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Looking to the future: 2021 Insight

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As knowledge management leaders contemplate ways to stay relevant and maximize KM’s strategic value, the conversation often turns to new technologies such as AI. Admittedly, intelligent automation will be a critical success factor for KM in the coming years. The pandemic has accelerated digital adoption in every corner of the organization and moved knowledge flows into systems where they can be mined, managed, and optimized through “smart” capabilities. This, in turn, expands the business case and potential ROI for AI-fueled KM.

But for many organizations, harnessing AI is not the biggest KM hurdle to clear in 2021. Individuals and teams need help with more mundane, “old school” knowledge problems that have been exacerbated by rapid organizational change and an increase in remote work. Astute KM teams should focus not just on pushing new technology, but also on how they can better support foundational capabilities such as collaboration and expertise location in the digital workplace.

KM must improve virtual collaboration

The future is already here when it comes to virtual work, and everyone—including KMers—is scrambling to catch up. Social distancing requirements forced organizations to overcome technical and cultural hurdles that had previously limited remote working. The toothpaste is unlikely to go back into the tube. Some firms are permanently embracing “work from anywhere” polices and all-virtual operations. But even where leadership is eager to return to the office, employees who have successfully telecommuted for months will demand more flexibility to do so in the future. The result will be a more virtual and hybrid workforce that relies more heavily on technology to stay connected.

In many ways, the upsurge in virtual work has been good news for KM. With fewer options to toss questions over the cubicle wall, people up and down the org chart have recognized the value of documenting and sharing knowledge and “working out loud” in digital platforms. But remote work has also revealed cracks collaboration.

One problem KM must tackle is replicating the kind of spontaneous conversations that traditionally occurred in hallways or at the coffee bar. So far, these have proven elusive in all but the best virtual environments. The 800 participants in APQC’s October 2020 “Virtual Collaboration: Rules of the Road” survey said their biggest challenge with virtual collaboration is that it’s hard to have water-cooler style conversations (Figure 1). Only 27% said their workplaces are effective or very effective at facilitating such interactions virtually.

Tools to move complex work online

Organizations are also struggling to move complex and culture-focused work online. Less than half of APQC’s survey respondents rated their workplaces as effective or very effective at accomplishing the following tasks virtually:

♦ Consensus building (48% effective)
♦ Brainstorming and innovation (47% effective)
♦ Team building and camaraderie (41% effective)
♦ Managing change (40% effective)

Software vendors are scrambling to update their platforms with virtual whiteboards, breakout rooms, and even—in the case of Microsoft Teams—fake coffee shops where employees can hang out. But the technology is not the problem (or only part of it). People who happily bounce ideas off colleagues in the office hesitate to “bother” each other with online calls and meetings. Many struggle to connect on a deeper level and build trusted relationships when they can’t be face-to-face. Video allows some limited access to facial expressions and body language, but it can feel invasive and exhausting when overused. And these problems build across time, as people increasingly collaborate with new coworkers they do not know well from the pre-pandemic, in-person workplace.

KM teams should start by working with IT or the digital office to put the right collaboration tools in place, especially for sharing across boundaries. But it’s even more important for KM to outline the behaviors needed for effective virtual collaboration and embed them in the organizational culture.

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