Enablers to KM/KT Implementation
If knowledge is indeed as important as some argue it is, perhaps an organization should investigate ways to increase its use of the knowledge it already possesses.26 One critical step towards realizing this goal is to identify factors that encourage or discourage KT in organizations. Once KT is understood within an organizational context, managers might be able to implement strategies to boost organizational efficacy through better KM. A review of the literature has identified the following four major enablers of KT:
For this study, based on new research, two more elements have been identified as an enabler of KM/KT, specifically leadership and recognizing that KM/KT requires change management processes be implemented.
For this study, based on new research, two more elements have been identified as an enabler of KM/KT, specifically leadership and recognizing that KM/KT requires change management processes be implemented.
One research study that analyzed employee values and satisfaction at 26 large organizations found that leadership was the single most important factor in successful KM practices.27 The reason being is that employee behaviours are a reflection of management behaviours. This is not surprising as most organizational change research will speak to the importance of leadership and culture to successfully changing organizational direction, practices and behaviours. Studies have found that at least two of the following success factors need to be present for KM/KT initiatives to be successful:
- Communication in the organization
- Senior management commitment
- Collaboration and teamwork
- Employee commitment to the concept and practice of KM
- Innovative corporate culture
- Application of appropriate technology
Other “enduring principles” have been identified:
- Business values drive transfer benefits
- Transfer of best practices is the most common and most effective KM strategy
- KM must be woven into the corporate infrastructure
- KM earmarked funding is rare
- Having the ‘right’ culture is critical
- Successful KM efforts employ a ‘push-me-pull-you’ approach
- If it works, it really works
- Top level support is critical
- Technology is a catalyst not a panacea
- Mature KM efforts lead to transition from nurturing to measuring
Many experts have found that the most useful applications of knowledge occur when employees are given many opportunities to discuss and debate the definition and use of knowledge. Employees need help to identify what their roles as creators and users of knowledge should be. Managers need to focus on not just the information or facts, but also on what people think they know as they make decisions on behalf of the firm.
Organizational culture is the biggest barrier to KM/KT as it is the most difficult to identify and ultimately to alter. It yields less quickly or easily to innovation, because it is a function of the past. If an organization’s natural tendency is to share and collaborate, all that has to be done is eliminate structural barriers and provide enablers (like technology and facilitators) to allow practices and ideas to flow seamlessly across time and space. However, if a company’s nature is not to share, what results is hoarding either because there are barriers to sharing or due to existing organizational culture that does not promote it. If the culture works against KM/KT then the best and greatest KM/KT approaches and applications may not be enough to alter the behaviour of employees. People and culture are seen as the key to KM/KT for the following reasons28:
- Learning and sharing knowledge are social activities – they take place among people;
- Practices embedded in people, culture and context are complex and rich – dialogue and demonstration can enrich the learning; and
- To ensure practices and knowledge not only transfer, but transfer effectively and make a difference you have to connect people who can and are willing to share the deep, rich, tacit knowledge they have.
Preparing an organization for KM/KT initiatives means changing or adapting the organizational culture to support and facilitate the sharing, utilization and creation of knowledge. Instead of the traditional hierarchical structure of organizations and divisions, a knowledge organization is structured based on teams of knowledge workers composed of people from across disciplines and across the organization.
Some authors note that a mismatch between the goals of KM/KT and organizational culture might cause a major conflict, reducing the effectiveness of knowledge projects. Indeed, some even label this friction as the “biggest obstacle”.29 The ability to identify how conducive an organization’s culture is to the transfer of knowledge could provide management with the tools to determine whether it is worth the investment to implement KT strategies. For many companies however the shift to a culture of sharing and collaboration is not easy. To enable successful KT specific transfer mechanisms must be put into place to ensure the flow of best practices.
