Over the years, companies have developed an effective set of guiding principles for knowledge management. The best practices leading to successful knowledge management implementations have been tested and refined through thousands of deployments.
Two principles in particular influence success. First, knowledge management must be managed as a strategic asset. Second, it must relentlessly focus on knowledge consumers, ensuring that the knowledge experience reflects their needs. As applicable as these best practices are today, they will prove even more valuable as we move to next-generation knowledge management.
An Essential Business Process
At the top of the best practice list is recognition that knowledge management is not a project—it is an essential and on-going business process that requires funding and staffing at the same level as other key corporate assets. Knowledge management must be ingrained as part of the corporate culture because it is integral to the organization’s success.
For example, new product launches kick off a proactive process that includes developing a marketing strategy and launch plan, establishing pricing, determining how to train the sales and support force, writing end-user documentation and so on. These activities are designed to successfully sell the product as well as manage its impact on the organization. Because knowledge will be instrumental to the company’s ability to promote and sustain a product, knowledge management needs to be an integral part of this product-introduction process.
When knowledge management is treated as an afterthought, the results are predictable. Two of the most common are as follows:
- Knowledge quickly becomes inaccurate, incomplete and out-of-date. Nature abhors a vacuum, and knowledge workers will quickly fill any void. Customer service agents, for example, will embrace any source when they need to answer a question, and over time create a body of suspect knowledge that impacts productivity; and
- Knowledge walks out the door. Each time an employee leaves, an organization’s ability to respond effectively erodes, requiring constant duplication of learning. This is an inefficient and costly way to gain and impart knowledge.
The second best practice is to embrace and act on the voice of the customers by bringing them into the process. It is important to recognize that the people using the knowledge are often the real experts and can best determine what knowledge is needed. Knowledge constituencies include a wide range of people—traditional subject-matter-expert realms, customer service representatives and, of course, the consumers who buy your goods and services.
All of these constituencies need representation as knowledge is developed and refined. Companies have learned to proactively engage knowledge consumers through feedback mechanisms built into knowledge management products, surveys, focus groups, even phone calls and meetings. The communication loop is closed by acknowledging the contributions, no matter whether the contribution is good, bad or indifferent. Acknowledgement does not mean complying with every suggestion, but it does mean making sure contributors know they have been heard and treated with respect. This not only encourages feedback, enabling continuous improvement in knowledge, but builds a stronger relationship of trust with the organization—a reaction that can have particularly positive value when it comes to encouraging customer loyalty and repeat purchases.
Next-Generation Knowledge Management
These best practices guide the current world of knowledge management. But what about the future? Will these best practices continue to be important, and what new ones will be needed as we move to the next generation of knowledge management?
In the light of Web 2.0, the relationship with consumers is changing dramatically. Web 2.0 is just the beginning of a transformation to a world of interactivity, collaboration and community. It is easy to see the significance of this brave new world in the influence and power of social networking sites and online customer reviews for just about every product in existence.
This environment will dramatically affect how companies design and implement knowledge management. Up to now, knowledge management has largely been a push model—a company develops and distributes content using its in-house experts. But with the advent of Web 2.0, this strategy of "golden content delivered from on high" has a far more limited use and appeal than it did just two years ago.
Certainly, in highly regulated industries such as pharmaceuticals, the need for formal, company-generated knowledge will exist for some time to come. However, for many other businesses—and especially those with commoditized products—the new relationship will require an approach to knowledge management that is based on a "conversation" which encourages the free and open exchange of ideas. And the results can far exceed the quality of top-down, formal processes.
Odd as it may seem, companies must be willing to accept that they will no longer be the experts on their products and services. A company may still best understand why a product was developed and how it should be sold. However, when it comes to knowing why a product is bought, whether or not it is a good product or how to best use it, the real experts are the customers. Think how often a quick search on the Web turns up ingenious customer-generated solutions, or an innovative application which could only be discovered through a level of actual product use that a company could never duplicate in its labs.
As a result, interactivity, collaboration and community will become as fundamental to knowledge management as wheels are to cars. Knowledge consumers will become knowledge generators, and such an integral part of the knowledge management solution that they can drive its success or failure.
What may seem scary about next-generation knowledge management is that it requires a company to give up sole control over "knowledge." Former knowledge consumers now become participants in the process of creating and categorizing content, rating its usefulness and interacting with other users to solve problems or answer questions.
But this does not mean you have to allow your knowledgebase to become a jumbled mass of random customer-generated contributions. While enabling—and encouraging—participation by many users in your knowledge community, you can still manage the information to maximize its use and value, as well as reinforce your brand.
The process starts by allowing unstructured contributions of varying quality to flow into your knowledge management solution, and then leveraging the community to develop useful structure around it. For example, allow participants to tag content so as to create a structure over time that reflects the way customers actually think about your products and services.
Let the community police the quality and validity of content, with assistance and moderation by your in-house experts. Contributors will make mistakes and submit incorrect information. Where a contributor may have a misunderstanding, step in to correct the error and invite the community to help. As a community-contributed solution matures and becomes the best possible answer, its value should be acknowledged, and it should eventually be designated as a company-approved answer.