The Keys to Practical Knowledge Management Systems

Zach Wahl, CEO, Enterprise Knowledge, LLC
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Zach Wahl, CEO, Enterprise Knowledge, LLC

Effective Knowledge Management (KM) systems can offer significant value and hard returns on investment for organizations. When actualized effectively, they yield a range of benefits, including improved capture, management, and findability of information, greater communications and collaboration amongst knowledge workers, and improved organizational alignment and performance.

Unfortunately, KM initiatives often struggle to yield their potential success. There are multiple reasons this happens. KM practitioners commonly make initiatives overly complex, treating them as academic exercises as opposed to business solutions. KM systems can be designed with bloated functionality instead of streamlined, business-focused capabilities. In addition, KM efforts lack adequate change management, resulting in a failure to communicate (or market) their value. As a result, overly complex and commonly misunderstood KM projects lack the stakeholder and end user buy-in necessary to drive success.

Over the last several years, Enterprise Knowledge has helped an array of organizations strategize, design, and implement knowledge management systems that avoid these pitfalls and instead yield concrete benefits. Though each effort is different, adapted for the specific organization being served, there are several common keys to ensure true business value for KM efforts.

  Over the last several years, Enterprise Knowledge has helped an array of organizations strategize, design, and implement knowledge management systems 

User-centric Design and Benchmarking – KM systems can address a wide range of needs through a variety of functionalities including collaboration, communities of practice, content/document management, and enterprise search. In our experience, organizations are best served by pinpointing their user needs and understanding existing challenges before rushing into a KM solution. Often times, the technology isn’t the issue, but rather the processes, content, design, or simply messaging of the KM system need to be refined. Working with your end users and understanding their specific needs at the outset of an initiative can set the right path forward and potentially save on resources that would otherwise be expended in the wrong places.

This type of user engagement also provides opportunities to baseline how your organization is performing regarding KM process, culture, and technologies in relation to your competitors or the industry as a whole. Visualizing where your organization may be faltering and understanding the cost of these gaps can be a powerful tool to get support for your KM initiatives.

Agile KM – Though Agile concepts are most commonly associated with software development, they are equally, if not more applicable and valuable in regards to knowledge management and information management design. Projects such as these require maximum touch points between the design and development team, the business users, and the end users.

As consultants, we’ve often heard some version of the phrase, “I don’t know what I want, but I’ll know when I see it.” Agile design enables this concept by gathering feedback throughout the design process rather than only at the very end. Without it, organizations run the risk of straying toward the dreaded “big bang” deployment that result in missed expectations, missed deadlines, and unhappy stakeholders.

Taxonomy, Faceting, and Overall Findability One of the most foundational elements to an effective KM system is the taxonomy design. Taxonomies are controlled vocabularies used to describe or characterize explicit concepts of information, for purposes of capture, management, and presentation. They are commonly applied as tags on information, resulting in powerful KM system features including faceted navigation and recommendations on related content (think shopping on sites like Amazon, but having your desired information served up instead of products to buy).

The most valuable taxonomies are those that use the natural language of the end users and the business as a whole. Workshops and focus groups that leverage the stakeholders and end users to capture and come to consensus on this vocabulary serve an added value of acting as a communications and change management tool for the effort as a whole.

Focus on Content The phrase “Content is King” has long been circulated, but it remains nonetheless critical to any KM initiative. After all, there is no value in being able to find your information if that information isn’t valuable. A common guideline for us is that every hour dedicated to the design or development of a system should be matched with two hours dedicated to the creation, curation, and enhancement of content within it.

Organizations working on the design and development of a KM system should look at cleansing existing content before migrating it to the new system. This alone will often result in vastly improved findability and user satisfaction, as obsolete, duplicate, and inaccurate information will be removed. From there, we recommend focusing on 1) Enhancing existing content, 2) Creating new content, and 3) Maximizing integration with other systems. Of these three components, by far the most important is enhancing the existing content. This content enhancement should include a copy edit of existing content and a review of existing naming, placement, tagging, and imagery.

Explore Open Source and the Cloud Though there are a multitude of powerful commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) products, Open Source systems have matured to the point where they are viable alternatives. Combining Open Source technologies with Cloud hosting creates a speed and agility that will allow for rapid prototyping. This, in turn, results in greater and more frequent touch points with end users.

Governance and Metrics – The greatest KM systems will never be “finished.” Given the importance of designing for the end user, organizations need to be prepared to continue to engage those end users after rollout, reacting to their usage of the system and feedback in order to iteratively adapt the system to provide greater functionality and end user value. Equally, these changes needs to be made in a sustainable manner, and then clearly communicated to the end users. To that end, system and content governance are critical to ensuring the sanctity of the system and improved value over time.

By applying these best practices, organizations can create truly impactful knowledge management solutions that maximize user adoption, information sharing, and content findability. Designing and managing your knowledge management system with an agile approach ensures that it evolves as your environment and the needs of your users change. As a result, your system will continue to improve end-user satisfaction, capture valuable knowledge, and increase organizational productivity.

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