John Keeble argues the corner for knowledge management initiatives.

Talking to a consultancy company which had just returned from one of the UK's leading knowledge management (KM) conferences, I was intrigued to hear them comment that the number of people attending was well down on last year, and about half what it was two years ago. Even allowing for the impact of September 11 and lay-offs in the City and in consulting, the trend is intriguing. Does it signal the end for KM - another consultant-inspired fad doomed to blossom and wither as others have before it?

For any company that has ever trotted out the familiar maxim that their people are the key to their success, I sincerely hope not. All too often those words are greeted with cynicism from staff and indifference from managers, as the company's actions fail to demonstrate any real commitment to the concept. Yet if you really believe it, then some form of KM should be central to your company's strategy.

If people truly are the key to your success, it is because of the skills and experience they bring to the job - a combination of know-how and know-what. Inevitably, these skills are not uniformly distributed across the organisation; certain offices, departments or individuals will have more knowledge about particular aspects of the business than others. KM helps to identify where those knowledge hot spots are, and makes what they know more available to the rest of the organisation. This might be by identifying and recording best practice, sharing examples of good practice, or helping staff find out who they can and ought to talk to about particular issues.

That makes it sound like a straightforward process - identify where the knowledge is, build a map or directory, set up a best practice database and let people populate it. The problem is that it cannot be a one-off mapping exercise - knowledge is continually developing, focal points of expertise can change depending on who most recently dealt with an issue, and good practice can change day to day as people either build on each others' ideas or simply come up with completely new approaches. So what is needed is a not a rigid roadmap, but a set of processes which will continually reshape the map as the landscape changes, allowing people always to find the best and most relevant experience to draw on.

This is not a new concept, and arguably knowledge management has been going on ever since the first caveman showed his friends what happens when you bang two rocks together. What is new is that with a combination of a better understanding of the processes required, better insight into how to motivate people to share their knowledge, and technology, which makes it easier to disseminate knowledge across distributed organisations, you can now manage knowledge effectively over organisations of any size, transcending barriers of geography and time. Every member of your company can have access to the best knowledge you have about any subject, and can bring that to bear on serving your customers. Why wouldn't you want to do that?

As with all the best things in life, the devil is in the detail of implementation. It is all too common for people to get drawn in by the appeal of knowledge management, only to find that the reality of what they set out to achieve is far from satisfactory. For a CEO, there are two very simple but very powerful questions that can help avoid the worst of the traps, which should be asked of anyone who proposes launching a KM initiative.

Listen carefully to the replies you get, especially for any mention of how it is going to improve the business. Sometimes, the link will be completely absent, in which case you are faced by the prospect of introducing KM because it's a good idea in its own right. Whatever the merits of that argument, it's unlikely to win much commitment from busy people in your organisation - lip service is the best you can hope for from most, with more enthusiastic support from the 10% or so who are always up for change initiatives. Sometimes, the link will be there but fuzzily expressed, in which case it's simply a matter of continuing to ask questions until it's refined to a message which expresses quite clearly what it is the business can expect from KM, and how it will help business performance.

Business strategy
Now that you have the objective clearly defined, compare it to your overall business strategy and see how well it fits. If you cannot easily draw the link between the two, beware - your staff will see the mismatch at least as clearly as you do, and will be merciless about it. Not for any machiavellian reason or deliberately to undermine you, but because most people have enough experience of company life to be able to spot these mismatches, and they know intuitively that ideas which are not aligned to strategy tend to have a difficult implementation and a short life expectancy.

At Aon, our overall strategy of bringing all of Aon to our clients links directly to our KM strategy. Helping our staff to identify and deliver the most relevant and effective solutions we can provide helps us to address our clients' risk issues, whatever their nature and wherever they may be. It also helps us to build a relationship with our clients as trusted advisers, able to assist with a wide range of business challenges. From that high level objective it is relatively easy to identify the specific elements that need to be in place - although actually delivering them is rather more challenging.

The second key question to ask anyone who wants to implement knowledge management is just as simple but often more difficult to answer.

`Knowledge is power' is a truism ignored at its peril. As a business leader, you hope it will mean that the organisation's knowledge is its power. For the individual, it more often means that his own knowledge is his source of recognition, reward, promotion and even job retention. It is fatal to ignore that personal dimension - watch what happens whenever a downsizing takes place and you will see that the individual's perception of the importance of his own knowledge in retaining his job is all too often proven to be correct.

Nor is it enough simply to make public pronouncements about sharing knowledge becoming the new power in some brave new world of comradely openness. For most people, the tendency to hoard their own knowledge is deeply ingrained, reinforced by educational, social and cultural values. Personal knowledge is still a great source of power in most companies, and staff hearing pronouncements about a new era of openness and knowledge sharing are likely to comment wryly on the gap between what the leaders are now saying, and the behaviours which they exhibited in becoming leaders in the first place.

