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Knowledge Management: Stem the brain drain

Knowledge Management: Stem the brain drain

What is knowledge management?

The single greatest asset any organisation has is the knowledge of its employees. Being able to ensure the right person has the right knowledge has always been a challenge, but the recently established field of knowledge management seeks to change this. Knowledge management (KM) is the process of capturing, distributing, and effectively using knowledge (Davenport, 1994). This includes the creation and management of information generated for an organisation. The fundamental goal of KM is to utilise knowledge to achieve organisational objectives, thereby improving overall performance. The use of KM is an iterative process, requiring constant analysis and reassessment of processes and objectives.


Beginning in the early 1990s, knowledge management emerged alongside the Internet as organisations realised they needed a structural approach to managing information shared between geographically disparate units. Business and academia both studied the concept throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, with many large organisations (e.g., IBM, Google) developing the discipline in recent history. Similarly, academic research on KM has been conducted in many fields, from IT to economics to behavioural sciences. However, KM is now viewed as its own specific discipline. It is now common for many organisations to have distinct KM units employing specific software, protocols, and processes to manage knowledge enterprise-wide.


There are countless strategies employed for KM, but certain fundamental actions occur in all effective strategies:

  • Codification: A form of labelling and organising data to make it searchable and classifiable. Data that isn't properly labelled is less accessible, thereby making it less effective.
  • Repositories: Anywhere knowledge is deposited. These frequently take the form of databases or bookmarking engines. It is vital that the information contained in repositories is accessible to the right people when they need the data.
  • Sharing: Developing a culture that encourages the easy transfer of knowledge between units and employees. This strategy seeks to eliminate data silos and encourage inter-organisational knowledge transfer.
  • Collaboration: Discouraging competition and data hoarding between employees helps to create an environment of free-flowing knowledge. This can come in the form of software solutions, such as wikis and instant messaging, or less formal methods, such as providing communal workspaces.
  • Brokers: A broker is an intermediary whose responsibility is to develop relationships and systems between producers and users of knowledge. In many organisations, this responsibility is put on the IT department, but large enterprises quickly realise the value of having specifically trained brokers.

Knowledge management vs information management

The simplest way of distinguishing between knowledge and information is to look at the difference between 'what' and 'how'. Fundamentally, information management examines explicit knowledge, the 'what' of an object or project. Examples include dimensions of a product, part numbers, temperature readings, or operational specifications. This explicit knowledge is well-defined and easy to articulate and share. Knowledge management concerns the 'how' of a process. Examples include how to program a device, motivational techniques, or the process involved in changing a tire. This tacit knowledge is difficult to identify and share and is best learned through experience.

It is important to note that information management and knowledge management frequently overlap in their systems, definitions, processes, and goals. Though they can be remarkably similar, the two terms are not interchangeable, as they fundamentally deal with two distinct types of material.

What is a knowledge base and why do you need it?

A knowledge base is a repository for all the information needed about a product, service, department, or topic. A valuable tool for users both inside and outside an organisation, a knowledge base can be comprised of several distinct units. Some of the most common are FAQs, troubleshooting guides, video demonstrations, and informative blog posts. Depending on the industry, organisation, and target audience, the information may be formatted to be more technical or more user-friendly.

A knowledge base is a functional requirement for all organisations who deal with customers or who have multiple units. By providing an easily accessible library of all the necessary information, an organisation can significantly reduce the need for customer service staff. As knowledge bases are hosted digitally, they are available all the time for customers and employees alike. As such, they are one of the easiest, cheapest, and most effective forms of customer service and employee assistance available.

A knowledge base is a vital tool for any knowledge management system. By providing customers and employees with simple access to some of the most basic knowledge and information about an organisation's products and services, a large number of issues can be avoided. An additional benefit comes from the ability of customers and employees to leave comments about the information contained in the knowledge base. This is a simple way to discover gaps in your system, field customer complaints, and share information across different units of an organisation.

For many industries and organisations it is essential to make a distinction between knowledge bases that are customer-facing and those that are employee-facing. Often information about infrastructure, energy, or petrochemical organisations could be dangerous if put in the wrong hands. It is crucial that any industrial organisation first ensure compliance with all regulations and laws governing their industry and then worry about customer service.

