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Deep lessons from Knowledge Management

The history of knowledge management has some profound lessons for human resources. It has to do with a fundamental re-conception of what “knowledge” is, and the role it plays in organizations. HR pros may be inspired by the journey knowledge management took in re-conceiving how they add value.


Is knowledge a library?

If you asked any random person about how to approach knowledge management in an organization, they would probably come up with a plan to create some kind of electronic library. The idea would be to get employees to write down their “knowledge” and then put it into a system so that other employees could access the information as needed.

There are obviously various challenges in executing this approach, however, it’s hard to imagine any other way of tackling the issue.

How and why knowledge management went wrong

Organizations spent a lot of time and money on the electronic library approach to knowledge management with limited success. There were two big problems:

1. Employees wouldn’t enter their knowledge into the system

2. Even when knowledge had been put in, employees wouldn’t use the system to access the knowledge

The first issue isn’t particularly interesting, obviously entering knowledge takes work and if you are serious about creating this online library then you will need significant incentives for people to do so. That’s a solvable problem.

The deeper issue is that people wouldn’t access the information. I need to be a little careful in saying that. People access information in corporate databases all the time. We look up information in the employee handbook, information on customers, manuals on how to use software, and so on. This kind of knowledge has long been captured and successfully accessed in organizations. And this leads us to an important insight about what the mission of knowledge management was: it was to capture all that other knowledge that didn’t exist in simple lists of facts. It was that kind of knowledge that people were not interested in accessing. They were not interested in accessing it because it was not useful in the form it had been captured in online.

Is knowledge “know-how”?

We might do well to divide knowledge into two distinct categories “facts” and “know-how”. A fact might be how to print a report from your project management software. Know how might be how to salvage a project that has fallen far behind schedule. These types of knowledge are very different and online libraries that do a great job with facts get increasingly less useful as we move down the spectrum away from facts and towards know-how.

The big difference between facts and know-how is the extent to which the problem you are facing is context-dependent. If you are printing a project report, then the details of the project don’t matter. If you are trying to rescue a failing project the context is everything. Failure to recognize this difference led to disappointing results from many early knowledge management projects.

How to do “know-how” management

One of the best ways to transfer know-how from one person to another is via conversation. The young project manager talks to an older one who seeks to understand the situation and then offers specific advice precisely tailored to that young person’s problem. This can be on an as-needed basis, as part of a mentoring program, or as a kind of ongoing apprenticeship. For managing know-how, rather than knowledge, you want to connect the right people at the right time, with enough facilitation to have a productive conversation.

The lesson for HR

The lesson for HR should first of all be a recognition that the seemingly obvious, sensible way to do something, such as creating an online library, may be totally misguided because we’ve misconstrued the nature of the problem we are dealing with.

Consider the idea of career paths. Let’s imagine you have a series of well-defined jobs: Jr. Accountant, Accountant, Sr. Accountant. How someone moves through that career path may be quite well-defined, there are a lot of facts that can be documented. That clear career path is so appealing that you are tempted to build career paths for all jobs. Unfortunately, the accounting job ladder is an exception in not being particularly context-dependent. Pretty much all jr. accountants can move along that career path in pretty much the same way. That’s just not true for most other jobs. People can move in all kinds of directions based on their interests, abilities, and on what opportunities arise. Most young people need the know-how of a seasoned manager to guide their career, not some database of mapped-out career paths. They need conversations.

I don’t want to fixate on career paths because that’s just one example. There are all kinds of situations where we may mistakenly seek to create some fixed answer when what’s needed is to facilitate conversations. In practice it’s usually a mix where there is a role for an online library of facts and a role for processes that enable conversations.

We can’t necessarily control or document or measure these conversations the way we would like to. These conversations won’t be as impressive to present to your leaders as, for example, a massive online knowledge library would be. The lesson from knowledge management is that for the know-how we most cared about the massive online library failed. We’ll find success when we appreciate where we need to deploy the power of conversation.


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