Knowledge management (KM) is a field that has evolved rapidly in recent years, but is its definition changing? In this blog post, Zach Wahl and Joe Hilger - KM experts and founders of Enterprise Knowledge - consider the widening scope of the field, and what this might mean for the future.
Driven in large part by workplace evolution and technological advancements, but also as a result of the broader maturation of the field and leading KM practitioners, the very definition of knowledge management is different than it was even a few years ago.
The first way in which the definition of KM has shifted is based on the definition of knowledge itself. Historically, within the framework of KM, the focus has been on tacit knowledge. Tacit knowledge, or experiential knowledge as it is sometimes called, is basically the information and expertise an individual possesses. It has long been considered the goal of KM to transfer tacit knowledge from an expert’s brain into an explicit and digital format where it can be preserved by the organization and accessed by others. This is still a critical and highly valuable component of KM, but current definitions take a much broader look at knowledge. Too many KM practitioners seem to have endless energy and time to dedicate to answering the question of what is knowledge versus information or data. The practical reality, however, is that it doesn’t necessarily matter, and the lines are not nearly as clear as many would like to think.
Today, mature KM organizations recognize that knowledge takes many forms, ranging from tacit to explicit, structured to unstructured, and physical to digital. It is the linking of these forms of knowledge and the addition of context that makes it all truly work for the organization and adds the greatest value. With this realization, the mission of KM has grown significantly. Rather than seeking to just capture tacit knowledge or perhaps make digital information easier to find, the new mission of KM is to link all of an organization’s knowledge, in all its forms, making it not just findable, but understandable and actionable.
With this wider scope for KM, the role of knowledge management within an organization is also shifting. Whereas KM has often been organizationally stuck in a functional silo such as libraries, human resources, or even information technology, we’re now seeing KM embedded within the business where it belongs. In some cases, KM is even reporting directly into the C-suite as an element of the COO’s office. We’re also seeing closer ties between KM and Learning and Development, with the learning group often merging with KM or leading KM transformations. This reflects the greater recognition of the major role KM can and should play in employee upskilling, successful employee engagement, and long-term employee satisfaction and retention. Overall, the greater prominence and placement of KM organizations are meaningful to the future of KM, as today’s KM organizations are viewed as business critical and central to employee success and competitive advantage.
With all of these changes, the view of KM as an organizational cost has also shifted. From a budgetary perspective, KM has historically been considered a cost without hard return on investment. Sure, the value of KM could be stated with any number of benefits, including improved use and reuse of knowledge, greater knowledge retention and sharing, and even greater collaboration and innovation. No one would argue that these are worthy outcomes, but the inability to link KM to hard ROI, that measured in dollars and cents, also meant that KM was frequently portrayed as a “nice-to-have” when budget surpluses existed but an option to easily cut in order to save money without actual business impact.
The shifting perspectives and broader definition of KM now mean that KM can be viewed as business critical, and moreover, that there can and should be hard ROI derived from a KM transformation. The business value and ROI can be measured in many ways, ranging from improved productivity that opens opportunities for cost cutting to decreased administrative burden and license costs through the streamlining of systems and elimination of redundancies in tools, content, and processes. Perhaps the most compelling ROI, especially in the face of the Great Resignation, is improved onboarding, employee development, and employee engagement, all of which result in higher employee retention. There are massive savings to be had in holding on to the right people within your organization while simultaneously growing to be more effective at upskilling replacements for those you lose. KM can be the driving force to achieve these savings.
Joe Hilger and Zach Wahl founded Enterprise Knowledge (EK) in 2013 and presently serve as COO and CEO respectively. EK has been listed on the Inc. 5000 List of Fastest Growing Companies in the US every year from 2018 to 2021. EK is now the world’s largest dedicated knowledge management consultancy, having won a myriad of awards not just for its leadership in the KM field, but also as a best place to work in the region and across the United States.
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