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Got knowledge?

Knowledge management is a field that most of us take for granted. Any organisation will generate and store massive quantities of knowledge during a long enough period—knowledge like payroll to lessons learned, project outcomes to processes. Every bit of knowledge that your organisation needs to function as it currently does has to be stored somewhere and accessible by the right people.

It's that last part that causes many organisations to suffer unnecessarily.

What is knowledge?

Knowledge is the artefacts and understandings that go together to make up your organisation. It can range across everything from the history of your organisation to the outcomes of the meeting you had this morning. Storing and accessing this knowledge can help you understand how you got where you are today and what decisions you made to get you there.

"Ways of Working" is an often-used phrase to describe some of the knowledge your organisation uses to function day-to-day. It'll contain things about processes, like HR processes and project delivery processes, to wifi passwords and the training sanctioned by your L&D folks.

The vision, mission, purpose and values of your organisation, along with its goals, targets and objectives also add to the body of knowledge that is needed to ensure you're all travelling in the right direction.

Last, but certainly not least, your organisation's culture is inextricably linked to its knowledge management practices. How people bend the processes, what kind of relationships people have and how people remember the work they've done and the people they've done it will all contribute to the "knowledge" of an organisation.

Remember how Bob is the only person who knows how to replace the cartridge on that printer next to the break room?


Where do we keep this knowledge?

You'll have your processes written down somewhere, I'm sure. A playbook, or wiki, or intranet (remember those?) will contain most of the things you think your company needs. There's a lot of ways to record this information — more traditionally, it'll be in something like SharePoint, Google Sites, or perhaps something like JIVE.

More commonly now, people are using less clunky software to do this. I've seen some excellent knowledge management done in places like Trello, and there's some cool stuff happening with Notion.

The biggest problem with these systems, though, is that they end up being horrendously out-of-date.

Either by mistake, neglect or perhaps, more sinisterly, because declining to share information is a way for someone to stay employed. I'd wager that most of the essential knowledge is inside the skulls of your most tenured staff.

Who will change the printer cartridge if we sack Bob?'

What does it mean to 'manage' knowledge?

The real key to knowledge management is not where you store it, or what you save, it's how you keep it relevant.

Almost every company I've worked at had a knowledge management problem in that whenever I want to find something, it was never easy.

Either there are too many versions, or there's one version, but this version is eight years old. Or there is simply nothing to be found, possibly because it's on Shiela's personal desktop computer, or because it doesn't exist anywhere but in Bob's head. Maybe it does exist, but it has some strange, esoteric filename from a document management system from the 90s, and the search function in the software we're using is too simple to find it.

Having someone accountable for knowledge management at your organisation is vital for its health. Yeah, you could probably get away with piling artefact after artefact into your internal wiki, but, eventually, it'll all pile up like those zombies in that Brad Pitt film and your bad knowledge will start spilling over into your day-to-day life and ruining your Wednesday.

Making someone accountable means that they'll need to create some processes, or ensure processes are built into your tools to ensure your knowledge remains as fresh as a three-minute old croissant from your favourite cafe in Paris. It doesn't necessarily need to be a full-time role (it could be, many companies sport a Chief Information Officer), but it does need someone to be in charge of that stuff.

'Hey Bob, can you write down how you change that cartridge? Thanks.'

Why is this important?

I get it. There are a lot of moving parts in any organisation, and if you're a very young org, or flying light with only a few staff, you'll probably be thinking "I don't need this right now, too much other stuff to think about!".

I understand. However, if there's too much other stuff to think about, you should probably consider writing a lot of it down.

Et Voila. A knowledge management system.

Imagine if someone like NASA didn't write down their lessons learned and find a way to share that information widely with its employees!? How many times would they lose a shuttle and crew if they hadn't learned from and continued sharing those learnings from something like the Challenger disaster?

Doesn't bear thinking about.

I'd imagine that very few of you have organisations that could potentially endanger someone's life if you didn't share lessons learned. But your staff still has rent and bills to pay, they still need financial security as well as physical security.

A mature asset management strategy is a sign of a healthy company and, as Patrick Lencioni said "The healthier an organisation is, the more of its intelligence it is able to tap into and use." and having easily accessible artefacts of intelligence is healthier still.

Technical Director: Agile PMO @ Jacobs
Mike is a coach, scrum master, project manager and people professional. He is best known for his knowledge and experience of agile, as well as his focus on results and the culture that brings. He's most active on, which he founded.
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