Knowledge management (KM) was all the rage back in the early 2000s. KM systems would, so it was said, allow organizations to collect the institutional knowledge possessed by Baby Boomers edging toward retirement.
The concept sounded great. The only problem was that few enterprises knew how to properly deploy and use KM technology.
A study recently released by business video platform provider Panopto drives home the point that KM technology has largely failed to live up to its original promise. The report notes that the average large business loses $47 million annually from inefficient knowledge sharing.
So what went wrong?
"The problem is not with the software; it's with people," observed Alan Zucker, founding principal of Project Management Essentials, which provides project management and agile services. "In corporate environments it's extremely difficult to get people to contribute, maintain and use online reference platforms regardless of the quality of the software and interface."
"Knowledge management technology is nowhere close to living up to its potential," stated Eric Burns, Panopto's CEO. That’s not necessarily an indictment of the tools available, he noted. "There are a number of excellent systems out there that do a fine job of preserving employee expertise when used as intended," he explained. "The problem is that most systems aren’t easy enough and, as a result, employees don’t use them much, if at all."
Although most organizations have never bothered to measure the problem for themselves, inefficiencies in knowledge sharing have a quantifiable impact on productivity. "Employees spend 5.3 hours on average each week waiting for assistance or insights from coworkers," Burns said. "During this time, they’re forced to either recreate their colleagues’ existing expertise or simply delay the work in question."
Knowledge management 2.0
David Boland, chief knowledge officer at accounting and professional services firm Grant Thornton believes that most KM adopters have approached the technology the wrong way. "All too frequently, KM technology is a destination point that is distinct from where people go to do their day-to-day work," he observed.
Boland feels that tighter integration between knowledge systems and other company systems, such as those in sales, operations and delivery, is critical to unlocking greater value. "Capturing knowledge at the source and in the midst of the defined process can significantly improve the quality of content, user engagement and adoption," he explained.
Zucker recommends that organization launching new, or rebooting existing, KM systems start with the basics, such as precisely what information is needed to maintain and operate the business. "Consider the best way to capture and communicate the information," he said. "Does the system correspond to how the users will access and use the information?"
It's also important to evolve the system as new needs arise. "Don’t make things too complicated," Zucker advised. "Change will occur in the business and you want to minimize the amount of rework needed in the knowledge management system."
LinkedIn to KM
LinkedIn, the business-oriented social networking service provider, learned the hard way how important an effective KM system can be for a rapidly growing organization. During a period of hypergrowth, attention to documentation and other KM tools fell to the backburner, said Tim Worboys, LinkedIn's senior manager of software engineering. "As a result, developers had to ask each other questions about unfamiliar code and tools, and this was an inefficient system that became a bottleneck for productivity."
LinkedIn responded by deploying a more robust, easier to use and relevant KM system, managed by its in-house developer information organization. "Essentially, a knowledge management system is like any other area of technical development: If you don’t keep up with it, you'll accrue technical debt that will be more painful to pay down in the future," Worboys observed.
LinkedIn's KM platform is focused on two main types of internal information: code and tools and the reasons why specific decisions were made. "As engineers move to new positions or companies, it’s important to maintain a record of why certain design decisions were made so that we avoid repeating mistakes or ineffective processes," Worboys said.
LinkedIn believes that KM-based documentation leads to improved developer productivity and efficiency. Clear answers are instantly available to questions about code, tools and the reasons why certain practices have been implemented. "For training, the ultimate benefit is the upleveling of skills for your entire engineering organization, which is also a positive career growth benefit for employees," Worboys observed. He noted that another benefit of a well-designed knowledge management search architecture is easy access to valuable information. "You can have great documentation, but if no one knows how to find it, it’s not going to be of much use."