Knowledge Management: How to Stop Making Mistakes and Losing Customers

knowledge management

Business is forever changing and evolving. The things you need to do to stay up to date can be daunting but the alternative is falling by the wayside.

Plus, when 78% of millennial customers won’t give you a second chance, your day-to-day interactions count more than ever.

That’s why you need a solid knowledge management system. It’s the only way to reliably manage the resources available to your team and make sure that everyone can perform to the best of their ability.

So, today on the Process Street blog we’ll be covering:

Enough dawdling – let’s get started!

What is knowledge management?

knowledge management system

Knowledge management is the process of capturing, distributing, and effectively using knowledge.” – Thomas Davenport, 1994

The description above is probably the most succinct summary of knowledge management that we could hope to achieve.

Have you ever not known how to accomplish a task, and had to instead ask someone for help or refer to some kind of documentation?

How about checking out the FAQ for a program you’re using to see if they can pre-emptively solve your problem?

Heck, if you’ve ever played a video game then chances are you’ve gone online to find tips, tricks, or even cheats.

All of these are examples of knowledge management in action.

The easiest way to explain it, from a business perspective, is that knowledge management is all about collecting information and expertise on a particular topic, storing it in an accessible way, sharing it with those who need it, and using it to better achieve your goals.

Think of it as a way to consistently use what you know and learn from your mistakes instead of blundering forwards on a bunch of assumptions.

For example, let’s say that your manager asks you for a monthly sales report. You might use a process like this one here:

If you’ve successfully managed the knowledge available, you should be able to easily bring together records of their output, the results of any experiments and so on. This could be done by either asking those involved directly or by going into your team’s database/records and accessing the knowledge directly.

Once you have that knowledge it’s a cinch to create the report and present it to your manager. In turn, they can analyze the results, see what needs improvement, and make a call on how to do so.

You didn’t know everything off-hand from the beginning, and neither should you be expected to. There is too much going on in our daily work and lives to be able to memorize absolutely everything that we need to know.

Instead, the knowledge that you needed was made available so that you and your manager could use it.

If you’re a long-time member of the Process Street blog, you’ll know just how crazy we are about processes. We believe it’s important to document your processes so that everyone knows what they need to be doing at any given time without having to stop and ask for directions – the productivity gains alone are staggering.

A well-designed process is a good example of the principle of knowledge management in action.

Why does knowledge management matter?

kimiz dalkir what is knowledge management
Kimiz Dalkir, Director at McGill University and author of Knowledge Management: In Theory and Practice (Source)

An organization in the Knowledge Age is one that learns, remembers, and acts based on the best available information, knowledge, and know-how.” – Kimiz Dalkir, Director at McGill University, Knowledge Management: In Theory and Practice

Imagine that it’s your first day at a new job. You haven’t been trained beforehand and you aren’t familiar with the duties you’re expected to perform.

Your new boss walks up to you and says, “Nice to meet you, now get on with your work”.

No resources, no mentoring, nothing. That’s what your life would be like without knowledge management.

Knowledge management isn’t just vital to learning how to perform new tasks though. It’s crucial to running any kind of test and reliably improving your processes and practices.

Heck, it’s the basis for everything we do here at Process Street!

While we’re technically a piece of business process management software, the entire field of process management wouldn’t exist at all without the theories behind knowledge management.

Think about it; process management is all about documenting your regular tasks in a way that lets you identify any recurring problems, ensure that everything is done correctly, and up to a certain quality standard. It’s the backbone of any thriving business.

It’s also a fancy way of saying that Process Street records the knowledge your team needs to consistently carry out their duties.

The history of knowledge management

Before we dive into the specifics of knowledge management let’s cover the history of the practice.

The principles of knowledge management have been in use since literally the beginning of recorded history, albeit not under the same name.

knowledge management examples
Cave paintings are some of the earliest examples of knowledge management – of humans recording and sharing their knowledge (Source by Raveesh Vyas, image under license CC BY-SA 2.0)

Cave paintings, village elders, early books and so on. All of these are prime examples of how knowledge has been recorded and shared over the ages.

Even if you haven’t heard the term “knowledge management” before, I can guarantee that you’ve experienced the benefits of it. Whether you’ve reminded your friends of something you did together, read a book for fun, or looked up how to do something using the internet, you’ve benefitted from that shared knowledge.

