The KM one-stop shop vs the multi-site experience

When we set up our KM systems, lets make it as simple as possible for the knowledge-seeker. Let’s aim for the one-stop shop.

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It is common for Knowledge Managers to start to plan their KM systems based on the supply of knowledge, or based on the different forms knowledge can take. 

“Let’s set up a lessons database to collect lessons”
 “Let’s put together a best practice repository”
 “Let’s build a site where we can collect videos together. We can call it AcmeTube!”
 “Let’s set up some forums for communities of practice”
 “Let’s create an expertise-finder system so people can find others with relevant knowledge”
“Let’s start a wiki site. We can call it AcmePedia!”

All of these are worthy aims, but the complication comes when a future knowledge worker comes looking for knowledge. Say they are looking for knowledge on a particular topic – a maintenance engineer wanting to overhaul a submerged pump for example. With the system above –

  • They have to open the lessons database to see lessons on submerged pumps,
  • They have to open the best practice repository to see best practices on maintaining submerged pumps,
  • They have to visit AcmeTube to see videos on how to maintain submerged pumps,
  • They have to visit the community of practice forum to see discussions on submerged pumps,
  • They have to log into the expertise-finder system to find people who know about submerged pumps,
  • They have to open AcmePedia to find if there are any articles about how to maintain submerged pumps.

By setting up multiple knowledge systems, and splitting up your knowledge based on it’s type rather than its topic, you are setting unnecessary demands on the user. It is hard enough to get people to re-use knowledge without making it time-consuming and complicated. Far better to construct your technology around the needs of the user and to create a one-stop shop. Make it as easy as possible to re-use the knowledge.

The one-stop shop

The ideal situation for the user is that they search or navigate through “rotating equipment” and “pumps” until they find the Submerged Pumps Portal. The portal then gives them:

  • Wiki guidance
  • All videos are embedded in the wiki (even though they might be hosted elsewhere)
  • Alongside the page is a list of experts on submerged pumps
  • At the bottom of the page is a summary of open lessons on submerged pumps (the content of older closed lessons has already been used to update the wiki)
  • Also at the bottom of the page is a summary of open community discussion on submerged pumps (the content of older closed discussions lessons has already been used to update the wiki)
  • The wiki contains best practices, maybe with links out to Standards documents. It may also contain case histories, links to training material, and so on.
Ask yourself – if you were the maintenance engineer, which of these two approaches would you prefer to use? The one-stop portal, or the six separate systems?

Set up your technology systems with the needs of the user in mind. Don’t structure them based on the type of knowledge or the provenance of the knowledge, separating out lessons from best practices, or separating videos from discussions. Instead structure them based on the needs of the users. Structure the knowledge according to the activities the knowledge workers undertake, or the equipment they work with. 

Set up the one-stop knowledge shop to make life quick and simple for the knowledge worker.

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How Siemens build Knowledge Assets

Knowledge adds value when it is current, useful, validated, acccessible, combines knowledge from many sources, and is packaged in a usable format. Here’s how Siemens does its knowledge synthesis and packaging. 

Siemens define a knowledge asset as being Validated Explicit knowledge on a value-adding Business processes.  I like this definition, as it implies that knowledge becomes an asset when it is validated, and when it helps the business.

However creation of such an asset requires a creation process involving the main knowledge holders from across the organisation. From this source, here’s a diagram showing how Siemens goes through the synthesis and validation process.

You can see from the diagram that a knowledge asset takes about 3 months to build, and involves three workshops involving the relevant subject matter experts, plus a final review workshop.

  • A strawman of the asset is prepared before the first workshop, at which the SMEs agree the content structure, the scope, and the key knowledge to be included (in the form of processes, products and roles).
  • At the second workshop, the SMEs start to populate the content with processes, work products, and best practices – namely, searching around for good Explicit examples. They may provide practice guides, methodology, business frameworks, example work products, case studies, templates, architectures and role descriptions.
  • At the third workshop, the tacit knowledge is added in the form of tips and guidance, checklists etc.

The validated knowledge assets are stored separately from non-validated project documents, therefore making a clear distinction between project information and cross-project knowledge.

Once the knowledge asset is in place it is continually improved through work experience.

