Knowledge Management is Thriving and More Critical Than Ever

By Bob Armacost

Some notable observers have declared that “knowledge management is dead,” that it is an old, tired concept that creates little to no value in organizations. This drumbeat of negativity is misguided. On the contrary, knowledge management (KM) has evolved and matters more than ever to all types of companies and organizations.

Roughly 70 percent of the valuation of public companies today comes from intangible assets, and one of the most important assets is an organization’s knowledge. It is the intellectual property created in R&D labs, insights on customer trends gleaned by marketing, new cost-reduction practices found on the shop floor, and the collective experience of the organization’s people. Knowledge workers are creating and discovering knowledge every day and are conversely also seeking knowledge from others both inside and outside the organization.

Many organizations have mobilized to apply this knowledge to continuous learning and new value to deliver faster growth, more efficient and cost-effective operations, higher-quality products and services, and greater human resource development. These efforts have become more deliberate since knowledge management emerged as a management concept in the 1990s, with organizations of all sizes investing significant amounts in people, processes, and technologies.

The Challenge

Unfortunately, many organizations have not realized their intended benefits from these investments, with some abandoning their organized KM efforts altogether. Some business leaders have perceived these investments as not value-added, expressing frustration in many ways:

We spent millions on a large content management system, but nobody can find anything.

Our expensive new collaboration tools go unused, as everyone seems fine using email.

Our people say it is a pain to collect and contribute knowledge to the database.

We have dozens of KM staff and I dont know what they do or how they add value.

This feedback is not isolated, as these and other examples have attracted the attention of analysts and observers, with some writing openly about the decline, or even “death,” of KM. Some actual recent quotes:

Knowledge management isnt dead, but its gasping for breathAny chance that this idea will come back? I dont think so.

Knowledge Management is dead, thank God.

Evolution and Renewal of Knowledge Management

These fears are misleading. First, the need for businesses to drive results and competitive advantage through thru data, experience and insight has never been greater. This is being driven by ever-increasing business complexity, as well as the rapid explosion of new tools and data, while markets demand greater speed and performance than ever.

In addition, in more emerging businesses (e.g. Uber, Amazon), “knowledge” is intrinsic to the service or product, putting knowledge at the front line of the business in ways it never was before. These require knowledge to be a central part of the end-to-end business model and cannot be an afterthought.

Second, many of the notable “failures” of Knowledge Management can be traced back to poor design and management of the program.  While entire books can be written on these failures, the most common pitfall is organizations who don’t articulate what knowledge is for their business and people, or the practical business benefits they are trying to achieve.  The result is well-meaning, often costly technology efforts that are not aligned with the business’ strategy, or tied to impact.

Finally, the concept of Knowledge Management has evolved. Historically, KM has typically been built as a central, monolithic entity, with the goal of serving all business groups and all people thru a single set of tools and processes. Unfortunately, in most organizations, this is the wrong approach.

The imperative is not to force-fit a single program everywhere, but instead align the right tools and behaviours to the right business purpose, across the organization. What works to enhance Customer Service is different that what is needed to improve Quality Assurance.  The result will be a collection of business-led enablement programs that are often not even called "Knowledge Management."

Businesses now can choose from a wider and expanded set of tools and capabilities under the "KM" umbrella, including Digital Asset Management, Business Intelligence, Social Collaboration, Enterprise Search, Communities, Crowdsourcing, and many others. Each of these need to play a specific (and varied) role across an organization and are no longer focused just on large content repositories.  When tied to a clear business purpose and built around how people and teams work every day, these can and do make huge impact.

Going forward, the successful “KM” program may simply be good, smart business process enabled by technology, whether called KM or not.  Given all of this, we shouldn’t be talking about the “death” of KM, but its renewal!

Bob Armacost is a consultant with deep experience building and leading knowledge management, social learning, information services and innovation across large, global professional services firms. To learn more, visit Iknow's web site .