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Knowledge management 101

Knowledge management is one of those terms you have probably heard but dismissed as something only big companies do. Michela Ledwidge introduces the concepts behind it and some low-cost (or free!) tools with the potential to make radical improvements to your business.

Knowledge is at the heart of every business. Managing that knowledge and keeping it within the organization, particularly as people move on to other jobs, is critical to ongoing success. This tutorial will introduce the concepts behind knowledge management and give you some ideas to start your own journey.

The good news is, knowledge management practice has an increasingly low barrier to entry. Behind all the hype about Web 2.0 lies an astonishingly useful array of productivity tools and free resources you can employ for knowledge management. The bad news is that there is no magic button for strategizing how to deal with exploding quantities of information, which may or may not be relevant. Knowledge management is a set of actions, nothing more.

Online knowledge management for small business

Online knowledge management is a set of activities dealing with knowledge in three dimensions: people, subjects, and time.

  • Know the people behind your business. Company knowledge walks out the door each day and may never return. Identify who provides your knowledge and how you retain it. This is the first step towards developing a knowledge management strategy. Your staff and contacts directory remains arguably the most useful knowledge management tool.
  • Knowledge is irrelevant without context. Knowledge management is ensuring you keep abreast of your subjects. Terminology changes. Markets evolve. Articulate a problem or question and you can find solutions online. Maintain a glossary of terms for new starters in your business.
  • Keep track of time. Don’t forget this third dimension. Any business that cannot quickly re-order knowledge and sort chronologically is in trouble. Leave sorting to computers. Online document repositories can save time. Start small. Get the ball rolling with a private business blog. Formal knowledge management can lead you to focus too much on people and information at the expense of time. You do not have that luxury.

If your mission is to stay knowledgeable and convert endless data into real wisdom, how you deal with knowledge is just as important as what you know. What processes do you have in place? What processes should you have? Set yourself these are your tasks:

  • Identify – what knowledge is the lifeblood of the business?
  • Create – what knowledge is missing and must be created?
  • Represent – what concrete form should this abstract knowledge take?
  • Distribute – how does knowledge get shared?
  • Enable adoption – how do you make it stick?

Knowledge management in 2008 is big business, but I’m assuming your starting budget for these activities is close to nil.

If you don’t have a chief knowledge officer or an organization chart, put an hour aside to answer these questions and sketch out your business social network. The responsibilities of a chief knowledge officer need not come with fancy titles or degrees, but someone should be thinking about strategy – how to maximize your company’s return on any investment in knowledge.

Strategy for small business

Knowledge management has to deliver sustainable results. Are employees better informed? Is the business learning from errors? Is productivity increasing? The knowledge management challenge is to convince people to accept practices and processes that may provide little value to them in the short term. Prioritize quick wins to build morale. Focus on the naysayers and put time into selling them the personal benefits of working in a more empowered business.

Here are some key activities to consider:

  • Induction – prepare a pack of key information and train new starters to adopt your business practices around knowledge management
  • Filing – create efficient processes for recording digital information in a central location
  • Reporting – create key metrics for your knowledge enabling systems , such as staff feedback, frequency of posts and updates, and a feedback loop that involves your people
  • Archival – ensure information is preserved, especially data collected on external systems which could disappear tomorrow
  • Exit – prepare a standard process for exit interviewing staff and ensuring they pass on their knowledge, contacts, emails and other documents
  • Review – review any key process list every six months to validate your priorities.

Online enablers

There is a glut of services and software to enable your knowledge management processes online. Many of them are free. Email, mailing lists, forums, blogs, wikis, instant messaging, social networks… The important thing is to leave your preconceived ideas behind. Your knowledge management strategy is tactical, not academic. Use it to explore the relevance of any, and all, online channels to knowledge.

Business blogs are a cheap and cheerful starting point for filing. Over seven years, my consultancy’s ‘sysadmin’ blog has grown into a valuable knowledge base on IT tips and troubleshooting. It costs next to nothing and allows us to engage freelancers and remote staff with greater ease.

