Ensuring the Failure of Your Knowledge Management Efforts

By Harold Strawbridge

It’s common to find articles with titles like ‘17 Steps to A Successful Knowledge Management Initiative’ or ‘The Fundamentals of Knowledge Management Success’. While the success of storing and sharing knowledge is specific to your context, I’m suggesting that the following are things common to knowledge management failures.

Confuse Knowing With Doing: A knowledge management tool filled with great content is as inert as a rock. To people with a need to know, having managed content (either in a learning management system or a knowledge repository)can be passive just as a physical library is passive (What’s a library without readers and borrowers?). Focusing on the collecting and curating of knowledge is essential to failure.

Sharing knowledge is knowledge in motion. Applying what’s shared is action. The goal of knowledge sharing is to shorten the time between learning and doing.  Focusing on sharing is as important as collecting and curating content. All are necessary to support “doing”.

Not clearly stating that the intention of your efforts towards knowledge sharing is to support people to do their best work is a failure point.

Do Knowledge Management to Employees and Not With Employees: If the goal of sharing knowledge is to support people to do things, then another failure point is being ignorant of the needs of employees. The best way to miss their needs is to not include employees in every phase of improving knowledge sharing. Skip engaging employees and you bake in failure. Without employees, you'll assume the answers to essential questions: What do people need to know?  How do they prefer to get what they need to know?  In the current ways we share knowledge, what’s working and what needs to improve?  Do our processes or the way we educate people need to change?

Don’t Recognize How You’re Already Sharing Knowledge: Ignoring how you’re already sharing knowledge is an effective part of failure. Turn a blind eye to every place you store information for current and future employees (policies and procedures, processes, regulations, safety standards, work instructions, training content, job descriptions, new employee orientation, warning labels, signs, e-mail, voice mail, service descriptions, internal and external website content, etc.)By ignoring how you currently store and share, you won’t recognize what is working well and what needs improvement.

It’s easy to try to create enthusiasm by telling people, “Now we’re going to manage our knowledge” and miss the fact that you already manage knowledge.  Managing knowledge is really a continuous improvement effort. Also, an announcement like that discounts the efforts of everyone who is currently creating, maintaining, and using the current knowledge sharing methods.

Avoid Aligning Knowledge Sharing With Existing Job and Leadership Competencies

Don’t bother to examine job descriptions. They contain your company’s definition of job and leadership competencies and the behaviors that demonstrate competency. If you examine them, you might discover one of two things: that sharing knowledge is already part of your culture or knowledge sharing is not part of your culture.

If sharing knowledge is woven into competencies you have something that can help you succeed. People will recognize that a focus on improving how knowledge is shared is part of helping develop their competence.  You have an existing foundation to take advantage of as you ask people what enables their sharing and using knowledge and what gets in their way.

If sharing knowledge isn’t aligned with competencies, you’re set up for failure. Your efforts may be a “new thing” that isn’t already part of your company’s culture.  People will wonder what’s in it for them.  You have a culture change on your hands with all the effort that changing a culture requires. Failing to recognize when sharing knowledge is a shift in the culture is a sure way to pour a lot of resources into a doomed effort.

Do Not Provide Recognition for Sharing Knowledge and Skip Looking For Instances of Knowledge Shared

To contribute to the failure of knowledge sharing, avoid recognizing instances where shared knowledge contributes to success. Informal recognition like, “I appreciated and used what you sent me” and “Your comment in the meeting seemed to be just what we needed to solve the problem” can only encourage people to share again. When knowledge is shared, don’t send a hand written thank you note or an e-mail. Also avoid recognizing how people have used sources to contribute to their work. In addition to skipping informal recognition, don’t use the things that are available to you in your company’s rewards and recognition tools.

A corollary to no recognition is not making knowledge sharing a topic of conversation in one-on-one sessions (scheduled or unscheduled).

Any one of these will contribute to a failed effort to manage knowledge. Combine them to insure a complete failure.

Harold Strawbridge is VP, Innovation and Continuous Improvement at Inglis, a Philadelphia based Disability Care Provider.