Six Keys to Unlocking the Power of Knowledge Management

If one thing is clear about knowledge management, it is this: you can’t shrink-wrap it.

Vendors of knowledge-management tools are understandably keen to tout the benefits of their software – many of which are real – but technology is only a small part of the knowledge-management picture.

Nor is knowledge management simply about knowledge. Just ask Hubert St. Onge, who heads knowledge management at Clarica Life Insurance Co. in Waterloo, Ont., which was named one of the most admired knowledge organizations this year by the KNOW Network, a worldwide group through which knowledge-management users share ideas and best practices. “Knowledge for knowledge’s sake will never do anything, and it will lead nowhere,” says St. Onge. “This is why I never sought to be chief knowledge officer in this company. I’m senior vice-president of strategic capabilities.”

In fact, knowledge management involves such a mixture of technology, corporate culture and general management practices that a good knowledge-management strategy is inextricably tied up with managing the organization itself. Based on interviews with some of the experts and those who have learned from experience, here are six keys to knowledge-management success.

One Align the knowledge strategy with the business strategy

“The knowledge strategy has to be closely aligned to the business strategy,” says Dave Pollard, global director for knowledge innovation at consulting firm Ernst & Young’s Centre for Business Knowledge in Toronto. “In other words, every element of the knowledge strategy must lead to achievement of one of the business goals.

“If the business strategy is growth, for example, then the knowledge strategy might be to leverage knowledge to increase revenue per person. If the business strategy is more cost-containment, then

the knowledge strategy should be aimed at improving cost productivity rather than generating new revenue.”

Pollard says relating knowledge-management goals directly to broader business goals will make it easier to talk

to senior executives about knowledge management. And without senior management support, no knowledge-management strategy has a bright future.

Dr. Charles Bixler, director of knowledge management at consulting firm Keane Inc. in Boston, also emphasizes the link between knowledge management

and business strategies. Bixler says companies should incorporate knowledge management into their strategic planning, understanding how it can advance their business goals.

Pollard draws an example from his own firm’s experience. “One of the recent focuses of Ernst & Young is to become more issue-focused,” he says. “We are known in the business community as being expert in technical matters of accounts and tax and finance and so on. We are not as well known as being thought leaders in terms of what’s happening in particular sectors. So that became a strategy of

the firm, and as part of our knowledge-management strategy we have set up groups of our people who are focused on the production of what we call Point of View documents, which are summaries of the key issues in the key sectors that we focus on.”

For Inc., a young Vancouver company that develops software for online marketplaces, the business problem was clear. “We had people sitting around idle at some points because they just couldn’t get information out of people’s heads,” says Ralph Herzig, vice-president of customer solutions. Ecmar-ket needed to make information more available so staff could move faster to keep up with a fast-moving market and so new employees could become productive sooner. The answer is to put product documentation, project plans, financial transactions and other data related to software-development projects into central databases where they are readily accessible.

Two Understand where you want to go and how knowledge management can help you get there.

No business strategy would be worth its salt without a clear picture of where the organization is going. The same applies to a knowledge-management strategy.

“Assemble a ‘future state’ vision of your organization in which knowledge sharing is part of the culture,” advises Pollard. “The reason you do that is that knowledge by itself is too abstract for many people to relate to. If you can tell them how their lives will be better or easier than today, then that really helps sell the concept. It makes the abstract concrete.”

Pollard says there are probably four or five categories of ways knowledge management can benefit different people. They include improved productivity thanks to faster processes, improved customer relationships, finding opportunities to grow and innovate, and offering employees more opportunities to learn -something that Pollard says is particularly valuable to those organizations locked in a battle to attract and keep scarce talent.

Three Focus on culture

“Knowledge management is not a technology solution,” says John Kunar, president of consulting firm Delphi Group Canada in Ottawa. “It’s not even a solution. It’s a strategy.”

Kunar, who defines knowledge management as “the ability for an organization

to leverage its collective wisdom for the express purpose of innovation and increasing productivity,” says technology is no more than 25 to 30 per cent of a good knowledge-management strategy. Far more important, he says, is the culture of the organization itself. “The overwhelming majority of companies that have actually done knowledge management have claimed that the cultural barrier is the greatest barrier,” he says.

