Other Voices: Growing With Knowledge Management

Knowledge management is just as important for small and midsize businesses as it is for large ones. Learn what you need to do to implement a knowledge-management strategy in your small company.
The concept of knowledge management has been around since the early '90s, but only recently has its role as a key to business success received widespread acceptance. Although many IT managers recognize the benefit of knowledge management, its value to smaller businesses isn't always as obvious. However, the importance of a knowledge-management solution is just as vital for small and midsize businesses.

The return on investment for knowledge-management technology is equally as relevant in small businesses as it is for multinational companies with hundreds of thousands of employees. Archiving, managing, and accessing knowledge is imperative to running an efficient organization, no matter what size.

But for many small and midsize businesses, implementing a knowledge-management strategy can seem a daunting task. Multiple questions arise: Where do I begin? What technology do I need? How do I ensure the success of my knowledge-management solution?

Knowledge that has an impact on your business strategy is broken down into two categories: tacit and explicit. Tacit knowledge is expertise that's difficult to document. It's knowledge stored in employees' minds, such as experiences with customers, which is often shared verbally but never captured electronically. Explicit knowledge is found in documents, databases, E-mails, and logged instant-message chats.

To successfully capture and utilize your organization's tacit and explicit knowledge, your knowledge-management strategy should do the following:

  • Map back to your organization's business strategy
  • Help solve business issues, such as accelerating innovation or speeding new product introductions
  • Highlight and intertwine three areas: people, processes, and technology

So what's the starting point? Small and midsize businesses should begin developing a knowledge-management solution by introducing collaborative systems that help employees take advantage of one another's expertise.

At a minimum, a knowledge-management solution for small and midsize businesses should incorporate collaboration, content-management, and search technologies. For medium-sized or more technologically savvy businesses, an advanced knowledge-management solution that uses both tacit and explicit knowledge boils down to six core areas: entry points, collaboration, document management, taxonomy and workflow, search, and expertise location.

Let's assume that most small and midsize businesses have one technology entry point already in place. Entry points indicate areas where employees access the technology supporting the knowledge-management initiative, such as a portal, a virtual workspace, or an E-mail environment. A company that has already identified appropriate entry points then should focus on sharing tacit knowledge.

This often leads to implementing collaborative technology, such as instant messaging, as well as a document-management system. Distributed organizations need to collaborate in meaningful ways and have a central location to store information. By making information, documents, and their authors easily accessible, companies can make quicker and better-informed business decisions and increase employee productivity.

Since smaller companies often have fewer resources, their employees can be faced with multiple responsibilities, making time a scarce commodity. When faced with a market demand, such as a request for proposal for a potential new customer, employees need to access information and resources as quickly as possible. A document-management system can ensure that employees are never searching for the most current version of a document or using older versions that may have incorrect information. A content-management system provides a virtual place to store all digital content, including audio and video files.

As the amount of content within a company increases, two specific needs arise:

• The ability to organize this content using taxonomies and workflow. A taxonomy is a way to classify information resulting in a catalog or map of an organization's content. Once employees find the information they need, workflow can improve the quality of collaboration among employees by automating interactions between them. This is especially useful if employees are frequently traveling or out of the office.

• The ability to search and locate answers or insights from this information. Whether searching the Web, documents, or databases or seeking insight into specific questions, a federated search solution can help employees easily access information stored in a company's file servers, databases, E-mail servers, and even the Web, from one location. Employees spend less time re-creating the wheel and more time conducting business.

Once a company has established a classification for stored content, it needs to focus on expertise location, which helps users pinpoint and collaborate with experts within their organizations. No matter how much information is available, effective business decisions require the input of other experienced people. When an employee has access to these experts, partners and customers receive improved responsiveness and service, while the organization reduces cycle times and ultimately achieves a competitive advantage.

In order to ensure the success of a knowledge-management strategy, company leadership needs to wholly support the implementation of the strategy. Strong leadership will identify possible challenges, enforce a change-management policy, and set metrics to measure the success of the implementation.

The best knowledge-management strategies are focused on solving a business problem and enabling that company to become an on-demand organization--one that's integrated, flexible, and responds with speed to customer demands and market opportunities. Those that follow a systematic methodology such as the one described here are the ones that achieve the highest return on their knowledge-management investments.

Antony Satyadas is program director of On Demand Workplace Industry Solutions at IBM.

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