Fixing the problem of knowledge management

🟪 Technology

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Nick Mackeson-Smith
Nick Mackeson-Smith
Chief Curiosity Officer, Founder and Director
January 30, 2020

“Knowledge is power”. I’ve often heard the phrase; said casually by friends, colleagues, politicians, leaders.  It’s bandied around like nobody’s business, and the truth is if you hear something enough times, you start to believe it. But is it true? Is knowledge really power? It’s certainly not fake news… having more information than the next person does give you something that they don’t have - knowledge - but does the way we treat knowledge help or hinder our organisations?

Don’t get me wrong - there will always be things that must remain confidential or controlled due to commercial sensitivity, or privacy or for some other regulatory reason. I’m not interested in unlocking those secrets - they are confidential for good reason.  I’m interested in all of the other stuff; the bits that get hoarded by some but shared by others, the knowledge that is passed on by discretion, the information that often encounters dead-ends in the cascade and doesn’t reach the whole intended audience, the things that get forgotten, or lost to time or restructures.

How might we make knowledge more powerful?

In my mind, it’s all about leverage. Who is leveraging the knowledge and what for.  

How we approach the dissemination of knowledge in many organisations is largely hierarchical. Those at the top “know more” (or worse still, believe they do), and they make decisions largely based on the knowledge that’s available to them.  Yet we see time and time again that these decisions are often flawed because the leaders aren’t close enough to the coal face. They don’t truly have knowledge of what happens in customer-facing roles - they are too many steps removed from the reality.  These leaders are of course kept informed and up-to-date by middle managers who also deal in knowledge - they are closer to the front lines and spend their days filtering and sorting, polishing and spinning this knowledge to present to their leaders - often to serve an agenda.. personal or otherwise. I’m certainly not advocating removing these people - far from it - we need a middle tier of leaders… they perform a critical role in the organisation in getting the best out of the people in their care. I AM advocating for the removal of bottlenecks in knowledge transfer.

What if “on a need to know basis” wasn’t a thing? What if organisations truly believed that all of their employees needed to know because they valued the collective intelligence and ability of their employees to solve the complex or confronting challenges they faced as a business? What if they believed that upfront communications and transparency on decision making would reduce the water cooler talk and rumour mills that often manifest themselves in times of ambiguity or change? That they trusted that their employees were there to do a good job for them and would bring their best to work every day.

I believe that for the most part, things need to change. I believe that in organisations, knowledge will be powerful if everyone has access to it. Knowledge will be powerful if everyone is able to contribute to it. Knowledge will be powerful if everyone is able to leverage it.

Imagine replacing this:


With this:


The benefits to this approach are immediately clear:

  • A reduction in time in getting information from source to target.
  • An elimination of bias in selection of information.
  • A reduction in touchpoints.
  • An increase in transparency.
  • An increase in accessibility of information and people.  

I’ve worked with a lot of organisations, who typically have a knowledge base of some kind. This knowledge base tends to be a mish mash of articles proliferated over time - added to by a “keeper of the keys” who fits the story into a neat template (or rams it into an ill-fitting template and removes the valuable interesting bits!). Typically, a knowledge base holds information about a process, or an instruction, or a product - it’s an aid to support someone in following a defined series of instructions or supporting a user with their technical query.

What if (as well of all the systems, processes and instructions stuff) ALL of the organisation’s knowledge was available here?  Think of the things we could do.

We could easily find out:

  • Who knows ____
  • Who knows how to ____
  • Why knows why ____
  • Who is skilled in ____
  • Who speaks ____ language
  • Who has previous experience of ____
  • Who has ____ as a career aspiration
  • Who does ____ in their spare time
  • Who has worked in/at ____
  • How does ____ work
  • Why does ____ work
  • Who is working with ____ client
  • How do I ____
  • When did we ____
  • Why did we ____
  • What’s the best way to ____

Lots of organisations already have these data points, but they are scattered across multiple systems, platforms, documents and they aren’t integrated;

  • Your recruitment platform contains information about an employee’s career experience, achievements, interests, companies they’ve worked for, countries they’ve lived in, languages they speak.
  • Your learning management system will tell you what knowledge and skills they’ve acquired whilst working with your organisation.
  • Your internal comms platform (Yammer, Slack, Teams, Facebook - whatever) will tell you what people are talking about, what they are interested in, the changes in the organisation, who needs help, who is being celebrated (or challenged).
  • Your career pathing software (if you even have it) will tell you what people want to do with their careers, what interests they have, what opportunities they are looking for.
  • Networking tools and Client relationship management tools (LinkedIn, Salesforce, HubSpot, etc.) will tell you who knows who, who can make an introduction for you, who is working on what, who follows who, what groups someone is a member of.

It’s just data. With the right content management framework, some sweet data tagging, and a simplified user interface we can make all of this discoverable. But before we stick in a flashy technology solution, it’s important to start by changing the mindset within the organisation to one where continuous learning is the default. One where curiosity and a desire to learn more about things is valued and rewarded and encouraged.

Photo by Louis Hansel on Unsplash

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January 30, 2020
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