One of the earliest mentions of knowledge management as we know it today, however, came from Peter Drucker in 1959. Coining the term “knowledge worker”, he identified workers who use their knowledge to improve and deploy products and services.

[Drucker] noted that knowledge workers would be the most valuable assets of a 21st-century organization because of their high level of productivity and creativity.” – Corporate Financial Institute, What are Knowledge Workers?

Drucker and Paul Strassmann further studied the importance of knowledge as a resource that organizations could use, while others such as Chris Argyris, Christopher Bartlett, and Dorothy Leonard-Barton more specifically looked into the elements of how knowledge is managed.

With these and many other studies, by the mid-1980s it was widely appreciated that knowledge played an important part as a competitive element of any business.

This realization led to the formation of the Initiative for Managing Knowledge Assets in 1989 to serve as a base for managing knowledge. Shortly after the topic reached a wider audience through the appearance of knowledge management-related articles in high-end journals such as the Harvard Business Review and the publication of books such as The Knowledge-Value Revolution by Taichi Sakaiya in 1991.

Interest in the practice has only grown over the years, with major consulting firms like Ernst & Young taking full advantage of it, with many others focusing on specific areas of knowledge management such as change management, best practices, business process management, and risk management.

Types of knowledge

Core to the pursuit of knowledge management is understanding that there are type types of knowledge; tactic and explicit.

Tactic knowledge is difficult to record or convey to those with less experience than you, as it is the knowledge that comes directly from experience. Anything that you consider to be common sense, intuitive, or practical know-how is in this category.

Tacit knowledge is very difficult to record, which means that it’s most often learned by directly interacting with someone who already has the knowledge. This could be in a training or mentoring sense, or by getting an outside expert in to help with a certain issue.

Explicit knowledge is the complete opposite, in that it is anything that is easy to record, share, and learn from. This is usually what you’d think of when you imagine a knowledge management system – perhaps in the form of a documented process that tells you how to carry out a particular set of tasks.

  • Tacit knowledge: The “know-how” and “know-why”, hard to record, learned from one-on-one interaction with experts, often subject to context and interpretation. Examples include riding a bike, driving, reading body language, intuition, and emotional intelligence.
  • Explicit knowledge: The “know-what”, easy to record, share, and teach, often highly structured and doesn’t change based on context or interpretation. Examples include the color of a car, how many steps there are in a given process, someone’s name, and the number of words in a book.

The inherent problem with many knowledge management systems is that they are designed to record, distribute, and manage explicit knowledge with very little room for tacit knowledge to be present.

That’s mainly because tacit knowledge, by definition, is more difficult to communicate by means of writing down or verbalizing. It can be done, but it’s just inherently more complex.

Let me give you an example; and bear with me, because I’m about to get nerdy. Over the weekend I bought some models to put together.

tacit and explicit knowledge - squigs or bounderz

These models come in a box of parts; you have to build and paint them yourself. This specific set is a bunch of goblins riding atop of some manic, mushroom-based monsters which are more mouth than brains.

They’re a pleasant bunch.

In any case, there is a good example of both tacit and explicit knowledge within this little box.

The explicit knowledge comes in the form of a set of instructions on how to assemble each model. There are even simple recommendations for colors to use when painting.

Alongside this, there is also some tacit knowledge involved.

First, there’s the tacit knowledge that plays into the tabletop wargame that the miniatures are used in. Models provide different functions, and there is a certain degree of tacit knowledge involved in choosing one model over another. Some are hyper-mobile but easier to kill, whereas the Bounderz hit harder and are more resilient at the expense of being slower-moving.

This is something that is developed as you become more familiar with the game, much like understanding the use of different pieces in a game of chess.

This can’t be learned from the box alone; you need to have a feel for the game, and you will gain this kind of knowledge over time, and based on your experience.

Another tacit aspect is actually painting the models.

You can follow instructions and gain simple insight from looking at the colors on the box, but the process of doing a good job of painting models like these isn’t something that can be easily communicated.

knowledge management dryads
Standard dryads look a little… dull (Source)

For example, I also have a unit of dryads (tree people). These are usually painted as you would expect – with a wealth of browns and greens for the bark and leaves respectively.

They look nice, if a little dull.