What is a knowledge management system?

A knowledge management system is an IT tool to store and retrieve knowledge, enhance collaboration, examine repositories for unknown knowledge, identify knowledge sources, or in any way enhance the KM process. The definition of knowledge management systems is broad, as any system that helps people utilise knowledge to better complete their tasks qualifies. For large organisations, a knowledge management system will utilise a knowledge base while also managing the following tasks:

  • Data warehousing
  • Data mining
  • Decision support systems
  • Content management systems
  • Document management systems
  • Artificial intelligence tools
  • Simulation tools

What is the best way to transfer knowledge?

The primary goal of a knowledge management system is to help in the transfer of knowledge. Knowledge transfer can occur at many levels, from moving a document into a database that is accessible by others to video interviews with experts to capture their advanced knowledge and experience. The most effective way to transfer knowledge is decided on a case-by-case basis, as needs differ between industries, organisations, and employees. APQC recommends asking four questions to determine your knowledge transfer needs.

  1. How easily can the knowledge be put into documents or other explicit formats? Explicit formats (e.g., documents, videos) are often the most straightforward mechanism for encapsulating knowledge and allow for asynchronous transfer and real-time retrieval. However, tacit knowledge is fundamentally difficult to put into an explicit format. Tacit knowledge is transferred through person-to-person exchanges, which cannot be easily captured.
  2. To what extent do you know who will need the knowledge in the future? If the audience for knowledge is known, it is easier to determine precisely when and how to document the knowledge and to provide access. This is the case for internal knowledge needed for specialised positions, such as an engineering process for technicians. For more knowledge that is more generalised or for an unknown or broad audience, it is best to document as much knowledge as possible and make it widely available.
  3. How quickly is the knowledge evolving or changing? Some knowledge is more fundamental and unchanging. This type of knowledge can be easily documented or incorporated into training procedures. For knowledge that changes or is extremely situationally dependent, it is best to make experts available as a means of supplying their experience.
  4. At what speed do people need the knowledge being shared? The frequency and necessity of access to knowledge will often determine the transfer mechanism. For instance, if certain knowledge is needed for the day-to-day operation of an organisation, it must be available quickly and easily. For knowledge that requires review or synthesis before it is transferred, it is best to be systematically analysed and incorporated into more robust transfer systems, such as training programs.
  5. What is a knowledge management culture? A knowledge management culture is created when a comprehensive knowledge management system is incorporated into all levels of an organisation, supported by leadership, and achieves high levels of employee buy-in. Culture shifts require time and effort on the part of business leaders and should be top-down initiatives. When business leadership leads by example and are active participants, the effects will filter down through an organisation. Similarly, a deliberate effort to formally encourage knowledge management through rewards, recognition, and communication are vital to creating a stable culture.
  6. Do I need software, tools, and technology? Software and technology are necessary for a comprehensive knowledge management system. However, they do not solve all KM issues. Purchasing KM technology and expecting it to provide a complete KM system is fundamentally flawed. The basis of solid KM begins from the ground up.

An organisation must start by examining its challenges, needs, and goals for their knowledge. This begins the overall assessment of the capabilities needed out of a knowledge management system. The next step is to work with existing IT infrastructure and experts to determine if additional technology is required and what software solutions will fit. This should be concurrent with discussions with other stakeholders (e.g., engineering, marketing) to ensure their needs are met by any system. Finally, after organisational planning, budgeting, and stakeholder discussions, the appropriate technology can be selected and incorporated.

Knowledge management system examples

The best asset an organisation has is the knowledge of its employees. Like any resource, however, knowledge is limited by the ability to access, store, refine, and transfer it to others. Several organisations have become known around the world for their progressive and effective approaches to knowledge management. By having effective KM infrastructure, these organisations have managed to flourish through economic hardships, recessions, and changing technology.