The culture of the company should give everyone access to the knowledge base of the company. Since the greatest knowledge base in the organization is in the heads of the individual associates of the company, everyone should be provided with access to everyone else in the organization across the organizational barriers to communication and the “structural silos” of the organization. Knowledge initiatives involve everybody in the organization - whether it is called Knowledge Sharing, Knowledge Transfer or Knowledge Management, these initiatives will cut clear across the organization; everybody's knowledge is important to the functioning of the organization, but as previously noted, changing culture is difficult and often slow. Therefore, it is important to understand the reasons for the corporate culture in order to change it.30
In the past, the expectation of passing along knowledge and leaving a legacy fit well within the cultural values of long-tenured employees who spent their careers with the same company. In today’s workplace, where four generations work side-by-side, knowledge is not always filtered well throughout an organization.31 According to the American Productivity and Quality Center (APQC), encouraging contribution is a challenge for any KM initiative, but it has a slightly different twist in a retention context because the individuals who need to contribute may be leaving the organization or the project.
In a typical Command and Control Structure, where the trainer is all knowing and dispenses knowledge on a ‘need to know basis’, boomers expect information to be neatly catalogued and organized in a logical manner, and to have manuals available with extra information and ideas to cover future scenarios and problems.32 Corporate training programs and environments largely mirror boomers’ learning preferences. Knowledge moves up and down the organization in a sequential manner from one person to another, but this sequential movement creates its own problems. Knowledge deteriorates as it moves through different individuals in a sequential manner. Information is gathered on the front line, passed to some manager so that he can put his perception on the situation and so forth up the line, going from in-box to in-box until it gets to a senior manager or expert somewhere in the organization, who then puts his infinite wisdom on the situation and sends it back to the front line. Not surprisingly this leads to confusion. While it is difficult to eliminate command and control management structure in most organizations, silos can be reduced and a more networked model of communication can be introduced which facilitates and encourages faster communication and information sharing. Those companies that manage to excel not only redesign processes but also place an emphasis on the institutionalized and active sharing of knowledge across functional silos.33
This new model mirrors what is described as the learning style of ‘gamers’34. Since gamers’ developmental years were spent “saturated” in electronic interactivity, they have a learning style distinctly different from the boomers’, a style that:
- Is not focused on books and reading;
- Ignores any hint of formal instruction;
- Includes trial and error and approaching a problem from different angles;
- Relies heavily on learning from peers, with a distrust of information from authorities;
- Centers around small, focused bits of information;
- Demands just-in-time information—with no interest in learning about what they might need some time in the future; and
- In sharp contrast to boomers, gamer’s desire instant (or almost instant) knowledge delivered in an informal manner as soon as they need it.
The value added to the organization from this communication model is described in Metcalf’s Law: the more that different disciplines of the organization can be involved in the collaboration process, the greater the ability of the organization to bring together critical knowledge to any situation that the organization faces, and ultimately the greater the value delivered at the point of need. By changing the organizational culture and critical supports, the organization begins to build the neural network of the organization.
The culture should allow each individual to enter knowledge into the system. Since each individual associate is part of the knowledge base of an organization, everyone within the system should have equal rights to enter knowledge into the system without prior filtration by management or experts. An organization will excel in KT if they are able to make employees feel that their knowledge is valued and encourage them to share their knowledge across time and space. In open organizations, the 'expert' is not always known and can be anybody at any point in time depending on the subject and their ability to share their knowledge about a subject. The key is knowledge sharing, which requires behaviour change at every level of the organization. Ninety percent of efforts for KT should focus on culture change.
Even if you announce full senior management support for a best practices and KT initiative; even if you put in the most sophisticated “anywhere-anytime-anybody” technology for sharing; and even if you provide incentives for sharing (recognition, promotion, money) you may get poor results. The reason for this is that people need help in understanding and transferring best practices. An explicit and institutionalized organizational infrastructure is needed and important.