No tool alone can convince people to share knowledge, but barriers to publishing are coming down. Witness the explosion in microblogging such as Twitter and Facebook status updates. Your staff will feel more valued if encouraged to contribute to company knowledge. Take advantage of your smaller scale and exploit personal publishing tools. Prolific posting does not necessarily lead to greater knowledge but one-line updates, automatically indexed and distributed around your business network can be most effective. Formal emails have their place but ignore emerging back channels at your peril.

A wiki is an incredibly powerful knowledge management tool, especially for IT-savvy professionals. Twiki is free software used by many Fortune 500 companies like Disney and Motorola. Trac, an issue tracking system with a built-in wiki, works great for small teams. MediaWiki is another popular choice given the runaway success of Wikipedia.

Wikis are often introduced gradually into organizations allowing non-technical users and management to appreciate the benefits of collaborative working. Local software developer Atlassian sells a more business-friendly wiki product called Confluence for those unwilling or unable to make the most of open-source software. wikimatrix.org provides a useful tool for comparing features of wiki products.

Rich media alongside text can often represent your knowledge more effectively. Snapshot diagrams with a digicam and record videos on the fly to save time. Not everyone likes to read. Win over your team by encouraging creative thinking. A product screen capture video demo might be quicker and easier to extract from the IT department than written documentation or a face-to-face presentation.

Keep track of trends and enablers

In 1993, web knowledge management was all about directories such as the Yellow Pages and lists like NCSA’s What’s New on the Web. Nowadays it’s impossible to keep up with technology options: contacts management, content management, customer relationship management…  every day new products are released which may be relevant. Watch for simple enablers that manage one facet of knowledge well like the social bookmarking service delicious (www.delicious.com). A recent revamp has made it even easier to track contextual knowledge across teams and your network.

Software-as-a-service providers rely on return business and volume. A team of three may often use services for free, or very inexpensively. Understand how knowledge collated in one place can be imported elsewhere. I regularly export my LinkedIn business contacts and import them into ZohoCRM to manage customer relationships, all for free. Be wary of systems such as Facebook however that make it hard to export your data. All of your knowledge must be portable.

The internet may provide unprecedented access to information but everyone has knowledge management issues. Keep track of the competition. Talk to them. Exchange ideas at industry forums. Work your network.

Why does Hollywood often produce almost identical movies? Knowledge sharing is to everyone’s benefit, even alongside the aggressive competition. Follow competitors on Twitter. Browse bookmarks saved by experts in your delicious ‘My Network’. Memes are spread this way. You do not have time to track all disciplines but track the experts. KnowledgeBoard.com is an EU-funded knowledge management portal that can help you here.
Newsfeeds and media feed, such as podcasts, make it easy to syndicate specialist knowledge. As your business grows, your knowledge systems will proliferate.

A new generation of free aggregator services makes it easy to compile feed information from numerous sources. It takes a minute to build bespoke reference sites from feeds such as soup.io, and only a minute to post updates across all your channels such ping.FM and tubemogul.com.

Be practical

Avoid re-creating knowledge available elsewhere. Put your privacy concerns under the microscope. Secret knowledge may give you an advantage but secrecy works both ways. Manage your barriers to knowledge or your team will lose out. “I couldn’t log in…” 

Open knowledge is invaluable which is why Google competes with Wikipedia (see knol.google.com). Your knowledge management practices will only deliver results if people get behind them… if processes are relevant to them. Big organizations can afford disastrous roll-outs of knowledge management initiatives, but in your business, even minor setbacks could be fatal. Like the internet itself, people are brilliant at routing around problems, including fears of this knowledge management nonsense.

Every business benefits from highlighting its knowledge management practices. Knowledge is power. Free and inexpensive online services are here to help. Take the time to consider what activities are most relevant, take small steps, and bring your network along for the ride. Michela Ledwidge is a director and systems architect at her consultancy thequality.com and also has a virtual studio, MOD Films.

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