Rather than ducking this issue, it is vital to face up to it. If you continue to encourage people to share their knowledge on the one hand, and then continue to reward and promote non-sharers who cynically exploit others' knowledge on the other, staff will very quickly spot the discrepancy. There are two separate issues here - identifying who deserves some reward or recognition, and determining what form it should take.

Trade your knowledge
One way to identify people is to create a formal marketplace for knowledge, recognising that it has a value and that it can be traded just like any other valued commodity. This can be as direct as levying a small charge when one division access, or applies R&D results from another. Some companies have found this works well, as it helps recognise the contribution made by areas of the business that are natural knowledge sources, without adding unacceptable costs to the areas which are natural knowledge users. The most important thing in this system is not to argue about how much of the ultimate value of the development ends up where, but rather to be able to identify and acknowledge the contribution made and thus to encourage the flow.

However, in many organisations the flow is less obvious than this, and knowledge transfer may be much less formal - the result of phone calls and e-mails rather than formal research papers. If that is to remain the main exchange mechanism, then one effective way to identify people who are doing the right thing is to ask their peers. Identifying those whose help people most value, or those they turn to when they can't find things directly, can shine a spotlight on people who are providing knowledge that helps others. Often these are not the official information sources, but the unofficial hubs - people who know people, who know what's going on, who have seen and can recommend new or good approaches to common problems.

Added value
A problem that many organisations run into is that it is easier to identify the transmitters of knowledge than the receivers who apply it. This is fundamental, as no real value is created simply by transmitting knowledge - it is only when it is re-applied that value is added. However, it is much easier to count the number of new ideas being transmitted than to measure how often they are being applied. Some companies have attempted to reward explicitly those who re-apply other people's knowledge - the trap here is that if the original source of the knowledge doesn't get the same recognition, they feel abused. In one case at a leading proponent of KM, the antipathy this generated was so strong that the stars who had been feted for re-applying others' knowledge were slowly frozen out by the people whose knowledge they had applied, to the point where many of them left the organisation completely.

So it is important to have a process in place which can spot and record good examples of knowledge sharing, and acknowledge all the players - the original source, the ultimate user, and any hubs or matchmakers who made the introductions.

Reward and recognition
Now, how to reward them? Money is not necessarily the only, or even the most effective, reward system, but it is the most blatant and must be aligned with the behaviours you are trying to encourage. If it is not aligned, the mixed signals being transmitted will be the death of any KM initiative. Since we are talking about rewarding behaviours here, some form of balanced scorecard approach is often the most effective way of incorporating recognition of knowledge-sharing behaviours into reward systems. It is also powerful because it incorporates KM into the company's mainstream systems, rather than just being a spot prize added on, but outside the main process.

Alongside financial rewards, professional recognition can be just as important. Many companies deliver this through the provision of a technical ladder, allowing people to develop their career without necessarily having to take on more managerial roles. Recognition can include building time into their job description for the dissemination of their knowledge, giving them an assistant to take on some tasks to free them up more, or providing a resource to help write up or publicise their ideas and expertise. Some companies have found that re-introducing the apprentice concept can work well, allocating some of their brightest recruits to work alongside their most experienced staff. Both sides benefit from this, and since new recruits tend to be natural knowledge sponges they soak up a lot of experience rapidly.

In most companies, deep technical or professional knowledge is more readily recognised than being a knowledge hub - the person who naturally connects people. Here recognition from peers can be very powerful. Simply identifying how many people value the contribution made by someone in a hub role, and celebrating that role, can be a powerful motivator. If you can couple it with a more tangible form of recognition the impact will be even greater - and many of the approaches outlined for recognising deep technical knowledge are just as valid. Who better to put new recruits alongside than someone who `knows everybody'? Imagine the network they will start forming.

The key point is that if you really believe these practices and behaviours are valuable to the company, they need to be recognised and rewarded to the same degree as any other activity that you value. Failure to get this right simply emphasises that KM is a separate initiative rather than a part of the fabric of the organisation - and initiatives that don't make that transition are ultimately doomed.

So listen to anyone promoting KM, and ask why under their approach anyone would share their knowledge. If you don't get clear answers, probe until you do. A healthy dose of cynicism at this stage will be rewarded much more than a well-intentioned hope that people will suddenly start developing altruistic behaviours. Then check again that what they are proposing will not just encourage the sharing of knowledge, but will ensure the sharing of knowledge which will help achieve the business goal - the answer to the first key question described earlier.

This may all sound like common sense, and a lot of it is. Yet it is remarkable how often people fail to apply common sense in assessing new approaches, perhaps because the consultants who introduce them feel a need to shroud them in arcane language. The reason why knowledge management will become a way of life for successful companies is because it can be reduced to common sense statements. All you have to do is make it common practice.

  • John Keeble is director of knowledge management at broker Aon Ltd.

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