Many companies use knowledge management (KM) but miss one of the key KM ingredients: employee/knowledge-into-workflow. Most companies send staff to training or cross train to give the person in the workflow the knowledge they need to do the job. The most interesting twist in true Knowledge Management is finding creative ways of looping employees who already have the knowledge into the workflow. That often-missing part of KM is the topic of this article.
My experience with Knowledge Management departments, and Knowledge Management initiatives, has been that they are confined to training. Training can take many forms. It can occur in the form of live learning-sessions for employees, online employee classes for product or industry knowledge, building Help systems and documentation, or one-on-one knowledge-transfer activities. One ingredient that all of these activities have in common is that they all try to put knowledge into the person who is doing the job that requires that particular knowledge. But that's not necessarily the most efficient KM path.
All of these knowledge-into-employee initiatives follow the path of least resistance in the KM curriculum. There is a key component of KM that is often lost as KM has been fitted to accommodate the comfort zones of executives and managers.
When I first began reading articles about KM in the 1990s, there was one component that I thought was revolutionary, at least in my experience of corporate culture. It went the opposite direction. Instead of knowledge-into-employee, it advocated employee-into-task, that is, put the employee who already has the knowledge into the task or workflow that requires that particular knowledge (or maybe "employee/knowledge-into-workflow"). This is more efficient, but it requires subtlety and broad management thinking. It requires executives and managers to genuinely learn, understand, and connect the true human resources around them—which is one reason it is rarely pursued.
"Employee/knowledge-into-workflow" also requires a corporate environment where politics on every level can be overcome in the interest of efficient use of employee-knowledge resources. That's probably the biggest reason employee/knowledge-into-workflow has become the forgotten element in the KM wave of the past ten years. Nevertheless, this may be the most important part of KM: aligning employee-knowledge with tasks, given the employees' current knowledge (no training needed).
This "employee/knowledge-into-workflow" model, or component of KM, demands an intimately engaged team of managers. Managers have to work with other managers to allow their employees to take on some tasks from other departments, possibly from politically sensitive vertical and horizontal areas in the hierarchy of the organization. This will not work where the corporate org chart is chiseled in granite. It means managers have to truly learn what real knowledge their current employees possess, and be willing to redistribute or share responsibilities accordingly.
To do this effectively, managers need to go out of their way to discover employee-knowledge around them. Often employees have great depth of knowledge in a type of task that is not in their job description, or even in their department. Instead of knowledge sharing or knowledge-dumping so the "politically-appropriate people" can do the work; KM, done well, includes re-aligning workflow so the "knowledge-appropriate people" step into the workflow.
Managing processes and people for about twenty years, I've found that chatting with people from other areas in the company helps me learn where many untapped reservoirs of knowledge reside—yearning to be used.
A Case in Point
I was listening to "Sam" in the breakroom talking about a project he's working on. He mentioned software and a certain task that struck me as similar to a component in a new process I had to implement. So I asked questions, and sure enough, here was someone who already knew how to do the necessary activities. Not only did I stumble into the knowledge-appropriate person, there were parts of my new process that were already being done (aka duplicated) in Sam's department. Sam had the knowledge, the software skill, and could single-source the content, to use for his existing routine as well as for my new process—with no additional work or training!
Finding Sam, the knowledge-appropriate guy of the month, and plugging him into my workflow, made my life (and my staff's life) a lot easier.
I got Sam's director’s approval for Sam's time to be looped into my workflow—with simple movement of files from my department to his—and then back to my staff to continue our workflow. It was easy. (Though in some organizations, this kind of adjustment is easier said than done!)
Paying attention to people and chatting with them whenever possible paid off in other ways. I was on good terms with Sam's director because we had good conversations on a regular basis, which greased the approval process. Attentive interaction with an ear for knowing who you're talking to returned bonus dividends of political harmony because I was on good terms with the appropriate managers: I saved myself from the disruption and time-loss of new training and a reduced staff-to-task ratio; and an employee's morale went way up, as Sam visibly appreciated having his talents recognized and put to use.
Chatting is fun. The trick, however, is to ask the right questions and to truly listen. You will find that people like to talk about what they know. People know a lot more than their office tasks require, and they usually don't mind telling you about it if you're really interested. For example, you can ask about what someone did in a past job, and keep asking about details of their past roles. Ask about their hobbies, or anything else you can think of to elicit information about the person's experience, education, training, and talents (Just don't make it sound like a formal interview). You and the other person will enjoy the break from "work" and you may even make a new friend.
You'll always have occasions when you need to train—to dump knowledge into the person. But if that's the beginning and the end of your knowledge management activities, you are missing half the benefit, or perhaps most of the benefit, of your knowledge management possibilities. Include the "employee/knowledge-into-workflow" component into your KM formula, and you'll increase your effectiveness and almost certainly improve employee morale.
Warning: Do not give employees forms to fill out asking about hobbies, special talents, past job skills, etc. That is the fastest way to sterilize knowledge management, and guarantee mediocre results. It will be viewed as a hollow exercise and you will be viewed as insincere.
One important "takeaway" from this strategy is that talking to people informally with knowledge management in mind generates solutions. If you really get to know the talents and knowledge of others across departments, you'll enjoy a smoother transition into new processes, new industries, new tasks, or anything new to any area of the organization. The more you know about what other people know, the more you know! That's the way to bring theory into practice with real Knowledge Management.