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How KM can support diversity, equity, and inclusion

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Many organizations are striving to create workplaces that promote diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in response to macrotrends like the Great Resignation and social justice movements in the United States. The shift to hybrid and remote work has added urgency to these conversations. In one way, it’s easier than ever for organizations to recruit the best talent from anywhere and bring new, diverse voices to the table. But hybrid and remote work can also reinforce existing hierarchies, reduce networking opportunities, and make underrepresented employees feel even less visible.

KM teams are well-positioned to make meaningful contributions to their organizations’ DEI goals and help create workplaces where every employee can flourish. After all, good KM relies on democratizing access to knowledge and expertise while creating psychologically safe spaces to exchange ideas and experiences. But organizations must think deeply about KM’s implications for DEI to determine how the two initiatives can and should support one another.

At the nonprofit APQC, we’ve been hearing a lot from our members about the potential intersections of KM and DEI. This includes both DEI challenges associated with existing KM practices and ways that KM teams can reinvigorate their efforts by aligning them with inclusivity goals and initiatives. Most organizations are still in the early stages of connecting KM and DEI, but we see a lot of potential to improve the employee experience in the digital workplace while optimizing the flow of knowledge across dispersed organizations.

DEI-Related KM challenges

Below are three of the biggest DEI-related KM challenges APQC has heard from our members.

Language creates insiders and outsiders

The languages through which an organization captures knowledge, and the format in which it does so, are choices that have the potential to bring people in or exclude them. For example, does DEI mean giving equal weight to knowledge delivered in an employee's native language rather than the official language of the organization? Or does sharing in multiple languages reinforce siloes? How can organizations create standardized, accessible knowledge without inadvertently silencing certain voices? The answers to these questions are rarely simple and straightforward. But without sensitivity to what is lost or gained in these decisions, language can become an area in which KM conflicts with an equal playing field.

Knowledge modalities create barriers to inclusion

In some contexts, written documentation itself can pose challenges for inclusivity. For example, some global cultures emphasize capturing knowledge through verbal storytelling, whereas others favor writing things down. Relatedly, not every employee is a great writer (or speaker, storyteller, or graphic designer), and employees with disabilities may feel cut off from certain venues and formats. How can organizations allow employees to
contribute and consume knowledge in ways that makes sense for them?

Without guardrails, some KM practices feel unsafe

Knowledge sharing processes and activities carry the potential for psychological harm if they are not set up in a thoughtful way. One of the most common KM practices—sharing lessons learned—is a case in point. Owning one’s failures in the service of continuous improvement sounds like a good idea, but this practice can feel unsafe and professionally detrimental if an organization does not have a culture that embraces failure as a part of learning and innovation. The question of who gets to safely share a failure (and who does not) cuts right to the heart of why DEI in KM is so important.

Start your KM DEI journey

Many KM teams face significant DEI-related challenges like the ones above. But smart KM leaders have found effective ways to begin addressing them. Below are some initial approaches our members have shared with us.

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