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knowledge management (KM)

Knowledge management is the process by which an enterprise gathers, organizes, shares and analyzes its knowledge in a way that is easily accessible to employees. This knowledge includes technical resources, frequently asked questions, training documents and people skills.

Knowledge management involves data mining and some method of operation to push information to users to make it easily accessible. A knowledge management plan involves a survey of corporate goals and a close examination of the tools -- both traditional and technical -- to address the needs of a company. The challenge of selecting a knowledge management system is to purchase or build software that fits the context of the overall plan and encourages employees to use the system and share information.

Knowledge-based systems architecture

What is the goal of knowledge management?

Improving organizational efficiency and saving knowledge in an easily accessible form are the main goals of knowledge management. Knowledge management aims to put the right information in front of someone at the right time.

This is done by:

  • capturing and organizing knowledge in a knowledge management system to address specific business tasks and projects;
  • sharing knowledge with others who can benefit from it;
  • improving processes and technology to provide easy access to knowledge; and
  • promoting the generation of new knowledge for continual learning.

Knowledge management enables businesses to break down siloes by putting information in a place easily accessible to all employees. It provides a place for people to put knowledge they have acquired over time, preventing a business from losing that information when individuals leave the company.

Types of knowledge

Knowledge is an understanding of information that an organization or individual acquires through education and experience. That information comes from data -- raw facts and figures that have been contextualized.

Knowledge triangle
This knowledge triangle shows the process by which data becomes knowledge.

There are three types of knowledge -- explicit, tacit and embedded. However, the two most important distinctions are explicit and tacit.

  • Explicit knowledge. This type of knowledge is codified -- meaning it is found in books, files, folders, documents, databases and how-to videos -- and is most easily extracted and handled by a knowledge management system.
  • Tacit knowledge. This form of knowledge is intuitive in nature. It is based on experience and practice and often helps in achieving long-term goals. This type of knowledge transfer is difficult, as it lies with a single person. There is no easy way to extract it as with explicit knowledge, leaving the knowledge-holder with the task of writing it down or creating a video. Some examples of tacit knowledge include identifying the right moment to launch into a sales pitch or developing leadership skills.
  • Embedded knowledge. This knowledge is found in systemic processes, routines, manuals, structures and organizational cultures. It is embedded formally through management initiatives or informally as organizations use and apply the other two knowledge types. While embedded knowledge can be found in explicit sources, it is not always immediately apparent why doing something a certain way is important for a business.

Examples of knowledge management systems

A knowledge management system is a type of content management system that houses and retrieves organizational knowledge. It is commonly known as a knowledge base and helps present information to users in various ways, including:

  • FAQs
  • webinars
  • training programs
  • case studies
  • forums or community features

Some knowledge management systems include:

  • Zendesk Guide. While Zendesk is often used for customer support management, it also provides a knowledge management system called Zendesk Guide, which integrates with Zendesk Support. Features include an integrated knowledge capture app, article recommendations, an Answer Bot for internal teams and their customers and a customer portal.
  • Helpjuice. This software is targeted toward startups and small businesses. Its features include a Google-like search interface, analytics, multilanguage support, SEO optimization and Slack integration.
  • Document360. This tool enables organizations to create both public and private knowledge bases. Features include the ability to roll back to previous versions, analytics and reports, advanced security access and third-party integrations with tools such as Microsoft, Zendesk and Intercom.
  • ProProfs.This software supports private and public knowledge bases and benefits SMBs and organizations with a small content set. It can be used to create user guides, knowledge bases, help sites and wikis. Features include security controls, analytics and reports, and integrations with other tools such as Zendesk.

The knowledge management process

There are four key knowledge management processes. These include:

  • Knowledge gathering. This includes entering data, optical character recognition and scanning, pulling information from various sources and searching for other information to include.
  • Knowledge storage and organization. This step in the process includes cataloging and indexing content in a knowledge management system to find it, and placing links within this content to provide further related information for users to digest.
  • Knowledge distribution. This provides a way for users to access the information, including FAQs, training videos, white papers and manuals.
  • Knowledge use. Once information is distributed to users, they need to put it into action.
    Knowledge management processes
    These are the main steps in the knowledge management process.

