Why top-tier KM programs map their knowledge

To deliver the best value to the business, knowledge management programs need to focus on the most critical knowledge-related challenges and opportunities. With many companies currently undergoing digital transformation, this is more important—and more difficult—than ever before. Knowledge flows can break down as companies shift to new technologies and ways of working, and critical knowledge is often lost when systems, roles, and corporate structures change. It’s little wonder that in this fast-evolving environment, many top-tier KM programs are bringing out the big guns.

Knowledge mapping is one of the most powerful tools for understanding the movement of enterprise knowledge. A knowledge map is a visual representation of intellectual capital. It allows an organization to pinpoint exactly where its critical knowledge is, how it moves between people and systems, and any barriers or gaps that impede its flow. The insights from knowledge maps allow an organization to focus its limited KM resources on the most dangerous risks and exciting prospects.

Over the past 2 decades, member-based nonprofit APQC has seen many organizations use knowledge mapping to drive impactful, business-relevant KM. There has been a heightened interest in this time-tested technique as companies grapple with automation and AI while adapting to an increasingly dynamic and competitive landscape.

Why organizations map their knowledge

Organizations pursue knowledge mapping for three main reasons.

The first is to identify, retain, and replicate critical knowledge and expertise. Many organizations are concerned about the “silver tsunami” of Baby Boomer retirements, but job-hopping and outsourcing can create the same problem: critical knowledge walking out the door. Knowledge mapping allows organizations to identify at-risk knowledge, document it, and pass it on to other employees.

This driver is especially predominant among organizations that rely on deep technical know-how to stay on top. For example, engineering, procurement, and construction company Bechtel has many long-tenured experts nearing retirement, and it uses knowledge mapping to ensure that their technical knowledge is transferred to the next generation of employees. Completed knowledge maps show experts and their successors where to focus their efforts during training and mentoring activities.

A second reason that organizations use knowledge mapping is to guide strategic improvements. Even the best KM tools and approaches can fall flat if they’re not applied to the right business problems, but it’s not always easy for KM teams to intuit the most appropriate solutions for a team or department. That is why so many organizations use knowledge mapping as a foundational strategic exercise in developing a new KM program. For example, management consulting and IT firm Trianz used knowledge mapping to understand its existing knowledge assets and flow. Then, its KM leader used the maps to develop a portfolio of KM approaches targeted to specific knowledge needs.

The third reason is to drive global standardization. Similar to other forms of mapping—such as process mapping— knowledge mapping helps organizations articulate and promote global standards. For example, pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly & Co. used knowledge mapping to capture best practices and technical knowledge from a small, centralized group of experts and then spread this knowledge out to its global sites to reinforce a standard approach. However, for most organizations, standardization is a secondary benefit—rather than the main driver—of knowledge mapping. Creating knowledge maps for similar groups, processes, and roles helps organizations uncover discrepancies in how things are done. Analysis of these variations, in turn, provides input for process standardization and improvement. 

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