Knowledge Management in a New Context

Four forces are radically changing the practice of knowledge management, according to this excerpt from a new book from the American Productivity &...
Cindy Hubert and Carla O'DellAugust 22, 2011

One of us — Carla — wrote her first book on how to implement knowledge management (KM), If Only We Knew What We Know, in 1998, when the discipline was less than a decade old.

What a difference a decade makes. Witness September 11th, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the rise of China as a superpower, global warming, the near meltdown of the global financial system in 2008 and 2009, and the Gulf of Mexico oil rig explosion in 2010.

The changes are just as substantial as we edge closer to the realm of KM: rising Internet and broadband access, the explosion of mobile devices and smartphones, the continued rise in virtual work and global teams, the international equalization of competitive prowess and knowledge, the decline of readership for the printed word, the rise of digital readership, and on and on.

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It would be hard to overstate how profoundly these developments have both challenged and enhanced the promise and practice of KM. In this section, we zoom in on the forces affecting organizations and KM now and for years to come.

Force 1: Digital Immersion
We are experiencing the incursion of the Internet and digital technology into almost every aspect of our lives. Expectations of 24/7 connectivity are affecting the way we work and live.

Many people are comforted by the feeling that they’re always getting things done — responding to e-mails in meetings, taking calls in line at the supermarket, and so on. But that feeling may be an illusion.

Are today’s employees as savvy as they appear at multitasking? Not according to Clifford Nass, a professor at Stanford University and the director of the Communication Between Humans and Interactive Media Lab. His data suggest that even the brightest people are hampered by an unwillingness (or inability) to focus on one thing at a time.

“It turns out multitaskers are terrible at every aspect of multitasking,” Nass writes. “They’re terrible at ignoring irrelevant information; they’re terrible at keeping information in their head nicely and neatly organized; and they’re terrible at switching from one task to another.”

The findings are clear: While supposedly getting more done in less time through our immersion into digital technology, we are actually working more slowly, absorbing information less effectively, and hampering our capacity for analytic reasoning.

If we don’t have any choice and we’re going to hire (and even encourage) multitaskers, then what kind of KM scaffolding are we going to need to create to get thoughtful work done? We must adapt content and messages to align with employees’ time and attention limitations. For KM, the implications are that:

1. We should assume employees are multitasking.
2. It isn’t making them perform better or pay attention to everything they see.
3. We shouldn’t design KM approaches that interrupt employees any more than they already are.
4. Even if a piece of information or knowledge is critical to retain, we can’t assume employees will remember it when they need it.

Force 2: Social Computing
Nearly one-fourth of the world’s 1.8 billion Internet users have profiles on social networking sites such as Facebook, LinkedIn, and MySpace. Facebook alone will likely exceed 600 million users by 2011.

Social computing, Web 2.0, and the rise of social media are transforming KM. It is so good for KM that if we didn’t have it, then we would have to invent it.

We define social media as Internet technology that allows people to generate content and interact in a way that creates new information and value. Social media becomes social computing when applied to a noncommercial intent among people to share and co-create. Web 2.0 tools are specific social computing technologies that are relatively easy to adopt and master.

A defining feature of social computing is the reliance on the employee — not the organization — to create, share, rate, and consume content. Simply by having the means to do so, each employee can be an author, arbiter, and consumer at once.

A second defining feature of social computing is that the content improves the more people interact with and build on it. Wikis and open innovation sites work best when informed people contribute; ratings are arguably better and more accurate the more people contribute; metatags are more useful the more they are applied; folksonomies can rival corporate taxonomies when many people tag and rate content; and good sites and documents rise to the top of search requests the more often people bookmark them and share those bookmarks.

We believe social computing tools are reinvigorating KM by making it easier for employees to participate in knowledge creation while showing them the value of sharing with an online network of peers. By borrowing ideas from Facebook, organizations have been able to help employees connect across disparate regions. Similarly, sites like Wikipedia have popularized ways to collaborate and co-author content. Since a majority of employees are already familiar with the features and have seen their value, it is easier to build buy-in and may be easier to drive participation.

