Top 10 Lessons from 20 years consulting in Knowledge Management

I started Knoco, my KM consulting business, in the summer of 1999. Here are some of the things I have learned in the past 20 years.

Gold top 10 winner
Image by Sam Churchill on Flickr under CC licence

I received a request for some of our free Knoco KM resources yesterday from an organisation, the name of which rang a bell. I looked through my files, and found I had delivered KM training to them in 1999 – almost exactly 20 years ago today. That got me thinking – 20 years is a serious length of time to have been consulting, and I must have learned a few things in that time.

So for your reading pleasure, here are my top 10 lessons for aspiring KM consultants, or for those promoting KM in their own organisations.

1. The Knowledge Management market remains a confused market. 

I receive many requests for help each month. Some of these are for what I would call “real” KM; people who want to improve the way knowledge is managed in their organisations. Some on the other hand are looking for help with document management, or content management, or information management, or even data management; disciplines which already exist in their own right and which (to my mind) may intersect with KM, but do not fall under the KM umbrella. Some of these requests I can meet with an offer of help, others I pass on to other consultants more qualified in their own field. 
This has been going on for 20 years. Now, as then, the KM market is confused. It does not know what KM actually is, and it does not know what it actually wants. Therefore one of the first things I ask prospective clients is “what exactly are you looking for what you say Knowledge Management?”
(sometimes I feel like the owner of a shoe store, where people keep coming in and saying “I want a pair of shoes to keep my head warm” and I have to point them to the hat shop next door. I know that this is partly my fault, and confused customers points to a lack of marketing, so see the next point).

2. KM still requires marketing before you can start selling. 

Because of the confusion in the market, we as KM professionals still need to do a lot more marketing before we can sell effectively. We need to help our potential customers, whether they are in our own organisation or in the wider market, understand the benefits of KM, and understand enough about it to see that it is not the same as data management, content management, information management etc. There is still education work to be done before our customers start to think – “Yes, KM may well be something I need”.  

3. There is still, after 20 years, a belief that technology is the solution to KM. 

Many of the people who contact Knoco are looking for a technology to do KM for them. Although KM practitioners have known for decades that technology alone will not solve KM problems, our customers have still not grasped this. It therefore takes a long conversation with a client to help them realise that they need more than just software (and in some cases that they already have all the software they need).  This is I think getting worse with the hype around AI. Where once people thought groupware would solve their problems, then that enterprise search would solve their KM problems, now they think that AI will solve their problems.
In most cases however we need to deal with natural ignorance (by which I mean people not having access to the knowledge they need) before we move to artificial intelligence.

4. Marketing needs to be a daily business. 

I learned this lesson in 2009. Since then I try to blog every working day, and I repost my blog posts to LinkedIn and to Twitter. Sometimes I recycle an old post from the archives, sometimes (like today) I write something fresh.  Marketing has to be a daily activity if we are to help educate and build the market. I know that my blog posts are read mostly by insiders, people already in the KM industry or in KM roles, but hopefully the messages will also leak out into the wider world. 
Blogs and LinkedIn are our main marketing channels in today’s world. Particularly LinkedIn – I get far more discussion on my reposts via LinkedIn than I do through my blog itself. If you want to build your KM market, make marketing in this way a daily or weekly habit. 
The other advantage of making writing a habit, is that after 10 years you have enough content to write a book, or in my case, 2 books; Designing a successful KM strategy, and The Knowledge Manager’s handbook both reuse content from this blog.

5. So is Search Engine Optimisation. 

If Blogs and LinkedIn are our main marketing channels,  then Google is the route that leads people to our websites – our online shop windows. We need, as consultants, to be findable, which means we need to be on the first page of Google for our keywords. If you can’t be found, then you can’t help people.  So I have learned that I need to work on the Knoco Google ranking, by providing high quality rich content to which other reputable sites will link. (Not by keyword stuffing or other bad habits). As a result our average placing for a search for Knowledge Management Consultants is 1.4 – either first place or second place. 

6. It can take a very long time to mature a lead into a prospect

As per the company above – I delivered KM training to them in 1999 and 20 years later they come looking for help in implementation. Now this is an extreme case, but it usually takes several months – sometimes a year or more – from first contact to actually agreeing a piece of work. KM consulting, both internally and commercially, requires patience. It is an ongoing process of conversation and mutual education, until you can fit your KM solution to the client’s pain points. 
Be patient! Keep in touch, Keep talking and communicating. 

7. Build your selling skills

Marketing is important to the consultant, but so is selling. You have to learn how to sell. I came to this understanding quite late, but I think I have worked effectively on these skills, and I share what I have learned here.

8. Keep, and back up, everything.

Maintain really good records. Sooner or later someone will come to you and say “can you help us” and it’s great if you can say “It’s lovely to hear from you again. We provided KM training for you 20 years ago.” 
Also back up those records. After one nasty experience with ransomware, I back everything up on a continuous basis. 
Also track your business. Look at the trends in what sells and what doesn’t. Look at the trends – who are your customers, how big are your contracts, is the market growing in some regions and shrinking in others. The more you can base your activity on real numbers, the better.

9. Build a network of allies and partners.

In Knoco, we have learned to work through a network of associates around the world, who can deliver Km training and services in their own locality, in their local language, and who can build their local market. We also have a set of trusted partners to who we can pass on the requests which fall outside our area (the “hat shop next door” as mentioned above). 
KM is a big topic, the world is a big place, and you need partners and allies if you are to thrive. 

10. Build collateral of real value

We have build a library of give-away resources to act as marketing collateral, and these are still popular (I had three requests for resources last night, for example).  One of the most popular has been our KM survey –  a survey of  over 700 KMers, mostly individuals leading Knowledge Management activities or members of Knowledge Management teams, conducted in April 2014, and again in April 2017.  We make the report freely available to interested parties (all responses are anonymised), and it contains some really good stuff.

Collateral like this can do many things – it can help build and educate the market, it can help you build your own profile as a “deliverer of value”, and it can drive traffic to your website. You can call it “marketing by giving away” if you like, and this was one of the best lessons I learned in the last 20 years. Build collateral of real value, and give it away for free.

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