Ten Random Success Factors for KM in your Organization

Yesterday, I was serving as resource person for knowledge management on a “One-Day Forum on Exemplar KM Practices in Regional/Global Networks” hosted by the Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Organization (SEAMEO), an inter-government organization among 11 Southeast Asian countries which was inviting organizations like WHO, ILO. UNISDR, CGIAR and UNDP to share their knowledge management (KM) experiences.
One of the questions the online audience asked was “What are the key success factors for implementing knowledge management in an organization?
Now this is a big one, which probably deserves its own book! I asked the participants to take my comments with a grain of salt, as was just writing from the top of my head the first ideas that came to mind. Incidentally, I often experience that the first response to a question is often the most genuine one, so I’m just gonna share what I wrote without any filter, knowing that itwill be far from giving a complete picture of all possible success factors for KM.
In general, there seem to be two ways in which KM can be established in an organization. Top-down or bottom-up (the latter is often referred to as the “stealth” approach). In practice, both usually need to come together. As long as there is no strategic corporate recognition of KM by senior management, an organization can already achieve a lot with a number of champions or specific business units that pilot KM initiatives, approaches and tools in various business areas. Those could be anything from informal brown bag lunches for learning, doing an after action review after a large event, to piloting a project wiki in a small team. Once quick wins can be demonstrated in a distinct pilot area, it will be easier to pitch the rationale and benefits of KM to higher management levels.

At a certain stage, however, it is crucial that senior management gets involved and embraces the need for KM. It helps to have one particular champion with a vision among the senior ranks, but of course it is best if the highest level of the organization understand the value of knowledge exchange and collaboration for their business, and are willing to put their weight behind a corporate vision. That doesn’t necessarily have to be a “big bang” strategy. In fact, small pilots and small-scale but strategic KM initiatives will already benefit a lot from senior management support.

At the end of the day, however, business owners need to understand that they can’t expect significant changes to business as usual without investing money. Formal communities of practice around strategic business areas can transform the way an organization works and achieves results, but they are rarely successful without a full-time person dedicated to it (and even then it’s an art that requires skill and perseverance). Facilitating networks and communities, the development of strategic knowledge products, re-engineering of business processes to include KM and learning, and the introduction and maintenance of suitable IT tools all come with a price tag. An organization therefore needs to assess the business case of knowledge management and how it relates to their organizational objectives. If an organization identifies that (and in what aspects of its work) it is a “knowledge organization” (meaning that knowledge is the primary resource it uses and produces as part of its mandate) then hopefully it comes to acknowledge that it needs to get the KM part of its business right in order to succeed.

There is no need to re-invent the wheel. The KM challenges of most organizations are rather similar. So my suggestions to get KM off the ground in an organization would be:

  1. Go out, get the good practices from other organizations, and start with small key initiatives, rather than a big bang strategy.
  2. Find champions in your organization that believe in and breathe KM, and work with them, rather than waste too much time on trying to convince the skeptics. Once you and your champions come up with the first successes, you’ll win them over slowly.
  3. Get a commitment from the highest management levels, both in terms of a knowledge-related vision statement (which will help you talk to middle management) and financial support.
  4. Be non-dogmatic about tools. Ignore turf battles between IT systems (maybe even go around your IT department if you need to) and instead get the system in place that does best what you need. There are a lot of free or affordable tools out there that will get you a long way. And be aware that whatever you invest into building new IT, you have to invest at least the same amount in change management and training.
  5. Find synergies with existing KM initiatives, networks, projects of other organizations. You are hardly the first organization to think about a network on a specific topic, or to implement a KM tool. If you can, work together with other organizations which already do KM for a while, partner with them so you can tap into their networks, use their systems and develop knowledge products with them together.
  6. Always make it about people first, and only second about processes and technology. And when talking to people, always make sure you can tell them “What’s in it for them”.
  7. Don’t think you can do KM without investing into it. That doesn’t mean that you have to build a entire KM unit from scratch (although for large organizations that might be the way to go), but without some people whose job is to take the KM agenda in the organization forward, and without giving them financial support to pilot some initiatives, you will only get so far.
  8. Don’t think of knowledge management (or social media for KM for that matter) as the panacea to everything. Because it is such a diverse topic (encompassing areas like strategic management, HR, programme and project management, policy development, learning, communities and communications) KM means different things to different people, and if you promise they’ll all get what they wish for, you’re bound to disappoint many of them. Instead, identify the hotspots in the organization where it hurts most, and set some achievable change management goals that you want to focus on in the first phase.
  9. Sooner or later in your process you will touch on issues around management control and information security, which will force the organization to make some hard decisions. At those crossroads, there is only one way to go for KM. Away from a culture that asks “What information should be make available? Only that information we’ll share” to a culture that asks “What information do we have to protect? The rest we’ll share”. Alex J. Ross, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's Senior Advisor for Innovation last year said at a UNDP-hosted conference on social media “Tell your boss that the 21st century is a lousy time to be a control freak”. If the senior management of your organization is not ready yet to give away some control, the prospect of getting KM right is not good.
  10. And finally – allow yourself to make mistakes. Sometimes, what works in one organization doesn’t work in the other. Or not right away. Maybe the timing was not right, maybe you came out too early with a specific initiative, or too late. Maybe people were tired because of previous change processes. Maybe some people in the organization felt threatened, or the necessary seed funding was not there. Innovation is a constant process of trying, failing, getting feedback, revising. So don’t be afraid to fail, revise and try again, but be sure to close the feedback loops when doing it, so you always get input from those who should benefit. Identify initiatives that minimize the cost in case of failure, and allow for scalability in case of success.

Again, this is by no means a complete assessment, and I will be glad to learn from others on what elements to consider when starting off KM in an organization.


Anonymous said…
This is ALL spot on! Cheers, Diederick

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