Applying knowledge management (KM) within a business preserves institutional knowledge, captures new knowledge and makes relevant information more widely available throughout the organisation.
This improves business efficiencies and enhances decision making and planning tenfold. However, adopting KM requires more than the mere installation of a few collaborative technologies. A culture change is essential to create a receptive environment.
Says Mohammed Bhyat, project delivery leader at e.com institute, a business solutions provider: "Increasing business performance relies on a number of things – a vision and strategy that everyone in the organisation understands, the processes and operational infrastructure to deliver, and the information and technology systems to drive smart decision-making. However, the biggest driver of success in any business is the input – and output – of its people."
Looking after these critical intellectual assets and leveraging the skills and business knowledge people individually represent is a challenge best answered by Knowledge Management. Introducing KM, however, requires a culture change within the business.
Knowledge has historically represented power – if an individual had certain knowledge, experience and skills, he or she was loath to share it as it provided job security. "In a business environment where internal and external collaboration has become essential to agility and maintaining competitive advantage, fear, ego and insecurity have no place," says Bhyat.
"To prevent limiting knowledge-hoarding practices finding purchase in an organisation, a culture change that encourages collaboration and information sharing must be led from the highest ranks."
And such a culture change does not take place overnight, nor is it a simple matter. "It is a multi-year process and requires leadership commitment," says Bhyat. "KM depends on everyone in the organisation contributing their skills and knowledge willingly, which means an open, neutral and trusting environment needs to be created where everyone can contribute safely and freely and benefit from the exchanges.
"This culture change starts with the CEO – usually the one person best placed to strategically drive KM as he/she has a big picture and long term view of the organisation, knows the key issues and how to orchestrate them."
A key example of the strategic level that KM is being placed at is the appointment of Chief Knowledge Officer at companies like Kumba Resources, PWC and ABNAmro Bank. At SA Breweries (SAB), a KM programme has been in place for a number of years and has been rolled out at all levels. All the big banks have some kind of KM system as do petrochemical companies such as Sasol and BP, whose oil exploration division has one of the best niche KM platforms.
Consulting firms such as PWC and Accenture have global systems in place, and there are also KM systems at technology companies such as Siemens that caters for 300 000 global employees.
Says Bhyat: "These companies have learned that a KM approach can have long term benefits that directly affect their bottom lines."
Thanks to the formalisation of KM principles and mechanisms, proven structures that facilitate knowledge sharing at different levels of the organisation – eg, specialised, executive and operational – can be put in place. These structures include storytelling sessions, communities of practice, virtual intranet or Internet forums, and data warehouses with cases studies, business processes and other information. But involvement has to be stimulated and continuously encouraged, and data warehouses need to be maintained and updated regularly to be of value.
Organisations have done this in different ways. Explains Bhyat: "At SAB, for instance, the senior KM officer has created a forum or community of practice where bottling plants managers/operators talk to one another directly, sharing information and knowledge and resolving problems unique to their industry and company.
"This has brought considerable gain in terms of time, effort, productivity and cost savings. KM thus assists to resolve real problems that directly affect the bottom line."
Another example is the value gained from storytelling sessions Bhyat set up while consulting to SARS. "SARS has many outside consultants working within its various departments. On interacting with them, I discovered that they all had between 10 and 30 years' experience. I thus set up a Friday lunchtime storytelling sessions where each chatted about the projects they had been involved in, the challenges they had experienced and the lessons they had learned. While all very anecdotal, a huge amount of value was gained by all participants, especially the younger staff."
The same value can be gained from obtaining knowledgeable insight from 'content experts' and other relevant staff before, during and after projects. "In every organisation there are a key people who have broad experience, knowledge and specialised skills," says Bhyat. "Creating a list of these people for project leaders to consult with during the creation of a project and throughout its progress, ensures valuable institutional knowledge is passed on. This has proven so successful that some organisations have, in fact, formalised this information exchange."
He notes, however, that not enough is being done to review projects. "Almost every military force in the world does a debriefing (and after-action review) of major engagements to identify the good and the bad parts of their operations. The same formulae can be applied to business with considerable gain. Take the eNatis Project for instance. Has any review been conducted on the challenges faced, the benefits gained and what can be learnt from the process?
"While many shy away from this process, seeing it as a 'naming and shaming' exercise, this is precisely what KM helps companies avoid. It allows a neutral environment to be created where the facts, processes and experiences can be reviewed to avoid repetition of errors and ensure valuable 'wins' can be repeated."
Explains Bhyat: "There are now real methodologies attached to KM that explain how best to facilitate a discussion forum, how to stimulate involvement, and how to obtain quick wins that encourage participation. An important part of the process is, of course, validation of the knowledge gathered. Much like peer reviews in the academic world that provide critique, support, or not, for new ideas and methodologies, the knowledge gathered by KM practices within an organisation needs to be validated – ensuring it is useful and practical and relevant."
Sharing and collaboration is not something that should be seen in isolation, however, Bhyat warns. "KM is not an add-on; it must be built into all the processes," he says.
He also adds that, like ICT, KM is not a silver bullet to organisational performance. "The fundamentals – vision and strategy, operations, processes and technology – all have to be in place before KM can help drive the organisation forward and assist to enhance performance."