Infrastructure includes the transfer-specific mechanisms put in place to ensure best practices flow throughout the enterprise. These include technology, work processes, and networks of people. Infrastructure also includes: corporate policies; the organizational structure surrounding the processes: the essential line and staff roles that must be played to support the new initiative of KT. An infrastructure of organizations and people must also be mobilized to make KT happen; leadership, a healthy culture, and basic information technology are necessary but not sufficient. To work, KM/KT must be institutionalized into the organization through the creation of new support systems, in addition to IT systems with new job responsibilities, new teams and new formalized networking. Organizations must create a set of roles and skills to do the work of capturing, distributing and using knowledge. There are many strategic and tactical tasks to perform, and it is unrealistic to assume a company can simply throw KM activities on top of existing positions. Humans add value that turns data and information into knowledge; as such, employees in dedicated roles with specific responsibilities must therefore perform some aspects of this process. If no one is “charged” with watching out for the transfer, it will fizzle and fade.
Conversely, KM/KT will not succeed in an organization if it is solely the responsibility of a small or even large staff working group. Ultimately, managers and workers who do other things for a living have to do the bulk of the day to day activities of KM/KT. The most successful organizations are those in which KM/KT is part of everyone’s job.
Critical infrastructure choices should be influenced by geography, culture, money technology, leadership and market structure, philosophy – but most of all, answers to the following three questions:
- How important is transfer of knowledge and best practices in the strategy of the organization?
- How much assistance and intervention does the organization think is required to make transfer happen and get results in their organization in a timely manner?
- How does the infrastructure address the barriers to the flow of knowledge (discussed further under KT challenges/enablers) and its implementation?
It is important to measure the projects and business processes that are being improved through KM/KT approaches and tools and let the users evaluate the contribution. Anecdotal evidence, usage statistics, and documented cost savings are important for justifying efforts and expanding them within an enterprise. Measurements are essential to ensuring the sustainability and success of transfer efforts over time.
While there are evolving and highly sophisticated ways to measure knowledge that go beyond traditional accounting, the best way to measure the impact of knowledge and best practice transfer is not by gauging the size of your knowledge capital base, but rather the effect it has on company’s performance. Knowledge initiatives have to be connected to measurable improvements in performance.35 Otherwise, why would companies invest in them? Look at the outcomes desired, not the activity itself. It is more important to measure the success of projects and business processes that are being improved through KT. Hence, practitioners/ leaders in KM attempt to link the outcomes of these efforts to their original value proposition.
Understanding how each enabler affects the KT process is the first challenge. Next, it must be ensured that all four are managed in harmony. If the technology allows sharing, but the culture says “keep what you know to yourself” transfer won’t happen. If there are no designated knowledge champions and facilitators, even a company with a pro-sharing culture may not succeed. If there is no process for designing and managing change, good intentions will flounder. Infrastructure, culture, technology and measurement are all necessary enablers; none alone is sufficient. Rather they must all work in concert to achieve sustainable success.
KM/KT as a Change Process
Best practices would indicate that companies need to approach planning, design and implementation of a KM/KT strategy/initiative with the same structured approach required by any organizational change effort that may require a proof of concept (e.g., pilot) or a corporate-wide, potential “quantum-leap”. The extent to which the change will be a quantum leap will depend on the size of the initiatives, as well as the organizational culture, leadership and how behaviours are rewarded.
Change initiatives, including those that change how knowledge is managed and transferred, requires a map to guide the company’s transition from the current state where knowledge is managed haphazardly, if at all. There may be some attempts at the grass-roots level or none at all. The desired state is an organization that has embraced the internal transfer of knowledge as a core process designed to deliver dramatic and sustainable improvement in performance. Key stages in the KM/KT change process include: planning, designing, implementing and scaling up.
KM/KT enablers need to be supported by a structured process. What follows is an example of critical success factors for strengthening KM/KT initiatives identified by the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD):
- Stated rationale for knowledge initiatives - There are a number of rationales including competitive advantage; knowledge retention, etc. Successful KM/KT strategies need to ensure a shared understanding throughout the organization as to why the KM/KT project/initiative is needed.
- KM efforts need to be connected to an organization’s mission and operations - This component answers the question “knowledge for what ends?” Other organizations (such as CIDA and the World Bank) have both noted that unsuccessful projects are often characterized by a disconnect between the knowledge sharing activities and the day-to-day operations of the organization.