Ford: Few American enterprises have managed to last for more than a century, but Ford Motor Company has not only lasted, they have thrived, and many industry experts credit this to their early and effective adoption of knowledge management. Called Best Practice Replication (eBPR), Ford's proprietary process focuses on gathering, sharing, and tracking the knowledge surrounding best practices. The three primary goals of the eBPR system are to:

  1. Capture proven, valued practices – These practices, called "gems" in eBPR parlance, are submitted by any member of the Ford organisation. Gatekeepers and subject matter experts then review them for numerous characteristics and, those that meet the criteria, are flagged for replication.
  2. Quantify or qualify the value added to the organisation – The gems, having been marked for replication, are then passed on to the appropriate section of the Ford organisation. Each section (e.g., sales, design) then review the gems to determine if replication is feasible or if the gem needs to be developed further. If the gem passes all the different gatekeepers and is deemed replicable, it is put into action.
  3. Manage the process using real-time status and reports, policy deployment, and management reviews – The whole process is actively governed by both gatekeepers and executive management. Feedback is guaranteed within 30 days through a web-based system, and summary reports are available to all stakeholders. If a gem is put into action, the submitter is rewarded, both monetarily and with company-wide recognition.

Ford's eBPR has been incredibly successful and has allowed the company to survive through major economic downturns and demographic shifts. Over five years in the late 1990s, it was estimated that eBPR added US $1.3 billion in value to the business. The eBPR program has been licensed to numerous other companies, including Nabisco, Kraft Foods, and Royal Dutch Shell.

Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne: While not as well known as Ford, Pratt & Whitney have been at the forefront of aerospace manufacturing for nearly a century in the United States. Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne (PWR) was a division of Pratt & Whitney that was turned into a company with the sole responsibility of designing and produced liquid propelled rocket engines. In the early 2000s, PWR was faced with the realisation that in a few years more than half of their engineering team were likely to retire. To avoid losing a massive amount of valuable knowledge, they embarked on a knowledge management campaign to save the company's most valuable resource.

The Chief Knowledge Management Officer for PWR created a five-step process to implement a systems-oriented knowledge management system. A systems thinking approach utilises systems theory, which focuses on the relationship between parts and the properties of a whole instead of breaking down a whole into parts and examining their individual properties. By examining the relationship between the parts, they were able to identify how they could readjust their entire culture and effect large-scale change. The following five steps were used:

  1. Determine the state of knowledge processes: The first step was to learn about the existing KM strategies used by individual scientists and engineers. This process, called a knowledge audit, classified the knowledge into "desirable" and "undesirable" states. For each unit of knowledge, whether desirable or not, the associated behaviours were determined.
  2. Identify and classify existing KM systems: Based on their preliminary investigations each existing KM system was analysed to determine if it was a "closed" (e.g., storing knowledge locally) or "open" (e.g., mentorships, intra-company conferences) systems. Open systems are ones that allow the knowledge to quickly be passed on, whereas closed systems create data silos. They identified that most systems currently employed by scientists were closed systems.
  3. Identify behaviours associated with states: This process sought to determine the behaviour of scientists that created desirable states and to ensure the retention and expansion of those behaviours. This was determined by interview and documenting behaviours with the scientists.
  4. Identify overarching themes: By looking at all the collected data about states, systems, and behaviours, the team at PWR was able to create an analysis of the KM systems operating. The conclusion was that previous attempts at implementing KM systems hadn't been dynamic or included the scientist's feedback.
  5. Implement an IT-enabled, systemic KM environment: The solution the PWR team created was called "AskMe" and provided for the identification of knowledge experts and allowed access to specific knowledge through a central repository. With this system, the scientists would be able to participate in the knowledge generation and storage process, actively authoring, changing, or discarding knowledge based on relevancy. Within AskMe was a system called "Lessons Learned" that allowed scientists to identify best practices, associate them with an expert, and mark them as relevant to particular tasks, departments, or processes.

By switching from a silo-filled ad hoc knowledge system to one that was formalised, searchable, and modifiable, PWR found that scientists quickly bought into the concept. Through self-reported numbers, scientists estimated that the learning curve for any new project was reduced by 30%, saving them time, effort, and producing a 1000% return on investment for the project (Chun, Sohn, Arling, & Granados, 2009).

