In a post on my other blog, I mentioned that in a recent ECM solution for our engineers, “we make it easy for them to share knowledge in addition to data” by nudging their thought process with metadata choices. In a recent discussion on LinkedIn, someone was commenting that ECM hadn’t been discussed relative to their social communication process, but that Knowledge Management (KM) had been. This has caused me to wonder: “where is the line between content management and knowledge management?” If this were an equation, I would factor out the term “management” reducing the problem to the difference expressed in the title.
This is a critical question for our organization, because one of the things that we are trying to accomplish, as we plan for our long-tenured management and staff to retire, is to institutionalize an abundance of tacit knowledge. We have accumulated so much experience, that in so many cases someone “just knows” the answer – but that someone, all of those “someones” will be gone within 5-7 years.
I have read a lot of blogs, whitepapers, definitions and sadly a ton of marketing material on knowledge management and my cynical conclusion is that KM is somewhat over-rated, often confused, regularly co-opted by salespeople and generally not well understood. I say that because the more recent material that I have read seems to be emphasizing a tie between knowledge management and Big Data – as if KM or at least KM vendors were hitching its future to the new star.
In a further attempt to either simplify this analysis or demonstrate my ignorance of the subject, I am going to define corporate knowledge as existing in two broad categories. One category is the stuff we know that we have to teach others while the second category is the stuff we know that others merely have to be able to find. I will risk offending additional people by saying that much of what we think we have to teach others is of fleeting value and they can probably live without knowing it. Consider the things we normally think we have to teach people:
Technique – My father taught me how to use tools, my wife taught my daughter the art of altering the precise amounts of ingredients, and sometimes the list of ingredients in a recipe, but we don’t have many opportunities like this in business. Recipes and techniques exist as well-documented business processes, and most other techniques evolve with the advent of new technology, so much of what we know won’t have to be known after we (or they) leave.
Selection rationale – Why did we choose this product or service? Why do we work with this vendor? The rationale was important once, but the important part is the fact that our decisions involved critical thinking.
Obsolete details – These are things like the tricks for programming the phone switch, the fact that a person prefers text messages to email or that we prepare a report for a manager because his boss wants to see information analyzed in a certain way. We are surrounded by details that we really don’t need to share with anyone. Obsolescence is the fastest growing threat to the value of our knowledge. So much of what we do is based on or in reaction to our environment and our environment is changing at an ever increasing pace.
This leaves us with a small body of knowledge that actually has to be transferred via human contact. These are fundamental things like why we avoid lines of business that compete with our partners or why we sell what we sell. These are broad things like the vision that has kept this company in business for over 50 years. These are also the things that get passed on by osmosis, through the experience of being in the room and hearing the discussions and absorbing what impresses us. In short, I’m not sure we need a system for this.
When it comes to the information people will need to be able to find, ECM can handle that with relative ease if we approach the task correctly. When I wrote about “nudging people’s thought process with metadata” I was referring to the way in which requiring certain additional information can force people to share knowledge as opposed to simply data. Documenting a recommendation tells us very little. Linking the recommendation to a full inspection report, gives us the ability to research the underlying rationale. Bracketing the recommendation with categories, status, dates, criteria and how important we feel the recommendation is, adds our tacit knowledge to the record. Building those metadata choices from a shared vocabulary spreads that value across the organization. Finally, allowing for social tagging, commentary and discussion gets close to allowing people in the future to be in the room today. ECM done right does include knowledge.