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What is knowledge management?

Knowledge management (KM) is the process of identifying, organizing, storing and disseminating information within an organization.

When knowledge is not easily accessible within an organization, it can be incredibly costly to a business as valuable time is spent seeking out relevant information versus completing outcome-focused tasks.

A knowledge management system (KMS) harnesses the collective knowledge of the organization, leading to better operational efficiencies. These systems are supported by the use of a knowledge base. They are usually critical to successful knowledge management, providing a centralized place to store information and access it readily.

Companies with a knowledge management strategy achieve business outcomes more quickly as increased organizational learning and collaboration among team members facilitates faster decision-making across the business. It also streamlines more organizational processes, such as training and on-boarding, leading to reports of higher employee satisfaction and retention.

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Types of knowledge

The definition of knowledge management also includes three types of knowledge—tacit, implicit, and explicit knowledge. These types of knowledge are largely distinguished by the codification of the information.

  • Tacit knowledge: This type of knowledge is typically acquired through experience, and it is intuitively understood. As a result, it is challenging to articulate and codify, making it difficult to transfer this information to other individuals. Examples of tacit knowledge can include language, facial recognition, or leadership skills.
  • Implicit knowledge: While some literature equivocates implicit knowledge to tacit knowledge, some academics break out this type separately, expressing that the definition of tactic knowledge is more nuanced. While tacit knowledge is difficult to codify, implicit knowledge does not necessarily have this problem. Instead, implicit information has yet to be documented. It tends to exist within processes, and it can be referred to as “know-how” knowledge.
  • Explicit knowledge: Explicit knowledge is captured within various document types such as manuals, reports, and guides, allowing organizations to easily share knowledge across teams. This type of knowledge is perhaps the most well-known and examples of it include knowledge assets such as databases, white papers, and case studies. This form of knowledge is important to retain intellectual capital within an organization as well as facilitate successful knowledge transfer to new employees.
Knowledge management process and tools
Knowledge management process

While some academics (link resides outside ibm.com) summarize the knowledge management process as involving knowledge acquisition, creation, refinement, storage, transfer, sharing and utilization. This process can be synthesized this a little further. Effective knowledge management system typically goes through three main steps:

  1. Knowledge Creation: During this step, organizations identify and document any existing or new knowledge that they want to circulate across the company.
  2. Knowledge Storage: During this stage, an information technology system is typically used to host organizational knowledge for distribution. Information may need to be formatted in a particular way to meet the requirements of that repository.
  3. Knowledge Sharing: In this final stage, processes to share knowledge are communicated broadly across the organization. The rate in which information spreads will vary depending on organizational culture. Companies that encourage and reward this behavior will certainly have a competitive advantage over other ones in their industry. 
Knowledge management tools

There are a number tools that organizations utilize to reap the benefits of knowledge management. Examples of knowledge management systems can include:

  • Document management systems act as a centralized storage system for digital documents, such as PDFs, images, and word processing files. These systems enhance employee workflows by enabling easy retrieval of documents, such as lessons learned.
  • Content management systems (CMS) are applications which manage web content where end users can edit and publish content. These are commonly confused with document management systems, but CMSs can support other media types, such as audio and video.   
  • Intranets are private networks that exist solely within an organization, which enable the sharing of enablement, tools, and processes within internal stakeholders. While they can be time-consuming and costly to maintain, they provide a number of groupware services, such as internal directories and search, which facilitate collaboration.
  • Wikis can be a popular knowledge management tool given its ease of use. They make it easy to upload and edit information, but this ease can lead to concerns about misinformation as workers may update them with incorrect or outdated information.
  • Data warehouses aggregate data from different sources into a single, central, consistent data store to support data analysis, data mining, artificial intelligence (AI), and machine learning. Data is extracted from these repositories so that companies can derive insights, empowering employees to make data-driven decisions.
Strategies to accelerate knowledge management

While knowledge management solutions can be helpful in facilitating knowledge transfer across teams and individuals, they also depend on user adoption to generate positive outcomes. As a result, organizations should not minimize the value of human elements that enable success around knowledge management.

  • Organizational Culture: Management practices will affect the type of organization that executives lead. Managers can build learning organizations by rewarding and encouraging knowledge sharing behaviors across their teams. This type of leadership sets the groundwork for teams to trust each other and communicate more openly to achieve business outcomes.
  • Communities of practice: Centers of excellence in specific disciplines provide employees with a forum to ask questions, facilitating learning and knowledge transfer. In this way, organizations increase the number of subject matter experts in a given area of the company, reducing dependencies on specific individuals to execute certain tasks.
Knowledge management use cases

Armed with the right tools and strategies, knowledge management practices have seen success in specific applications, such as:

  • Onboarding employees: Knowledge management systems help to address the huge learning curve for new hires. Instead of overwhelming new hires with a ‘data dump’ in their first weeks, continually support them with knowledge tools that will give them useful information at any time. Learn more
  • Day-to-day employee tasks: Enable every employee to have access to accurate answers and critical information. Access to highly relevant answers at the right time, for the right person, allows workforces to spend less time looking for information and more time on activities that drive business. Learn more
  • Self-serve customer service: Customers repeatedly say they’d prefer to find an answer themselves, rather than pick up the phone to call support.  When done well, a knowledge management system helps businesses decrease customer support costs and increase customer satisfaction. Learn more
Benefits of knowledge management 

Companies experience a number of benefits when they embrace knowledge management strategies. Some key advantages include:

  • Identification of skill gaps:  When teams create relevant documentation around implicit or tacit knowledge or consolidate explicit knowledge, it can highlight gaps in core competencies across teams. This provides valuable information to management to form new organizational structures or hire additional resources.
  • Make better informed decisions: Knowledge management systems arm individuals and departments with knowledge. By improving accessibility to current and historical enterprise knowledge, your teams can upskill and make more information-driven decisions that support business goals.
  • Maintains enterprise knowledge: If your most knowledgeable employees left tomorrow, what would your business do? Practicing internal knowledge management enables businesses to create an organizational memory. Knowledge held by your long-term employees and other experts, then make it accessible to your wider team.
  • Operational efficiencies: Knowledge management systems create a go-to place that enable knowledge workers to find relevant information more quickly. This, in turn, reduces the amount of time on research, leading to faster decision-making and cost-savings through operational efficiencies.  Increase productivity not only saves time, but also reduces costs.
  • Increased collaboration and communication: Knowledge management systems and organizational cultures work together to build trust among team members. These information systems provide more transparency among workers, creating more understanding and alignment around common goals. Engaged leadership and open communication create an environment for teams to embrace innovation and feedback.
  • Data Security: Knowledge management systems enable organizations to customize permission control, viewership control and the level of document-security to ensure that information is shared only in the correct channels or with selected individuals. Give your employees the autonomy access knowledge safely and with confidence.
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