Knowledge management software and tools

There are countless pieces of software and tools that can be utilised in a knowledge management system. Some, such as Hexagon PPM's Enterprise Project Performance, are designed to interconnect with various other software solutions to implement an enterprise-wide knowledge and information management system. Other organisations choose to create bespoke systems or modify existing programs and tools to work for their KM needs. Whatever solution an organisation may choose, they need to determine what their KM needs are and how software can assist them in meeting their organisational goals.

a.    Groupware: Sometimes referred to as collaborative software, groupware is a term applied to software that allows multiple users to work on a common task. This can be accomplished by either working in a simultaneous and real-time environment, or by establishing versions of documents and working asynchronously. Examples include Google's Drive system and Wrike.

b.    Workflow systems: A workflow system is software that provides for the assignment, monitoring, and performance of specific tasks. Usually, tasks are arranged sequentially in order of needed completion. For example, initially, a requirement might be for an engineer to create a design, then the system would automatically send it to a production lead to approve, then to procurement and manufacturing. The system allows for intelligent routing of tasks and automation of redundant or machine processes.

c.    Content/Document management: A content/document management system controls the creation and modification of content, generally limited to the digital space. These management systems consist of two parts: the front-end user interface and a delivery application. Users can modify digital content using the front-end interface and submit it to the delivery application that is then able to compile and store the information or update other relevant systems (e.g., warehouses, websites). The most widely used content management system is WordPress.

d.    Enterprise portals: An enterprise portal is software that aggregates information across the entire organisation or for groups, such as project teams. An enterprise portal allows an organisation's users to have a universal sign-on, to personalise their interface, and gain access to specific tools relevant to their job assignment. For an organisation, they can control access to resources, unify other software systems, track and monitor usage, and ensure security and regulatory compliance.

e.    eLearning: An eLearning system, also known as a learning management system (LMS) is a software designed to deliver, document, track, and report on educational material. Through eLearning systems, an organisation can create and manage necessary content, deliver material to the appropriate users, track their performance, and provide feedback. The ability to customise courses and track completion is a vital step in meeting regulatory standards. Examples of eLearning systems are Adobe Captivate Prime and Moodle.

f.     Telepresence: A general term for several technologies, telepresence is the ability for a user to act as though they are present in another location remotely. This can be as simple as having access to video and audio of a meeting or as complex as controlling a telepresence robot, with the ability to move and interact with people and objects.

Knowledge management framework

Collaborative Contracts in Projects, including discussion on Knowledge Management - Watch the FULL video

Another way of viewing knowledge management is through a framework of how it has developed in most organisations. Historically KM goes through a three-stage process in its implementation and for many organisations this process can take years. By examining the framework for its past implementations, business leaders can expedite deployment for their organisations.

Stage I: Information Technology

Almost universally KM begins in the IT departments of an organisation, as this is generally the unit responsible for the administration of many knowledge tools (e.g., knowledge base, enterprise portals). Organisations begin the implementation of KM when they realise that their assets extend beyond their physical and human resources into intellectual capital. Acknowledgement of the importance of knowledge is the first step in not only developing a KM system but creating a system to generate value out of that knowledge.

Stage II: Culture

Most organisations quickly realise that using software solutions is not the only requirement for effective knowledge management. Creating the infrastructure for a KM system doesn't automatically make it an organisation-wide initiative. Instead, effective KM requires changes in the overall culture of the system into which it is implemented. An organisation must reward knowledge creation and sharing, something that is rarely systematised and incorporated into corporate culture.

At this stage, it becomes clear that IT alone cannot handle such a complex mechanism. Not only does a KM system extend beyond the remit of IT, but it requires a different set of skills to create and manage. This is the point at which most organisations begin to involve leadership heavily. This is important to note, as by this point a KM system has already been created and most organisations must now attempt to alter the existing infrastructure rather than create a KM system from the bottom-up. This almost always leads to an inferior solution, prone to challenges and issues.

Stage III: Content Management

The final stage an organisation reaches is the realisation that they now have a wealth of knowledge stored, but it needs to be organised. This is when a content management system is introduced to create a taxonomy of data. Knowledge now must be arranged, labelled, filed, and become retrievable for those who need it. In other words, the right person needs access to the right knowledge. At this point, organisations usually have a Chief Knowledge Officer and policies and procedures in place to manage the intellectual capital created and used by their employees.

