3 steps to using knowledge management strategically, not tactically

Knowledge management can be a strategic tool, but too often is used tactically.

To add value, Knowledge Management must be strategic. However often its use is not strategic, but it seen as a low-level support activity; managing a generic resource, just as you might manage land or property or money.

See for example this blog post from 2011, by Max Boisot and colleagues, entitled “Are you wasting money on useless knowledge management“.

Most companies recognize the need for knowledge management, but often delegate it to the IT and HR departments without linking it to corporate strategy, often thereby wasting both resources and the strategic options their firm’s knowledge could generate. The problem is that most current knowledge management efforts merely inventory the company’s knowledge, without parsing out the knowledge that is strategically relevant. Strategic management of knowledge focuses only on those knowledge assets that are critical to your firm’s competitive performance — from the tacit expertise of key individuals right through to explicit company-wide general principles.

Boisot and colleagues point out that “most current KM efforts” are divorced from the strategy of the organisation, devolved to a support department (IT, HR), and are non-selective in looking at ALL of the knowledge assets, rather than focusing on those assets that are most relevant to the strategy of the firm. The focus is all too often on improvement of the management of knowledge, rather than improving the strategic delivery of the organisation through better management of knowledge; on KM tactics and not business strategy.

The distinction in the previous sentence may be a subtle one, but it is important.

You can often see it in the way an organisation develops its KM strategy.

  • When the KM strategy starts with a discussion of the types of knowledge (tacit, explicit) and goes on to list the tools that may help management of knowledge, and then the plan to introduce the tools, then you are treating KM tactically. I saw a strategy recently that was driven by cultural analysis. The argument seemed to be that if you address the culture, then people might start to share knowledge better, and that some of this knowledge might help people work better, and some of this working better might help the strategy. This is a strategy for the management of knowledge, rather than a knowledge-enabled business strategy.
  • When the KM strategy starts from the organisational strategy, then you are treating KM strategically. Here the argument is that the business strategy is supported by (a subset of) your knowledge, and if you manage this knowledge better, then it will help your business strategy. This is a much more direct link than that described in the previous paragraph, and you can demonstrate it through tools such as strategy maps.

You can also see it in the level at which KM is working.

When I started working on KM with the BP KM team in the 1990s, we began looking at the knowledge used by shift workers in refineries and on oil platforms, but within 2 years we were working with the knowledge of C-level staff, Regional Presidents, the Chief Counsel and strategic task forces. We began at tactical level, and quickly escalated to strategic level.

To add value, Knowledge Management must be strategic.  Here are three steps you can take to make it so.

  1. Build a good Knowledge management strategy, focused on the critical and strategic knowledge areas rather than on a generic approach for everyone, managing all knowledge.
  2. Engage the senior managers in a conversation about strategic opportunities, and ask them to help you prioritise the strategic knowledge. 
  3. Start to work with the generals, instead of the foot soldiers. The project managers, program managers, divisional heads and senior leaders are also knowledge workers. KM can also help them improve their decisions, and their decisions are often strategic rather than tactical.
Take these steps, and with any luck you will avoid the pitfall of winning the (tactical) battle, but losing the (strategic) war.

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