“You cannot do knowledge management unless you change the existing culture of the organization,” Kunar says. “For instance, the prevailing thought among employees is really ‘why do I want to share my knowledge with everybody else in the organization? If somehow I’m considered a redundant feature in the organization at some time, I’ve given away my information. I’ve given away my license to find another job.’ “So, the organization has to convince employees that they gain from sharing knowledge.

“You need to communicate often and frequently about the benefits of collaboration and knowledge-sharing,” says Jim Stirtzinger, vice-president of organizational productivity at Mitra Imaging Inc. in Waterloo, Ont. “There is a great deal of tacit knowledge in the heads of your seasoned employees, and turning that

into explicit organizational knowledge is critical if you want your workforce to scale beyond the physical capacity of these individuals. Fortunately for us, from day one the company culture has been one of knowledge-sharing and mentoring, not knowledge hoarding. That is a huge obstacle for some firms to navigate. Our challenge is more along the lines of how do we effectively capture and disseminate the knowledge of our seasoned veterans productively and effectively.”

One way to encourage knowledge-sharing is to reward it. Performance reviews are a familiar enough concept, but they tend to focus on tangible things like sales quotas and deadlines. To build a successful knowledge-management strategy, those performance reviews could take into account how employees share information. For example, sales people might be evaluated not just on the sales they make, but on how well they provide customer information to corporate systems designed to track it and make it available throughout the organization.

But that may not be the best long-term answer. “You don’t reward people for

sharing knowledge,” St. Onge advises. “What you do is you reshape all the work processes so there is no choice but to work together.” And you build what St. Onge calls a “culture of self-initiation. If you have people who are passively sitting and waiting for something to happen,” he says, “you can build the Taj Mahal in terms of knowledge management and it will have little impact.”

Yet St. Onge admits this culture is hard to create. “The last four years we’ve been working on instilling greater levels of self-initiation,” he says, “and that isn’t as yet coming through. I believe culture change efforts are on a seven- to nine-year cycle.”

In the end, you have to sell the value of knowledge management to just about

everyone in the organization. “If your people don’t understand the process of knowledge management and what it has to offer,” says Bixler, “it’s probably not going to happen.”

Four Know thy users

Pollard advises knowledge managers to “continually ask your internal customers what they want, what knowledge they want, what knowledge they need. It’s a temptation in a lot of organizations to assume that what they want is what’s already out there and to go about reorganizing what is already in the organization’s database or whatever.” By talking to users, Pollard says, you may well find they need information that is not there at all, but could be.

Neil Wilson, global field marketing director at knowledge-management software vendor Open Text Corp. in Waterloo, Ont., says it’s almost impossible to get everything right the first time. He advises customers to avoid “analysis

paralysis” by recognizing that understanding their users’ needs is an iterative process. “I encourage people to get up and running as quickly as possible,” Wilson says. “As people start actually using the system, the needs of the organization become more apparent.”

Pollard agrees, noting that it is important to keep going back to users and asking them what they need. But he cautions that you shouldn’t expect them to identify their needs easily. “In many cases if you just ask them what it is that they need you’re likely to get a blank stare,” Pollard says. “So you have to throw out some possibilities.”

CARE Canada, whose workers are spread all over the world and often move at short notice to deal with natural disasters and other crises, built a knowledge-management system to help its staff work smarter by having quick Internet access to the organization’s storehouse of information. Gerard van der Burg is vice-president of technology and information management at Global Development Group, a CARE-affiliated non-profit organization that provides information services to CARE and other non-profits. He says the project started with a needs assessment, but continues to evolve in response to changing needs and new ideas. “We’ve gone through three cycles of this now,” he says. “We’ve really taken on the iterative process as the way that we operate.”

In response to staff comments, van der Burg says CARE has added new tools and functions to its knowledge-management system. In some cases those tools have gone over well. In others, nobody used new functions, so they were removed. Some of those were created originally in response to user comments, but van der Burg says that sometimes when users get what they want, they simply find they lack the time to take advantage of it.