- Setting objectives at the right level - A fundamental mistake is one of scale. Knowledge sharing works best when it is closest to the level of implementation and impact. One begins at the operational level to collect the data before aggregating to corporate levels, “knowledge flows are situation specific, and while infrastructure, protocols and systems are important, they must be designed and supported with specific purposes in mind”…“the shorter, more focused the project, the better the knowledge flows”.36
- Understanding the components of KM - A set of strategies and tools to facilitate the following:
- Internal KM – How the organization manages internal communications among the different divisions in order to strengthen its knowledge base; how to manage the archiving and sharing of knowledge products developed by its staff and partners. In some organizations the focus is on formation of structured communities of practice or thematic knowledge networks supported by list servers and websites for exchanging information. Membership organizations often focus on creating the space for dialogue among members and capturing the dialogue so that it can be used. The specific modality for internal communications is up to the organization, but these factors are important: internal communication needs to be across the whole organization; there needs to be tools to support communications, storage and retrieval.
- External KM – How the organization flows its knowledge into the hands of the people it most wants to use it; how it strengthens its knowledge through its interaction with external experts and decision makers; how it knows whether its insights make a difference. There needs to be consideration of the different modalities for collaboration and communication and a selection of the most appropriate modes for the task; management of the relationship building and communications processes and regular monitoring and adjusting of these efforts.
- Piloting is a common KM practice - Their research showed that creating a safe place for experimentation with the new technologies is important. Rapid piloting and scaling up can be more effective than planning a large scale KM strategy from the beginning.
- Defining roles and responsibilities for KM - Champions are needed at both top management and middle management levels. Middle managers are the people who connect knowledge needs and flows with operations; often specific roles for young professionals are articulated since they often serve as both connectors across an organization and are the beneficiaries of strengthened knowledge flows.
- Planning the sustainability of KM processes - Often systems are set up but are not sustained due to the lack of long term strategies for maintenance, improvement and further development. An emerging best practice in KM is long term planning for sustainability of any new KM project.
IISD research found that an overarching KM strategy was not always effective. Their research indicated that deploying three to four KM initiatives that are related, but not dependent was the most successful route, particularly in the initial stages of introducing and consolidating KM into the organization. A successful combination of strategies includes:
- Internal communications strategies – Strengthening the tools for internal communications.
- Influencing strategies – Identifying and maintaining relationships the organization needs to have with external experts and with those in positions to make required change (i.e. bridging the gap between research and action).
- Communication strategies – Flowing the knowledge out of the organization to broader audiences.
- Administrative strategies – Supporting the infrastructure for KM such as IT and human resources.
26 Ladd, A., & Ward, M.A., (2002) An Investigation Of Environmental Factors Influencing Knowledge Transfer.
27 Sharp, D. KM Today: Challenges & Opportunities", Information Systems Management, spring 2003.
28 O'Dell, C.S, Essaides, N. & C. Jackson Grayson, Jr. (1998) If Only We Knew What We Know : The Transfer of Internal Knowledge and Best Practice
29 Costa, Dan. (1999, July). Knowledge is power. Computer Shopper, 252-254.
30 Buckman, R. (2004) Building a Knowledge Driven Organization
31 Argote, L., Ingram, Levine & Moreland (2000). "Knowledge Transfer in Organizations: Learning from the Experience of Others." Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 82(1) (May): 1-8.
32 Karl M. Kapp (2007); Tools and Techniques for Transferring Know-How from Boomers to Gamers
33 Fahey, L., and Prusak, L., "The Eleven Deadliest Sins of Knowledge Management", Knowledge Management MIS 580, Texas A&M University, 2008
34 Buckman, R. (2004) Building a Knowledge Driven Organization (Gamers - the 90's generation, often turn to internal blogs, use instant messaging, they have embraced fast and instant means of communication such as Wiki's; Boomers - post World War II generation, tend to use emails, make phone calls and have face-to-face communication as their primary means of engagement, boomers need to consider the possibility that trust can be built in ways other than face-to-face interactions).
35 O'Dell, C.S, Essaides, N. & C. Jackson Grayson, Jr. (1998) If Only We Knew What We Know : The Transfer of Internal Knowledge and Best Practice
36 IISD, page 4.