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How to pull your KM program up by the bootstraps

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The next step in Mercer’s KM journey came in 2016, when the firm established a “KM Hub” in Warsaw. The offshore team could handle the routine, repeatable work of maintaining intranet libraries and communities. This allowed Mercer’s central KM group to expand its strategic work to deliver direct business value. The KM group began organizing and commercializing content via client publications, client portals, and client membership networks while still supporting internal collaboration.

In 2018, KM moved into Mercer’s new global digital team. The digital team is separate from IT and focuses on education, innovation, and client co-creation related to digital technologies. Having a seat on the digital team means that the KM group can integrate internal and external content while also supporting the business units and taking an active role in enabling the company’s digital transformation.

Today, Mercer’s KM team is almost entirely focused on strategic work. It partners with and advises the organization’s intellectual capital, research, production, and marketing teams to develop content, shape its value to the audience, and ensure it is findable and distributed to the correct destinations. It’s also working with digital-team partners to develop intelligent tools including an internal digital assistant (similar to consumer tools such as Siri or Alexa) and an AI-driven content management and search system. “We’ve evolved from intranet coordinators to business partners and digital ambassadors,” said Lisa Weber, who serves as KM leader for Mercer’s lines of business.

Sometimes, you have to start over

Even the biggest, best, and most mature KM programs can fall out of step with the business. Sometimes, a factor beyond KM’s control—like a merger or acquisition, market downturn, or executive turnover—shifts resources and priorities away from KM. But KM programs can also turn rotten from the inside, especially when they communicate poorly, fail to evolve in line with business needs, or over-focus on technology. The good news is there’s almost always a way to bounce back.

For example, one professional services firm founded its KM program with a sizable budget and strong executive support. But over time, employees started equating KM with the company intranet, which they disliked. Engagement levels and content quality started to dip, and KM devolved into a back-office function. Years later, the company hired a new CEO who believed in the power of knowledge sharing. The KM team seized the opportunity to reinvigorate and realign with the business. Team leaders redefined KM’s priorities and refocused its efforts where they would make the most difference to business outcomes. They also restructured the team, adding an offshore branch that could tend to content management and free up the central group for more strategic work. The KM team capitalized on its new opportunities by taking a leading role in integrating Microsoft Office 365 in the firm. It moved all KM tools to the new platform, and even took ownership for capabilities that aren’t “traditional” KM, like the Power BI analytics and reporting tool. In a nutshell, KM showed it was willing to do whatever it takes to support the business.

The KM program at an oil and gas company had a similarly strong start—and a long track record of success. For over a decade, the program enjoyed a strong budget, visible sponsorship, and external recognition in the form of numerous awards. But in 2015, the price of oil plummeted. The KM team lost a third of its staff as the organization underwent multiple rounds of layoffs. With resources shrinking and morale declining, KM had to reinvent itself.

First, the KM team overhauled its communities program. It expanded the definition of communities to include more flexible, informal, employee-driven groups. At the same time, it consolidated redundant communities and decommissioned those that no longer added value. Second, the KM team transitioned away from its highly customized KM technologies to standard, cost-effective, cloud-based tools. This was a challenge, because employees were attached to features of the old tech. But it was well worth it. Moving to the cloud generated cost savings within six months, but more importantly, it positioned KM as an early adopter and key enabler of digital transformation. Now, the KM team is working closely with the organization’s innovation group to engage all employees in meaningful, business-relevant collaboration.

The takeaway: Never, never, never give up

All KM programs have peaks and valleys. But what distinguishes the KM programs that stand the test of time is their sheer determination and dogged approach to evolving ever-closer to the business. Whether you’re starting from scratch or need to bounce back, here are three tips to quickly prove value and get out of the back office.

  1. Look for jobs to be done. Whether that’s fixing KM tools people don’t like or helping with a tough task like moving the organization to a new platform, find a big problem and go solve it.
  2. If you get a green light, run. If a new senior leader or strategic plan shows support for KM, seize the moment.
  3. Realign, restructure, and rebrand. Align with business and empoyee needs, consider ways to restructure the team to focus more time on those needs, and then rebrand to show that what you’re doing now is different from before.
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