Benefits and challenges of knowledge management

Knowledge management can reduce business operation costs and increase employee productivity. It does this in the following ways:

  • Less time recreating existing knowledge. This is possible because that individual and collective knowledge is now written down and stored in one place that is easily accessible to users.
  • Information at users' fingertips. Users no longer have to play a lengthy game of phone and email tag, asking multiple people for the same thing in hopes that they might know the answer to their question.
  • Fewer mistakes. As users share information, they work the kinks out of various processes, preventing the same mistake from being made twice.
  • Standardized processes. A golden record of processes and procedures is stored in a system for all to access, which can improve employee onboarding and training. This also preserves information, preventing processes from getting muddled over time.
  • Increased collaboration. Now that users are sharing knowledge in a common space, it's more convenient to work together to improve processes.

There are, however, also some challenges to knowledge management. Challenges include:

  • Motivation. Employees are often set in their own ways and managers find it difficult to motivate employees to change their habits and share knowledge in a common workspace.
  • Keeping up with technology. Technology is constantly changing; often it can be difficult to keep up with the latest updates and tools.
  • Security. As with any information in a business system, user permissions and security levels must be set to ensure the right people are seeing the right information.
  • Keeping information up to date. Like technology, information, too, changes at a rapid pace. It is necessary to keep it fresh and relevant.

Knowledge management best practices

Businesses may approach knowledge management in different ways, but implementing these best practices can put organizations on the road to success:

  • Assess organizational culture. It's important to understand the capabilities and needs of the employees who will be using a knowledge management system before choosing one. If employees only have basic computer skills, for example, businesses should think twice before buying an expensive and complicated system that will only confuse them.
  • Carefully plan a rollout. Organizations shouldn't bombard employees with new knowledge management processes and systems all at once. Businesses should plan a slow yet deliberate rollout with employee training at each step in the process to ensure they are comfortable with the new system and use it.
  • Motivate and reward employees. Managers should motivate employees with rewards and bonuses for using the new knowledge management system. This will encourage knowledge sharing instead of knowledge hoarding.
  • Implement knowledge ownership. Attaching employee credit to knowledge documents and media simultaneously motivates employees and provides a breadcrumb trail for other users. If they need clarification or additional information on something they have read or watched, they know who to follow up with.
  • Create a formal knowledge exchange policy. This is important, especially when people leave a company. Instead of losing information along with that employee, they would now pass that information along to other employees, ensuring knowledge retention.

Creating and implementing a knowledge management framework

It's necessary to have a plan before implementing a knowledge management framework. Businesses can take these steps to ensure a smooth business rollout:

  1. Establish program objectives. Leadership should identify what business processes -- such as training and onboarding -- need to be addressed and document short-term and long-term objectives.
  2. Include employees in implementation process. Employees need to learn the new process and must rethink the way they share knowledge. Businesses should appoint knowledge management "champions" to assist with this change, motivating others to share knowledge and providing feedback to the implementation team.
  3. Develop detailed procedures. This will include how businesses capture, organize and deliver knowledge. This step also includes creating knowledge management best practices.
  4. Determine technology needs. Businesses can determine their needs based on their program objectives. They also need to understand what technology employees are currently using, what does and doesn't work, and why. Organizations should ensure that existing technology isn't already meeting business needs.
  5. Build a roadmap. At this step in the process, the business should reconfirm leadership's support in this endeavor, along with program funding. This roadmap may span months, or even years.
  6. Implement the program. Once businesses have processes and technology in place and addressed organizational culture, it is time to launch the program.
  7. Measure success and improve program. Just because a knowledge management program is now live doesn't mean the work is done. Businesses need to measure the success of their program and make continual improvements for optimal efficiency. Businesses should create scorecards that address performance, quality, compliance and value. Benefits may not be immediately obvious, but the business will see results over time.
This was last updated in January 2021

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