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Designing a Successful KM Strategy: A Guide for the Knowledge Management Professional

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The archetypal practice organization would be the Army. It doesn’t make things or sell things; it does things, and its KM approach is all about the development and improvement of practice. The Army develops its doctrines, it develops communities of practice, and it focuses on operational excellence and continual practice improvement. The same is true for the professional services sector and the oil and gas sector. In the case of the oil companies, selling the product requires little knowledge about oil (except for those few specialists concerned with selling crude oil to refineries), and the main focus for KM is on practice improvement. The KM framework involves communities of practice, best practices, practice owners and practice improvement.

A typical product-based maker organization would be an aircraft or car manufacturer. They exist to make things. Their KM approach is all about the development and improvement of product. They develop product guidelines for their engineers, their sales staff and their service staff. At DaimlerChrysler, the Electronic Book of Knowledge was about automobile components, and its Tech Clubs were more communities of product than communities of practice. In a maker organization, the experts are more likely to be experts on a product than on a practice area. With the more complex products, where design knowledge is critical, KM can become knowledge-based engineering, with design rationale embedded into CAD files and other design products. The Air Force, in contrast to the Army, is focused primarily on product learning—learning about the airplane itself, much of which learning is shared with the aircraft manufacturer. For a product-based organization, the entire focus is on knowledge of product and product improvement.

The danger in KM comes when you try to impose a solution where it doesn’t apply, for example, imposing a maker KM solution onto a doer business, or an operational excellence KM solution onto an innovation business. This is why we suggest you choose one area of focus for your KM strategy, and work with the parts of the business where that focus area is important.

Workforce demographics

Another factor that can influence your KM strategy is the demographic composition of your workforce. Take a Western engineering-based organization. Here the economy is static, and the population growth is stable. Engineering is not a “sexy” topic. The workforce is largely made up of baby boomers. A large proportion of the workforce is over 50, with many staff approaching retirement. Within the company, very high levels of knowledge are dispersed around the organization, scattered around many teams and locations. Communities of practice are important in a situation like this, so that people can ask each other for advice, and receive advice from anywhere. Experienced staff collaborate with each other to create new knowledge out of their shared expertise. The biggest risk to many Western engineering-based organizations is knowledge loss, as so many of the workforce will retire soon.(Download chart, also on page 11, KMWorld, April 2015, Vol. 24,Issue 4).

Compare this with a Far Eastern engineering-based organization. Here the economy is growing, the population is growing, there is a hunger for prosperity, and engineering is also a growth area. The workforce is predominantly young with many of them employed less than two years in the company. There are only a handful of real experts and a host of inexperienced staff. Experience is a rare commodity, and is centralized within the company, retained within the centers of excellence and the small expert groups. Here the issue is not collaboration, but rapid integration and enhanced training. The risk is not retention of knowledge, it is deployment of knowledge.

These two demographic profiles would lead you to take two different approaches to your KM strategy. It is possible to combine the demographic view with the focus areas described previously. The chart on this page can help guide you about what core KM strategy may be, based on a combination of the four focus areas and the two demographic types—with the addition of another demographic type, a balanced workforce with a good spread of young and experienced staff.

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