However, having tested out various color schemes in the past I had the tacit knowledge to try out something unique and base my dryads on cherry blossom trees. The result is an interesting and unique pattern that is the result of years of experience painting miniatures.

knowledge management dryads custom
Still a work in progress, but the importance of tacit knowledge when painting miniatures like these can’t be understated

These types of knowledge are present (and vital) to the everyday running of your business. From the explicit knowledge contained in your training manuals to the tacit knowledge that your experienced team members learned on the job, a knowledge management system lets your entire team access what they need to know.

How to build a knowledge management system

The biggest challenge when building a knowledge management system is being thorough enough to cover all aspects of the relevant knowledge to your team.

Paired with the need to include the whole team in the process of building it (to encourage participation in the final product), it’s easy to see why so many systems have major faults at some level or another.

First, we need to set some ground rules:

  • The goal is to create a system where anyone can access the information they need, be it recorded or via talking to someone more experienced
  • You shouldn’t try to document your team’s tacit knowledge
  • Information from all projects should be recorded where any relevant team members can access it
  • Consult all team members when building systems or plotting how everything is connected – they know their work better than you do
  • Deploying the knowledge management system is just as important as designing it – ignoring either will cause the system to fail

Once there are understood, you can begin the process of building your knowledge management system.

The entire process should look like this:

  • Build a knowledge management web to plan out how things are currently connected and accessed
  • Assess the problems that this system causes
  • Plan your ideal knowledge management system
  • Assess the technology and departmental needs of any changes
  • Make sure your team contributes to (and understands) the changes
  • Build the infrastructure needed for the new system
  • Go through the whole system with everyone who will be using it
  • Deploy your new knowledge management system one piece at a time to avoid overwhelming everyone
  • Constantly listen to feedback and improve the system

Most of these points are self-explanatory and largely resemble that of any decent change management model. However, let’s go through them anyway to clear up any misconceptions.

First, you need to build out what your current knowledge management system is. The easiest way to do this is to get your whole team together and use their knowledge of how things are getting done to plot out accurate connections.

For example, you could create a flowchart to demonstrate all of the processes you have, how they’re used, where tacit knowledge plays a role, and so on.

Next, you should assess the system you’re currently using to see what problems are being caused and why. Namely, look to identify where information isn’t being provided and where bottlenecks are created as a result of limited availability.

You then need to gather your team once more and plan what your ideal knowledge management system should look like. You don’t have to have specific technology in mind for this yet – focus on solving the problems you previously identified.

Once that’s taken care of it’s time to look into the resources you’ll need to create the new system. This can include anything from tech to new employees and expertise.

Again, it all depends on what problems you’re having and how you want to solve them.

Then it’s time to move on to building the framework for your new knowledge management system. This means setting up all of the technology and communication avenues that it requires to work.

If you’re migrating from to Salesforce, for example, you need to make sure that all of your data has been moved over and set up properly in this stage before anyone else starts using it.

Then all that’s left to do is to deploy your system slowly over time while making sure that your team understands and agrees with the changes you’ve made.

Remember, the more they’re involved, the more likely your team is to uphold the new system and make it work.

Manage your knowledge effectively with Process Street

All this talk of tacit and explicit knowledge, management systems and constant co-operation can be a little overwhelming. You have to worry about not messing up the current system you have while also planning an entirely new system that needs to be foolproof to reap the full benefits of efficient knowledge management.

That’s where Process Street comes in.

With Process Street you can document all of your explicit knowledge in easy-to-find process templates. These templates are fully customizable and can be run as checklists to track the progress of every task your team needs to complete.

Team, group, and individual user permissions can be controlled to make sure that everyone has access to everything they need to know (and nothing more), protecting your sensitive documents while also sharing your knowledge base across your whole organization.

Not only that, but you can assign users to separate tasks, checklists and templates. This will send them email notifications when they are required to take action on a given task, letting you keep your experts in the loop and talking to the rest of the team.

In other words, it’s a fantastic way to make sure that your tacit and explicit knowledge are all in the same place.

Try it out for free right now!

What do you use for your knowledge management system? Let us know in the comments below!

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Ben Mulholland

Ben Mulholland is an Editor at Process Street, and winds down with a casual article or two on Mulholland Writing. Find him on Twitter here.

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