You’ve likely experienced the common symptoms: Staff members write documents from scratch without realizing that similar documents already exist. They spend time researching topics when someone else in your organization is already an expert. Decisions are made without full knowledge. Text, pictures, or other content doesn’t make its way to the places where it would do the most good. You have a nagging feeling that people aren’t talking to each other about things that affect them both.
These are warning signs that knowledge isn’t flowing optimally through your organization. What’s the treatment? Some would tell you that you need a “knowledge management system.”
That might be useful, if the term “knowledge management system” actually described something that you could go out and buy.
The need to share knowledge is a common problem that has a number of different causes. As such, there’s no simple way to solve it for all organizations. The term “knowledge management system” is so broad as to be meaningless — covering everything from processes to search solutions to reporting dashboards. What’s more, knowledge management isn’t primarily a technology problem. Process solutions, new workflows, and communication changes can help as much or more, so no software tool can provide a one-stop solution.
But software can certainly be helpful with the many and varied knowledge management issues that organizations typically face. It’s important to start with your goals: what are you actually trying to achieve, in more practical terms than “managing knowledge”? With your goals in mind, you can start to investigate the types of solutions that might help.
This article is designed to give you a head start by suggesting some of the ways other organizations use software to address four common knowledge management goals.
We’re just scratching the surface — each of these bullet points could easily be an article in its own right, and for every piece of software mentioned, there’s likely 10 more worth looking at. But hopefully they will inspire you with some ways you can help your own organization.
Goal: Encourage people to take advantage of other people’s knowledge.
Helping your staff connect with internal subject matter experts can be a great place to start a knowledge management effort. For most people, it’s more natural to call someone than to look up answers in a system. And it’s usually less complex to link people to someone who can answer a question or tell them what resources exist, rather than surface the answers or resources themselves.
What types of software solutions might be useful in connecting people to others with the appropriate expertise?
- Interest Group Email Lists. Email is a powerful and affordable tool. Setting up email lists for specific groups — using either through email software like Outlook, or external list tools like Google Groups or Listserv email lists — can allow those interested in particular topics to share relevant information or to ask each other questions.
- Blogs or Wikis. Ask staff members with knowledge in a particular area to manage a wiki or a blog to share information and resources with the rest of the staff. Check out WordPress, TypePad, or Blogger for easy-to-use and inexpensive blog tools. Consider MediaWiki, JotSpot, and Wikispaces as wiki options.
- Virtual group collaboration tools. Collaboration tools can help bring geographically separated people together. Working teams or interest groups could hold meetings via a conference call, online chat, or online meeting tools (such as WebEx or ReadyTalk). Or they could work together using wikis (such as those above), collaborative management tools (such as phpGroupWare or Zimbra), or online word processors (like Writely).
- Expertise repositories. You can also explicitly track expertise and allow people to search through it. For instance, you could ask staff members to fill out a survey (perhaps with SurveyMonkey or Zoomerang) that itemizes their areas of expertise, and then surface that information online or in a database. This information tends to get out of date quickly, though, and to suffer from staff modesty (i.e. “I’ve done some research there, but I won’t check that box because I’m not an expert”). Several vendors offer tools that automatically extract information about staff expertise from emails and document — these solutions can be very effective but expensive to implement.
Goal: Ensure everyone can find the documents and other resources useful to them.
This is one of the most common reasons that people investigate “knowledge management systems”: People can’t find the documents or resources they need. Or worse, they don’t what exists and proceed to reinvent things.
What types of software might be useful to an organization that wants to make their existing resources more findable?
- Enterprise search. If you’re like most organizations, you have useful information and resources scattered among different file servers, intranets, the company Web site, and more. A number of vendors (such as Google and Microsoft) offer search solutions that allow keyword searching across a multitude of sources and formats.
- Tagging solutions. Asking staff members to “tag” documents with keywords, and then allowing others to browse by those keywords can be an affordable way to surface key documents. De.licio.us and Flikr offer free functionality that allows you to tag resources in a public environment. Several vendors also offer tagging solutions appropriate for organization use. Note, however, that no tagging solution is likely to make all your documents easily findable unless every staff member tags nearly everything he or she touches.
- Intranets and shared document spaces. Consider providing areas where teams or experts can upload resources for others to use. These areas might take the form of an organization intranet (built through tools like Drupal or Sharepoint) or shared document spaces in a group collaboration tool (consider Google Groups or WebOffice). Keep in mind, though, that a staff member isn’t likely to voluntarily upload a lot of documents unless it saves her a lot of time to do so.
- Content management systems. If you formalize your methods of tagging and uploading documents, you enter the realm of content management. A content management system (CMS) is used to display text and documents on a website. While these applications are most familiar as a way to update text, more sophisticated CMS tools have powerful mechanisms for organizing and browsing through documents which make them very applicable in this space. Consider tools like Drupal, Plone, or CommonSpot.
Goal: Help staff easily answer common questions.
For many organizations, searches for information follow the 80/20 rule: 80 percent of people look for 20 percent of the possible information. Making it easy to find this frequently requested information can have a big impact on productivity all by itself. Ask staff what information they frequently look for and what questions they are frequently asked to identify the core questions.
What types of solutions might be useful in helping staff find the most commonly requested information?
- Create and distribute FAQs. The most obvious — and often very effective — way to address this goal would be to itemize the most common questions, answer them in a document, and then distribute the document to staff.
- Intranets. For many organizations, the list of FAQs becomes large enough that it’s difficult to manage in a document. The answers can instead be organized into a website viewable by your internal staff.
- Knowledge base. A system that carefully organizes answers to common questions, make them searchable, and allows cross-references is frequently called a “knowledge base.” This type of system can be particularly useful for people, such as like hotline or call center staff, who spend a lot of their time answering questions. A number of vendors offer software to help build knowledge bases of this type.
- Expert systems. The term “expert system” defines a knowledge base that includes logic to help diagnose problems. For instance, it might step the user through a series of questions to determine if a constituent should see a doctor, or if they’re eligible for Medicaid. These systems are most frequently used to help with complex questions that are asked over and over, and are typically built from scratch
Goal: Ensure senior staff has the right information to make decisions.
A good knowledge management strategy should do more than allow people to find the knowledge that exists. It needs to ensure that the right people can easily use that accumulated knowledge to make decisions. In practice, this often means pulling together information from a number of different sources to provide a quick overview. This is easier said than done, though — creating useful overviews requires careful definition of what metrics and information will best support effective decisions.
What types of solutions might be useful in quickly conveying key organizational information?
- Consolidated status emails or documents. At a basic level, it can be helpful to ask key staff members to provide periodic status reports that include the key metrics and information you’ve defined. These reports could be weekly, monthly, or quarterly. They might be in the form of an email or a document saved to a central location. Perhaps a staff member could consolidate the status updates into a summary sheet of key metrics.
- Solid reporting systems. Take a look at the reports you are able to get out of the processes and systems you have. Do they give you the information to make decisions? If not, can they be tweaked to do so? Or can you build new reports?
- Online dashboards. If you automatically create an online version of the summary sheet described above, it’s called a dashboard. These dashboards typically pull information from a number of different sources and provide an overview via charts, tables, and indicators. This type of dashboard can be constructed using a portal software (such as Sharepoint or Plumtree), or it could be more cost effective to build it from scratch.
Finding a Better “Knowledge Management System”
Looking to better use the knowledge your organization already has? If you just send out an RFP for a “knowledge management system”, you’re headed for trouble. Instead, start by diagnosing your actual issues and identifying practical goals so you can treat the symptoms you actually have. There’s no one size fits all solution — but at least you can get closer to a treatment that will work for you.