Once the third stage has been reached, and a content management system is in place for an organisation's knowledge, they have a fully-realised knowledge management system. This is when more advanced techniques and IT solutions can be implemented, such as machine learning and data analytics. This removes the burden of knowledge management from human resources and offloads it onto software.

A crucial lesson business leaders should take from this framework is that it is not necessary to complete these steps sequentially. Indeed, best practices would advise that working on all three stages simultaneously would result in the best outcomes. Each stage is reliant on the other stages and building them serially inevitably produces challenges. By examining the framework other organisations have used, it becomes clear that with proper planning and preparation it is possible to streamline the process, reducing costs and improving the end product.

The most important benefits of knowledge management

Implementing a knowledge management system can be a time and resource intensive process, but it comes with several significant benefits. Not all industries and organisations are alike, but almost anyone will benefit from a well-designed KM system that is embraced by a knowledge-oriented culture. A few of the most important benefits are:

Efficiency: At its core, knowledge management increases the efficiency of virtually all employees. By making the collective knowledge of all employees and experts at an organisation available, everyone has advanced skills and processes at their fingertips. Similarly, experts from all areas (including outside the organisation) have a chance to review and enhance the knowledge of their peers. There is also the added benefit of providing an infrastructure to support task automation, reducing the need for high-skill employees to waste their valuable time on simple daily tasks.

ComAround, a software company specialising in knowledge management, claims that with a successful KM methodology an organisation can see improvements of:

  • 20-35% improvement in employee retention
  • 20-40% improvement in employee satisfaction
  • 50-60% improvement in time to resolution
  • 70% improvement in time to proficiency

Community: Using a KM system may seem like a technological or operational enhancement, but one of the greatest benefits is the sense of community it can bring to an organisation. Common KM tools like groupware and telepresence can help employees from different geographical regions get to know each other like they share an office. Knowledge bases that allow for employees to exchange comments can encourage lively discussions about work and non-work activities, helping to form a more genial and tight-knit community. Integrating collaboration software, such as Slack or Cisco Spark, help to allow an easy flow of communication between all the different levels and units of employees. Companies around the globe, from the BBC to Woolworths, are gaining an understanding for how KM systems can not only help them become more productive and efficient but also grow their company's morale and sense of community.

Cost: When the costs of implementing a KM system are compared to the risks posed by not having one, it becomes clear that investing in knowledge provides significant return on investment. For instance, a knowledge base can save an immense amount when it comes to customer service. Providing customers with the ability to find the answer to their own questions will save countless working hours. It can also prevent costly mistakes and disasters by allowing all levels of decision makers and stakeholders to have access to specialised knowledge that might typically be possessed only by a select few.

PMBOK – Project Management Body of Knowledge

The Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK) is an organised approach to needs assessment, resource analysis, and scheduling designed to maximise project management capabilities. Created by the Project Management Institute (PMI), the PMBOK encompasses the best practices of project management, including key components and project phases.

The importance of project knowledge management

Managing any project is challenging but managing multiple projects across geographic distances and countless units working simultaneously is taxing for even the most experienced professionals. Traditional project management is primarily concerned with physical resources, asset management, productivity, and timelines. Frequently the knowledge being utilised on a project is overshadowed by these tangible elements, yet proper KM practices are vital to integrate into project management.

Project knowledge management can help to reduce or eliminate many of the most fundamental challenges faced in projects, and these impacts are amplified by large-scale infrastructure works. By facilitating access to subject-area experts, field workers and site managers can implement leading practices. Field workers also become more efficient and productive when they have access to existing knowledge, rather than having to craft ad hoc solutions. Quality can be improved through standardisation of work processes and troubleshooting is more comfortable with seamless connections to experts. All these benefits ultimately lead to great efficiency and productivity, lowered costs, and better results.

