlighting executive personnels use of the knowledge base, and recognizing innovations developed from information gathered through the KM system.
  • The systems are updated continually and are revised and upgraded to answer new challenges that occur within the organization.

Organization-wide support for your KM system

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Knowledge management is not solely the responsibility of an organizations information technology, human resources, or training departments. To be effective, a KM system should be organization-wide, both in its contributors and in its users. When the system is in its early development phase, engaging broad support may be a challenge because of organization members natural resistance to new directions and initiatives.

This resistance may stem from fear of not being able to understand and use this new KM system. It may be connected to the idea that documenting the knowledge they have in their heads will replace the need to keep them in the organization. Its also a step out of the comfort zones that theyve been operating in, even if that comfort zone was inefficient and outdated. And, ultimately, employees may not see the need for a KM system because they simply cant visualize the potential benefits for them.

The following activities are good ways to overcome some of that resistance and promote your KM system throughout an entire organization:

  • Encourage executive support for the KM initiative by developing a well-defined project plan that includes a detailed timeline, documented project roles and authority levels, resource requirements, accountability and evaluation methods, risk mitigation and management plans, a training plan, and an ongoing communications strategy.
  • Publicize the support of executive-level managers through organization communications and reveal the degree of their support by highlighting their allocation of time and resources.
  • Be selective in your use of the term knowledge management. The term itself can cause confusion and link your effort to the failures that may have happened in earlier KM efforts. Instead, create your program as an answer to a current challenge, linking it directly to organizational goals to counter potential resistance and gain acceptance.
  • Create a steering committee with representatives from across the organization. An effective KM system ultimately must address the needs of all departments, even if it begins with a focus in a limited area.
  • If the system will include a customer service component, get input from current customers.
  • Request input from the information technology department early in the process. At some point, the KM system will require computer-based tools and access to make it grow. Planning with that growth in mind ensures that the selected input and user formats will make the eventual transition seamless.
  • Start small and expand incrementally. Introducing your KM program on too broad a basis will make inevitable small missteps at rollout appear disastrous.
  • Begin in an area where quick wins are possiblefor example, put a troubleshooting guide online for one of the most common equipment or process problems in the company. This is the type of victory that affects the bottom line directly and thus gains favorable attention from management and from employees looking for ways to contribute to the organizations success. Promoting these victories will build enthusiasm for the KM system as a whole.
  • At the earliest opportunity, post questions that need answers so you can discover subject matter experts who may have been missed when the development team first identified the existing and valuable knowledge to be gathered and made accessible to the organization. The broader and deeper the knowledge base, the more productive the KM system.
  • Recruit a group of key employees to serve as champions and spokespersons for the KM initiative. They can help other employees understand the benefits of the KM system and help dispel misconceptions about it. Target those employees who are influential and respected in the organization to spread the word and to help you discover any areas of concern among employees.
  • Seek voluntary participation instead of mandating that employees put information into the system and use it for their research.
  • Create communications that illustrate the benefits of using the system effectively. Give examples of how to use it in the day-to-day operations of a range of units and departmentshighlight some of the most frequently searched topics, share positive anecdotes from people whove used the knowledge base successfully, and profile the experience of an employee who used the information from the knowledge base in the innovation of a new idea.
  • Present training sessions to introduce employees to the methods of accessing and contributing to the KM system. These may be classroom training sessions that involve actual hands-on practice with searching the knowledge base. They may include meetings where supporting documentation is distributed with step-by-step instructions and where employees are invited to comment on both the format and the knowledge housed in the KM system.
  • Use recognition and reward to spotlight subject matter experts for their vital contributions to the success of the system. Mention them in organization communications, create an award for outstanding contributions that influence organizational operations, or even present such tangible rewards as prizes or bonuses.
  • Recognize and reward both employees who put valuable information into the system and employees who use the knowledge base in an outstanding manner. Publicize their contributions to the organization.
  • Demonstrate the systems value by publicizing successes at each stage of the development process to build support for the future stages of the program. Continue to remind employees that this valuable resource exists and is being improved and updated continually.

Note: This article is excerpted from Knowledge Management Basics by Christee Gabour Atwood.

About the Author
When you use a workbook by Christee Atwood, you gain the benefit of her impressive experience as a speaker, trainer, and knowledge management adviser. A certified Franklin Covey trainer who has worked with Fortune 500 companies, major associations, and governmental entities, Atwood provides the knowledge and tools you need to deliver top-notch workshops in your own organization. She does all this with an easy-to-read conversational style and plenty of humor. In fact, Atwood teaches "But UnSeriously Folks!"—a course on the effective use of humor in the workplace—and has written a humorous autobiography, Three Feet Under: Journal of a Midlife Crisis. Atwood has also written three ASTD Press books: Knowledge Management Basics, Succession Planning Basics, and Presentation Skills Training.
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