This post was originally published on lessonly.com.
While knowledge management is a relatively young concept, it’s quickly become an essential component of any organization’s business strategy. Although it can be pretty tricky to come up with one, all-encompassing description, this is the Lessonly Knowledge Management definition:
Knowledge management is a business philosophy. It is an emerging set of principles, processes, organizational structures, and technology applications that help people share and leverage their knowledge to meet business objectives.
As it’s developed over the past few decades, we know that how a business’s knowledge is created, captured, and spread has a direct impact on its success, whether that’s through productivity and cost-efficiency, innovation, or the overall improvement of a company and its employees.
So, to really answer the question, what is knowledge management, let’s take a journey back to discover how it has evolved in the workplace over time.
Knowledge: a vital company asset
The way in which groups of people exchange knowledge is nothing new, but from a purely business perspective, the term knowledge management became popular in the early 90s, after management guru Peter Drucker proposed that a company’s knowledge should be thought of as a vital asset, much like capital or property. He popularized the term “knowledge economy,” where he predicted that the most important resource of the 21st century would be ideas and information, rather than tangible goods or services.
With this theory, companies began to realize that when their employees walked out the door, so did their valuable knowledge. So, they started to focus on this issue, and even created a brand-new job title called Chief Knowledge Officers (CKOs), a role specializing in working out the best way to keep hold of employees’ valuable knowledge.
The first wave of knowledge management was focused on the capture of information, which coincided with the dawn of the new digital era. Organizations heavily invested in databases, and it was widely assumed that the more information that was inputted and stored, the better.
However, there were also limitations of this approach. Knowledge bases often became flooded with data, whether it was truly useful or not. This made sifting through databases confusing and time-consuming. And, because of this, information often got lost or duplicated. Businesses also didn’t take into account that knowledge isn’t fixed but is always evolving, and so a knowledge base needs continual updating.
Knowledge management evolves
By the 2000s, businesses responded to these issues by broadening the knowledge management definition. Companies realized that knowledge isn’t a set of static data, but is a fluid process that lives in the minds of people.
The knowledge in our brains can be split into two main types: explicit and tacit.
- Explicit knowledge is something you are conscious of knowing and remember learning, which you can therefore easily pass on to others.
- Tacit knowledge, on the other hand, is when knowledge, often learned from more abstract experiences or observations over time, becomes internalized and hidden. This makes it challenging to express and share with others.
With this evolved understanding, different approaches towards knowledge management came along with it. Organizations started engaging in “knowledge harvesting”, a process where an employees’ tacit knowledge is gathered, often during an interview, and is then collected and packaged into a document so it doesn’t get lost along the way.
Companies also realized that managing knowledge isn’t just beneficial to an individual worker. Instead, something that should be fostered as a community. So, businesses began to create Communities of Practice (COPs) that allowed workers to unite over a common problem, goal or task, and exchange the right knowledge, at the right time. Then, Action Reviews (AARs) would take place at the end of the project so that lessons were learned and knowledge updated.
Knowledge management as a culture
From around 2010 onwards, there’s been a new wave of developments. It’s now recognized that what is most important is that knowledge management isn’t just a business strategy but a value that makes up an organization’s culture.
The tech industry has responded to this evolving mindset by developing knowledge management software and tools which encourage physical and virtual workspaces to become “knowledge-intensive environments.”
Video calls using platforms like Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and Skype create a more transparent environment for people to feel more comfortable sharing their knowledge. And, business messaging networks like Slack have made communication more accessible and open across the board, where everyone, from a brand-new employee to the CEO, is encouraged to engage and exchange ideas.
Previously, knowledge management was for employees only, and senior and mid-management rarely practiced what they preached. Now, companies understand that knowledge management practices should be embraced from top to bottom.
Likewise, knowledge management tools such as Google Docs and Dropbox allow knowledge to get instantaneously updated and edited while encouraging collaboration. Content management platforms such as an internal wiki centralize knowledge bases that are easily accessible and spread across to other departments, teams, and projects.
Ultimately, the focus has shifted from not only retaining knowledge, but knowledge creation and innovation. Let’s think about it in this way: a company’s knowledge management strategy is like an ecosystem, where knowledge is hatched, nurtured and recycled.
Knowledge management today
The overwhelming global pace of change means that businesses are now faced with ever-transforming and unpredictable environments. New trends, tech advancements, and global developments show that a companies’ valuable knowledge can become rapidly outdated.
As Drucker predicted, we’ve entered into a new era of knowledge, where products and services are more complex and abstract, and concepts and ideas need to be skillfully captured and preserved. Additionally, an increase in staff turnover due to job-hopping and remote work due to the pandemic risks a greater chance of knowledge loss.