It comes down to understanding how users work. Open Text’s Wilson points out that different organizations, and even different departments in a single organization, work differently. For instance, some are more collaborative, others more analytical. Knowledge-management tools must match the way the users work, or they won’t be used at all.

Five Measure results in meaningful ways – but be careful

It’s an old truism in business that you get what you measure. If you want to achieve results, you need to know whether you’ve achieved them. The trick is finding measures that make sense.

Some might be relatively simple. The number of hits on an intranet page tells you something about the usefulness of the information presented. The number of documents business analysts produce may be meaningful. But, Pollard warns, “sometimes you have to come up with measures that are more closely aligned to the organizational measures.” So to see whether your KM strategy is working, you may need to look at the business goals that it is meant to serve, like revenue per person. How do you connect the knowledge-management activity with the business result? “It’s a challenge,” Pollard admits, “and sometimes the only way you can do it is to show that when one goes up so does the other, and vice versa.”

St. Onge is wary of trying to measure knowledge-management results. “The measurement science around all these intangible assets is a very embryonic science,” he says, “and if you’re going to make a knowledge strategy contingent on the ability to measure the results, then you’d better quit right now.”

Furthermore, he says, “the more pervasive and embedded your knowledge strategy is, the less measurable it becomes.” It is certainly worth looking for the business benefits of a knowledge strategy, he concludes, but it will not

always be possible to quantify them.

Measuring the benefits is often tough, but there are cases where knowledge management can yield visible benefits. “If you can do that once or twice early,” Pollard says, “people are more willing to give you the benefit of the doubt when you correlate what you’re doing – which is easy to measure – with what seems to be important but is hard to measure.”

Six Aim for early wins

“Define your end goals and phase them appropriately to gain some momentum of small successes rather than shooting for one big jackpot,” advises Stirtzinger at Mitra Imaging. “This increases your confidence, allows the organization to absorb the new ways of working and start to see the benefits; and then once that ‘aha!’ has occurred, they will begin to push for more.”

Mitra started by automating the flow of regulatory document review requests

and travel requests.

“Document review was probably one of the number-one workflow issues

that we as an organization needed to address,” Stirtizinger explains. “Travel

requests were a little ‘gimme’ for em-ployees to make their lives easier and

simpler.” And doing that, of course, helped to sell them on the value of knowledge management.

Bixler at Keane agrees. “There are some very quick hits and very early,

simple solutions with knowledge management that enterprises can adopt,” he says. “If an enterprise is going to really start investing in knowledge management, it has to see a return on investment.”

To that end, he advises knowledge managers to try to solve users’ day-to-day problems. Promising candidates for early wins include connecting people who can share information across functions and building a library of lessons learned and best practices.

At CARE Canada, for example, every project is subjected to a review when

completed. By creating a database of those reviews, van der Burg says, the organization has provided staff working on current projects with a place to go to find out how a problem was solved in the past and what worked or didn’t work.

Clarica proved the value of knowledge management early on during a tricky acquisition. As the firm was in the middle of demutualizing, the Canadian operations of the U.S. insurance firm Metropolitan Life became available.

The job of doing due diligence on the acquisition and integrating the company into Clarica was a daunting one, especial-ly on top of the demutualization effort.

But St. Onge believed it could be done. His group put together a large know-

ledge database to serve 150 people or-ganized into 16 teams to deal with the


“For 16 weeks,” he says, “we developed the best due diligence that I’ve ever seen conducted so fast. We were able to go to Met Life in New York, six weeks before anybody else was ready to do that, and we bought that company.”

Knowledge Is Power

Paying attention to these six points – which come up again and again in discussions with knowledge-management experts – will help make your knowledge strategy a success. But the single most important thing is that your organization has a knowledge-management strategy in the first place.

“Very few organizations that I’ve talked to that have knowledge initiatives have a good solid statement of strategy,” says St. Onge. That’s a mistake.

“In a knowledge-driven world,” comments Herzig of ecmarket, “it’s absolutely essential to have an approach to knowledge management.”

Grant Buckler is a freelance writer specializing in information technology and IT management. He is based in Kingston, Ontario.