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Ten steps to achieve KM success

This article appears in the issue April 1999 [Volume 8, Issue 4]

Amidst all the conversations and publications about knowledge management, the issue of culture rarely receives the attention it deserves. As a result, decision makers and implementers are left in the dark about perhaps the most significant aspect of successful KM implementations.

Culture can be defined as a set of collective values and beliefs that shape the way people behave. Members of an organization tend to adopt the same values and beliefs relating to their organization. For example, if we believe that workers are hired only to do specific tasks, we will train them just to perform those tasks. We may limit their access to business information that would be seen as irrelevant to the performance of those tasks. We can design information technology to take over the "real" work and leave the repetitive, mundane tasks to be done by humans.

By contrast, if we believe that workers add value in many ways, we will provide broader training opportunities, expand job descriptions and use new information systems to increase access to information. If we believe workers are externally motivated, we will create external methods, such as policies, to control behavior. We may even use new information technologies to track and report on an individual's activities. If we believe workers are internally motivated, we will provide opportunities for self-control and will use technology to provide challenging, rewarding work assignments. We will use technology to do the routine work, freeing human capital to do the value-added intellectual work.

A great deal of research in the last 20 years has documented how information technology can dramatically change the way work is accomplished. Document imaging eliminated the tactical feel of paper. Transporting paperwork through the screen, it changed the nature of communication patterns by eliminating the need to go to file rooms. Groupware technologies enable, and even require, us to communicate effectively through the written word, with people over long distances, many of whom we have never met face to face.

Similarly, KM technology is creating even more changes in the way work is accomplished. According to David Weinberger, editor of the "Journal of the Hyperlinked Organization," another new technology-intranet sites-will take the place of documents as the lifeblood of business. That shift in transmitting information and knowledge changes the nature of work and management, requiring levels of collaboration that are far beyond the typical work environment in today's organizations. Most organizations value and reward workers for their individual contributions. While sharing is viewed as helpful, true collaboration is not generally viewed as a critical component of an organization's success. The exceptions are companies that have implemented high-performance work teams as a corporate strategy for improving the bottom line.

Volumes have been written about the impact of change management on the success of information technology. Early studies are beginning to show that one of the major factors behind the failure of KM implementations is the failure to manage culture change. The rising cost of new systems and the increasing culture changes created by KM require an implementation process more specifically focused on creating a culture of collaboration to provide a foundation for KM success.

Essential steps

To leverage culture and maximize the benefits of KM, ten steps are necessary:

  1. Create an integrated comprehensive implementation plan. In evaluating technology implementation projects that have failed to achieve their objectives, the primary reason for failure was a scope that was too narrow. Those unsuccessful projects focused on technical, logistical and financial issues, but did not adequately address human issues. An effective implementation plan must include a clearly defined and integrated effort to change the culture in ways that will enhance the KM project. A comprehensive communication strategy should be part of that plan.
  2. Develop a case for change and clarify goals. To generate commitment and enthusiasm for the project, the answers to the following questions must be articulated early in the process. What are the expected results of the KM project? How will success be measured? What is happening in the business that makes the KM project important? What will happen if you don't implement a KM project?
  3. Assess your organization's culture and readiness to change. At the beginning of the implementation it is important to evaluate how much teamwork and collaboration currently exist in your organization. Will operational values support the change to KM? A fundamental concept of KM is that of sharing and collaboration. Most organizations, operating on the outdated principal that "knowledge is power," inadvertently discourage sharing and teamwork. If a culture of collaboration and information sharing does not exist, knowledge sharing technologies will yield minimal benefits.
  4. Generate commitment to change on the part of senior leaders. Create opportunities for leaders to learn about organizations that have significantly changed their cultures to be more collaborative. That can be done through site visits, conference attendance, video-based learning and reading up-to-date periodicals on the topic.
  5. Train leaders in new leadership skills. Traditional management focuses on controlling and organizing, while building a collaborative culture requires leaders to think in new ways about how they lead and to change their leadership behaviors accordingly. In collaborative environments, leaders facilitate, coach and lead by example. Collaborative leadership requires them to let go of some controlling behaviors.
  6. Train employees in team member skills. In traditional organizations, employees are expected to contribute in the role of skilled worker. In a collaborative environment, the worker role is expanded. Therefore, employees need to expand their skills to enable them to be team resources, problem solvers and decision makers. The ability to establish and maintain good relationships becomes more critical and also requires training to enhance skills.
  7. Conduct a series of meetings with employees to gather data and generate commitment. A successful implementation requires that employees participate in creating the new culture and in redesigning workflow and procedures. Conduct a series of design conferences at which all employees can be involved in sharing their ideas and providing input into system design and organizational changes. Conferences are an effective and relatively quick way to gather data from many people.
  8. Use the technology to design jobs that harness the benefits of the technology as well as the talents of the workers. In today's world where increased productivity and time to market are critical metrics, KM technologies offer the ability to dramatically change the way work is done. To capture those potential benefits, jobs need to be redesigned to enable employees to contribute in more significant ways. Think about ways to reverse the trend of breaking down jobs into smaller and more specialized parts. Teach employees more about the business so they will know how to apply all the knowledge they will have available through the new system. Make sure that employees can see the results of their work and know how they contribute to business success.
  9. Develop new organizational support systems. Another successful strategy is to modify the reward and recognition, job design and performance management systems to support and reinforce the new culture and new ways of working in a KM environment.
  10. Establish a cross-functional implementation team with expertise in all relevant disciplines. Be sure to include a professional, internal or external, with expertise in change management, organization assessment and the development of organizational culture.

Creating a culture of collaboration to support KM is not an easy task. Applying a systematic approach to analyzing and enhancing culture will lay the foundation for KM success. z


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