Five process groups

A common standard for project management is a five-phase model. Each phase requires completion before advancement to the next phase. The phases are:

  1. Conception and Initiation: In the initial phase the high-level goals and objectives are determined. Once these have been decided, the feasibility of the project is examined through consultation with experts and a project charter or project initiation document is created to outline the purpose and requirements of the project.
  2. Definition and Planning: Now that high-level goals and objectives have been created, each of those are broken into smaller and more specific targets. This will define the overall scope of the project and create a project roadmap or plan. During the creation of this plan many of the specifics are mapped out, such as cost projections, resource demands, and timelines. With the project broken down into specific units, roles and responsibilities are assigned to distribute the workload and prepare for project execution.
  3. Launch or Execution: This phase is the core of the project process. At this point, deliverables are being created and targets are being met. Depending on the size and scope of the project, this stage can involve hundreds or even thousands of people working simultaneously. As such, project management is vital. Resources must be tracked and assigned, teams may need to be adjusted, and plans will likely require alteration as unknown variables come into play.
  4. Performance and Control: At this phase the deliverables are being completed and targets are being met. This stage is when key performance indicators (KPIs) are measured to make sure the project is meeting the goals and objectives.
  5. Project Close: When this stage is reached, the project is winding down to completion. The project is evaluated, from cost expenditures to worker performance, and recognition of quality work is granted. Once the project is complete handover will occur. The final step will be for project management to conduct a final audit to see how well project objectives were met, including cost, timeline, and quality. A final project report is prepared, and all pertinent documents are archived.

Ten knowledge areas

For project management to be successful, there are ten project areas to master. The ten elements of proper project management include:

  1. Integration
  2. Scope
  3. Time
  4. Cost
  5. Quality
  6. Human resources
  7. Communication
  8. Risk
  9. Procurement
  10. Stakeholders

Big data and knowledge management

Historically knowledge management has focused on data that is easily recorded, labelled, and stored. This data, known as explicit data, is easily managed and organised by the IT department in most organisations. It fits neatly into databases and can be called up with simple search parameters. However, the next generation of knowledge management is quickly approaching thanks to the tools of digitisation. The single greatest tool of the digital revolution with regards to knowledge management is that of artificial intelligence.

Artificial intelligence

The realm of artificial intelligence (AI) has significantly expanded as technology has made leaps with processing power and machine learning. Machine learning, a core component of modern AI, is the ability for a piece of software to learn on its own, rather than having to create a comprehensive set of commands and instructions for every situation. With machine learning, software can predict and analyse events occurring across a network's data.  Coupled with a natural language processor that allows software to understand commands spoken in a more casual format rather than code, AI has vast potential for the field of knowledge management.

Some examples of how artificial intelligence can be applied to knowledge management:

  • Speech recognition: Enabling computers to hear and understand the speech of experts will allow for ongoing processing of tacit, or unstructured, knowledge. By analysing recordings, an AI can recognise and label tacit knowledge from experts, thereby making it easier for others to find through a traditional search system.
  • Text processing: Much like speech recognition, an AI created with the ability to examine text, either uploaded specifically or gathered by scanning the Internet or social media, can categorise and file tacit knowledge for future retrieval.
  • Pattern recognition: AIs excel in recognising patterns. By continually monitoring a company's intranet or web presence, an AI can determine what tacit knowledge is most desirable and connect experts to those who need their knowledge. Such systems are already utilised by online retailers in determining customer purchasing patterns and would require little work to adapt to knowledge management.

How much should you spend on knowledge management?

As a rule, spending doesn't correlate to positive outcomes for most metrics. Knowledge management is one of the few areas that has been found to break this rule. APQC, a non-profit focused on best practices, has examined the efficacy of knowledge management technology and how spending impacts adoption and practices. The findings of their 2018 study suggest that business who spend more on KM (as a function of spending per US $1,000 revenue) have greater participation in KM programs. The top spenders (US $0.57 per $1,000 of revenue) had far greater usage of cloud-based KM tools and overall employee collaboration. While there doesn't seem to be a precise amount that organisations should spend on their knowledge management infrastructure, it does seem that greater spending does correlate with higher levels of KM engagement.


Knowledge management is what distinguishes excellent organisations from mediocre ones. By creating and implementing a knowledge management system a company can experience a litany of benefits, from reduced costs and enhanced productivity to a community that is knowledge-centric and capable of growth. By capturing knowledge and making its distribution frictionless, an organisation can improve virtually all elements of their operation. Through knowledge bases and real-time communication, experts can be connected to field workers and customers are provided with a higher level of service. As one of the few areas of business where spending is correlated to outcomes, knowledge management is a wise investment.

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