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Collecting documents is not the same as managing knowledge, said King Solomon

The endless accumulation of reports is not necessarily a helpful thing in Knowledge Management.

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This issue was recognised thousands of years ago by one of the reputedly wisest men in history – King Solomon – revered as a prophet, King and Wise Man by all the Abrahamic traditions. As the wise man said, in the book of Ecclesiastes –

“Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh”.

I was reminded of this quote last month at a conference, where a knowledge manager asked me if I could help her with her issue. Her problem was that she was measured on one indicator – the number of reports in her repository – and she was struggling to get people to write anything. Partly people were too busy, partly it was an oral culture rather than a written culture, often they did not know what to write, they were unsure about writing in English, and they were shy of putting their thoughts on paper.
I advised her to put her collection on hold, to start to introduce conversations about knowledge through After Action Reviews and Communities of Practice, and to use those conversations both as a source of further content and as an indication of which knowledge was currently important to the organisation. But it also made me think, and conclude that;

Using the number of reports and articles in a knowledge base as a KPI is unhelpful and can be counter-productive.

I say this for the following reasons.

  • As King Solomon nearly said, of writing reports there is no end. You can write as many reports or articles as you want – it doesn’t mean they are good, or helpful, or add anything to the store of knowledge. Volume is not an indicator of quality. Must volume is just noise in the system.
  • If all you do is collect documents, then the old out-of-date knowledge is mixed in with newer more relevant knowledge, or with contradictory conclusions and advice, which may be very unhelpful. 
  • In knowledge management – volume of content is a bad thing. In their excellent book “Working knowledge”, Davenport and Prusak point out that “Volume may be the friend of data management, but it is the enemy of knowledge management; simply because humans have to sift through the volume to find the desired knowledge”.
  • This “sifting through the volume of reports” is what King Solomon referred to as “a weariness of the flesh”, and busy people looking for knowledge do not want to face a mammoth task. Here is a third KM guru quote for you – Dr Johnson, the 18th century man of letters, wrote that  “Mankind have a great aversion to intellectual labour; but even supposing knowledge to be easily attainable, more people would be content to be ignorant than would take even a little trouble to acquire it”. The more documents in your repository, the more intellectual labour it takes the seeker to find the knowledge, regardless of the quality of your search engine.
  • The aim of KM is not to collect, but to combine and synthesise. The C within the famous SECI model stands for “Combination”, not Collection. The purpose of collecting new knowledge is to combine it with old knowledge and other new knowledge, and to create a synthesis – to move understanding forward; to filter out the noise and improve the signal.

The ideal knowledge base, for any given topic, really only requires one primary document, and a restricted selection of supporting documents.

  • The primary document is the Wiki, representing the current state of knowledge or the current best practice, constantly updated as new knowledge becomes available;
  • The wiki then links out to secondary documents, community discussions, lessons etc which give more detail if needed, and which provide the evidence base for the knowledge in the wiki;
  • There may also be a small collection of exemplar documents – proposals to copy, formats to use, templates and go-bys.

The secondary documents and exemplars should be rigorously collated, and old material should be archived.

Don’t aim for volume – aim for helpfulness and synthesis. Otherwise you may just be perpetuating “the weariness of the flesh”

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KM as distillation

I heard a useful metaphor last week – Knowledge Management as distillation.

Image from wikimedia commons
Knowledge is involved in almost everything we do at work, and the work products we create contain the outworkings of that knowledge. However just collecting work products is not Knowledge Management, as that knowledge is scattered and diffused across so many documents.
Similarly connecting people is not enough, as the knowledge remains scattered across many heads.
When the knowledge is scattered like this, then every knowledge seeker must do the same task of sifting, sorting and distilling out the knowledge. With commonly-used knowledge, this is wasteful, and it is better if someone (a subject matter expert or a community of practice) does the distillation in advance.
Distillation of knowledge could include:
  • Looking through community discussions, and drawing out the conclusions
  • Reviewing multiple proposals and compiling the best and most successful bits of each
  • Searching a collection of Lessons and turning them into guidance or checklists
  • Comparing many version of templates and finding the best
  • Holding a knowledge exchange to compare multiple practices and co-create the best
Providing such a distilled knowledge product is far more useful than expecting people to search through multiple sources every time they need guidance.

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