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How to pull your KM program up by the bootstraps

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A few lucky knowledge management programs receive strong funding and executive support as soon as they are founded, setting them up for a successful and strategically important role within their organizations. However, many KM initiatives start small and must fight to earn funding, visibility, and buy-in. This includes several recipients of APQC’s 2019 Excellence in Knowledge Management Award.

The award recognizes mature and sustainable KM programs that deliver significant value to the organizations they support and is based on an objective analysis of each program’s KM competencies. Of the 13 KM teams that earned the award in 2019, some had very humble beginnings—but they have evolved into some of the most impressive programs APQC has studied in more than two decades of KM research. Their stories show how new KM programs—as well as those that start strong, but eventually need to regroup and rebuild—can bootstrap their way to success.

From the back office to center stage

In 2009, Bupa Health Insurance built a knowledge portal to help its frontline service staff better support customers. The Knowledge Services team associated with this platform focused on the transactional work of creating, managing, and updating portal content. The team was isolated within the customer service division and focused only on its target audience of frontline support staff. In short, it was a back-office administrative function.

In 2016, Bupa created a blueprint for business transformation that included a section—albeit small and one-dimensional—on KM. “It was clear that the architects behind the blueprint did not exactly understand the breadth of knowledge work. For them, it was mostly identical to content management,” said Sharon Hayward, knowledge solutions manager at Bupa.

The blueprint did not present a clear path for what the Knowledge Services team should do, but it did open doors for increased funding and strategic relevance. The team seized upon it as an opportunity to redefine and realign its relationship with the business. It started by defining the core business capabilities of KM. In addition to the current content management duties, the team added:

  • interaction and experience—easily finding and displaying the right information,
  • knowledge effectiveness—assessing how knowledge is used and continuously improving knowledge assets and flow, and
  • networking for knowledge—fostering the creation and spread of knowledge through sharing and collaboration.

The team tied this new capability model to a multi-year strategic roadmap designed to improve knowledge accessibility, flow, and retention in and beyond the customer service division. This roadmap helped the team secure senior leadership buy-in and funding for a multi-year KM transformation. By late 2016, the team had funding in hand and identified its first big goal: improving the user experience for the KM portal. But because team members were so accustomed to being in a back-office role, they struggled to turn big ideas into reality.    

A member of the team recommended integrating Agile, a project management approach where small teams work in time-boxed units called “sprints” to iteratively deliver projects. At the time, Agile was not widely used at Bupa. But a few team members had experience with the methodology and recognized that it offered a way to break one big project—fixing the KM portal user experience—into smaller, more manageable pieces. By using Agile, the team quickly overhauled the portal. It listened to end-user feedback about which aspects were difficult, worked in sprints to define requirements and deliver features, and ultimately created a version of the portal that not only pleased its current user base, but could scale beyond it. 

This win helped position the team for a bigger role in the business. The team rebranded as Knowledge Solutions and restructured its roles to better balance operational and consultative duties. The Knowledge Solutions team is currently scaling its services and the KM portal to the enterprise level, applying automation to reduce non-value-added work, and using data visualization to show how KM supports Bupa in key areas like risk avoidance. In so doing, the team is acting as a trusted advisor that helps business areas articulate and achieve their knowledge-related goals.

From intranet coordinators to trusted digital ambassadors

Professional services firm Mercer started a KM effort in 1998. Its first KM team was hardly a team at all. Instead, it was an informal group of employees volunteered by their supervisors to work on establishing a company intranet. Over 10 years, the KM group started to formalize around the goal of helping employees help clients. It began to focus on more value-added work like enabling collaboration, virtual communities, and access to intellectual capital and reusable consulting content. The KM group also established local “intranet champions” to socialize collaboration tools with a focus on time savings and building a better professional global network of colleagues and experts.

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