Many organizations — especially those in government and in highly regulated industries — continue to be extremely concerned with the ramifications of these barrier-crushing applications. For example, standards around trust are relaxing when it comes to the democratization of information and opinion. And social computing is altering the determination of who are experts. But the most pressing concerns surround security and privacy: what stays behind the firewall and what employees actually share with each other and the world at large. KM professionals must find ways to capitalize on the positive aspects of these new technologies while addressing these concerns.

Another key concern is how employees participate. Social computing works when enough people participate. And participation has historically has been the biggest challenge for KM. We see an important, sobering parallel in terms of content contribution.

• On Facebook, 80 percent of the content is posted by 20 percent of users.
• Only one in five Twitter accounts holders have ever posted anything, and 90 percent of content is posted by 10 percent of the users.

Keep those statistics in mind when thinking about participation rates for KM approaches using Web 2.0 tools inside your organization. A small percentage of people are the core contributors of content. Even popular social computing approaches require KM professionals to marshal an effective KM strategy and infrastructure to elicit engagement.

Force 3: Demographics and Dynamics
We could get so caught up in the hype around generational differences at work (which may not be that great) that we may be overlooking the elephant in the room: retirement of the huge baby boomer generation. Many organizations face looming knowledge retention and transfer issues, regardless of industry, annual revenue, or their number of employees.

The retirement of a record 77 million baby boomers has the potential to result in huge losses of critical tacit knowledge, including the loss of organizational and technical knowledge on key processes and competencies. And churn from organizational reorganizations, rapid growth, layoffs, internal redeployments, and new business models for offshoring work require just as much careful identification and transfer of knowledge. We’ve also seen skilled employee shortfalls in key disciplines and time-to-competency issues for those entering the work force. Employees—especially new hires—face steeper, longer learning curves at the same time that employers are looking for faster revenue and higher productivity.

The scarcity of talent will be a driving force in KM. “Fewer younger people will be working to support a significantly larger older generation in the future,” PricewaterhouseCoopers writes. “Millennials will be a powerful generation of workers.”

KM needs to adapt to these evolving demographics and power dynamics. We’re just seeing the first wave of a much larger phenomenon. Employees increasingly expect more engagement and information and want to achieve it in the same way they do in their personal lives.

Force 4: Mobile Devices and Video
The tagline “We have an app for that” has entered our lexicon, and everyone seems to be perpetually in a “Crackberry” prayer mode or immersed in their iPhone to the exclusion of all else. So what? Smart phones have been around a long time. There are well-established company policies and precedents for how to manage security; who pays for the device and its text, voice, and data charges; how to ensure the security of information; and how the IT organization can establish, manage, and integrate the whole system.

What are not well-established are guidelines for KM professionals to capitalize on this ubiquitous, addictive pocket computer. What is appropriate to share through that tiny screen? How much do employees want to know, and when do they want to know it? What can we learn from RSS, alert systems, and Twitter to communicate with employees?

We also believe the future belongs to streaming video, and KM will benefit. Too expensive until now, cheap digital video is now literally in the hands of millions of people. YouTube and big bandwidth have made video a feasible and desirable medium for millions of average people to teach, learn, and share.

Yet many if not most organizations block access to YouTube. It’s a quixotic effort, considering the sophistication of the personal devices employees have at their disposal. Organizations — and KM programs — would benefit by instead taking advantage of employees’ comfort and familiarity with mobile devices and streaming video. In time, more powerful enterprise applications will be developed for mobile devices and streaming video, which will expand the power of these tools for finding and sharing information.

These are some of the major forces at work on KM today. We maintain that KM can help the digitally induced, shrinking-attention-span, socially networked, information overloaded, smart phone-obsessed, and busy knowledge worker of today.

From The New Edge in Knowledge: How Knowledge Management Is Changing the Way We Do Business, by Carla O’Dell and Cindy Hubert (American Productivity & Quality Center, 2011). Reprinted by permission.