The top 7 tips for successful knowledge management programs

This is a blog post I repeat every 5 years or so, my summary of Top 7 success factors for implementing Knowledge Management. 

There are more than 7, of course (see the knowledge manager’s handbook for details), but these are some of the most fundamental recommendations. Many if not all of these are now included within the ISO KM standard, and this blog post has been updated this year to reflect this.

“Tip of the Day” from Wikipedia


1. KM needs to be driven by operational needs.  

It is vital that KM efforts are clearly linked to operational outcomes, with a clear business objective. I have a quote from a survey from the early 00s, that reads as follows

“Most successful knowledge management applications addressed a ‘life or death’ business situation. Successful cases answered two questions at the outset – What business objective am I trying to achieve? How can I apply existing knowledge?”

Here’s another quote – 

“We have been looking at the key processes of the business, testing them for their “knowledge intensity” to see if we would create some significant new change in the performance of that particular process if we managed knowledge in a more profound way. The concept has not been difficult to sell to the top executive team.” 

See how this approach starts with the key business processes?

Tom Davenport and co-authors, in the paper “Building successful Knowledge Management projects”, conclude that “Link to economic performance or industry value” is the number one success factor for successful KM. Mars, for example, implemented KM at a rate of two business issues per year

ISO 30401 (the ISO MSS standard for KM), in its first requirement clause, links KM to defined operational outcomes, so this first success factor is fundamentally woven into the ISO KM standard. 

2. KM needs to be introduced as a management framework. 

A Knowledge Management Framework is a a small defined set of technologies and processes, embedded into business activity, and a small defined set of roles embedded into the organisational structure, all under an umbrella of Governance.  Like other management systems, effective KM is a framework of roles, processes, technologies and governance which has been embedded into the business. Just as Financial Management is not a single tool – budgets for example, or invoicing – and is not a toolbox (“you can try writing budgets if you like – here’s a guide”), but is a complete framework embedded into the business process, so Knowledge Management needs a framework. If there are holes in the framework, it will not deliver value.

A common mistake is to introduce one element of the Framework – a technology for example – and expect knowledge to start to flow. It won’t. It might trickle, but it won’t flow. 

Again, ISO 30401 requires KM to be implemented as a framework, including roles and accountabilities, processes, technology, governance, and culture (clause 4.4.4), covering the 4 main transitions or flow elements of knowledge (clause 4.4.3) and the lifecycle of knowledge (clause 4.4.2). Indeed, the whole concept of a “management system” as embodied in the KM standard equates to a management framework. 

3. KM needs to address Pull as well as Push and demand as well as supply.

I have blogged about this many times – Push creates supply, Pull creates demand and the two need to be in balance. Too many organisations focus on knowledge sharing, not on knowledge seeking and re-use. Pull, in the early stages, is more powerful than push. Creating demand for knowledge creates a market for knowledge.

We didn’t manage to get this principle into the ISO standard, though the standard is careful to refer to the need for a culture of seeking as well as sharing. With hindsight, I wish this element had been much stronger in the standard.

4. KM is a culture change process. 

It is not a gradual change either – it is a step-change. It is a remodelling of the organisation; a make-over, a new way of thinking. It needs to be treated as a change process and measured as a change process. Don’t go into KM thinking that it is about a new IT tool, or just “trying out communities” – you won’t get far if you don’t start to address the hearts and minds. This also means that KM implementation must be structured like a change program (including a piloting component), and must have a strong team of change agents to implement the change.

Again, ISO 30401 supports this principle, and clause 4.5 requires organisations to demonstrate that they are addressing the cultural issues within the organisation.

5. KM must be embedded in the business

If its not embedded, you risk “tipping back” to a pre-KM state. Many of the high profile failures of KM are due to a failure to embed. You can’t rely on KM being driven by the efforts of a central team. A central team are needed, but their role is an assurance and support role. The drive must come from the business. 

ISO 30401 requires a chain of accountability for KM to be established within the organisation (clause 5.3) and KM objectives and plans to be developed at appropriate levels and functions (clause 6.2). These plans and accountabilities are the means by which KM is embedded.

6. KM needs not just high level support, but high level expectation

People do what they believe is expected of them. People are generally good workers, they want to do a good job, and if something is expected of them as part of the job, they generally do it. Expectation can be explicit or implicit – written or unwritten. Expectation comes from leadership, and from peers, and these two sources of expectation need to be aligned to be effective . For example there is no point in the boss saying “I expect you to have a work life balance” if all your peers are working to 10pm and expect you to be part of the team, or if your boss is emailing you on a Sunday afternoon and expecting a quick reply. 

Senior management in the organisation needs to make KM expectations clear by explicitly stating what needs to be done in Knowledge Management, and by whom. They need to write these expectations down, and keep reinforcing them by what they say and do. They also need to make sure these expectations do not get weakened by, or conflict with, other company structures and expectations.
ISO ensures this is done by requiring leadership to approve and endorse a KM policy (clause 5.1). It is this policy that sets the clear expectation that KM is a vital component of the organisational  management systems set. 

7. KM should be introduced first where the highest value decisions are made. 

This might be at operator level (the operator of a plant, the driller of an oil-well, the pilot of a passenger aircraft) or it might be at senior management level. Knowledge supports decisions, and decisions are made at all levels. In fact the most valuable and risky decisions are made at senior level. The default approach to supporting these senior management decisions is to hire a big-5 consultant firm to supply the knowledge, but there is no reason why KM can’t help as well.  Delivering a high level KM pilot at senior level has three benefits.

  • It delivers massive value to the business
  • It engages senior managers in KM, and helps them understand the value KM can bring
  • It gets senior managers on-side, by solving their problems for them (see the thorn in the lions paw).
Although ISO 30401 states that the role of knowledge, and therefore KM, is to support and improve decision making, the standard makes no recommendations about which decisions to prioritise. That is because the standard is a standard for the final KM system, not for the way in which the system is introduced to the organisation. Therefore let’s repeat this one again, as you wont get it just by applying the ISO standard – “Introduce KM first where the highest value decisions are made”


These 7 success factors should help you introduce and sustain successful KM. It’s no surprise that most of them are embodied in the ISO KM standard.

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