Knowledge Management Based on People, Not Processes

Tools are helpful. Processes are important. But when it comes down to it, people are key.

This theme drives plenty of our project work, but last Friday we had the opportunity to step back and apply the concept to our own inner workings.

We were fortunate to benefit from the insights and experience of Ifoda Abdurazakova, a Knowledge Management (KM) Specialist from UNDP and UN Women. Ifoda led a workshop at our New York headquarters on the challenges of building and maintaining effective KM systems.

The question of the day: How can we better manage the ideas that constantly flow in, out, and between our offices?

We are always engaging with new ideas. Our inboxes are full of articles, our walls are lined with books, and our desks are piled high with reports. Our project work constantly challenges us to bring new ideas to bear on complex issues that defy easy resolution.

This flow of knowledge through our offices is wonderful, it’s one of the reasons I keep coming back day after day. But managing that flow of knowledge is incredibly difficult—and incredibly important.

For years, the private sector has recognized the value, some would say the necessity, of a solid KM system. We live in a knowledge economy era, where “knowledge work” has the power to generate economic and social value. McKinsey rakes in $7 billion annually based on its knowledge networks and infrastructureBritish Airways’ knowledge initiative is heavily credited with improving the company’s profitability.

The development sector is getting on board, too. The International Fund for Agricultural Development has embedded a knowledge management strategy in the key deliverables of its action plan, recognizing the intertwining of knowledge and development practice. NGOs and multilateral organizations are now adapting KM strategies to their needs and dedicating staff to running them, Ifoda from UNDP and Ian Thorpe from the UN being two examples.

Effective processes and tools for managing, recording, sharing, and utilizing the knowledge an organization is creating and digesting can have a wide range of beneficial effects: mitigating the risks of high employee turnovermaking visual thinking tangible, and preventing unnecessary repetition of work, to name a few. KM systems can make or break an organization’s ability to stay at the frontier of new ideas.

But KM isn’t just about managing knowledge, it’s about managing people’s use of knowledge. Designing a KM system should be centered on the people it is meant to serve. The most valuable information is, more often than not, contained in someone else’s head. The goal of a KM system is to make the knowledge that people hold internally accessible to others externally.

This latter point is where KM usually gets hairy and otherwise good efforts can go awry. In developing a KM system, the immediate temptation is to find the best means to pull all the information in our heads out onto paper or screens—to document, in other words.

But, as Ifoda reminded us, good KM is not just a process of knowledge accumulation. Good KM is knowledge sharing.

What Ifoda has found through her experience at UNDP is that without focusing on people, KM is a bridge to nowhere. Rather than attempting to establish large databases of information that reduce the need for interaction, KM has more to gain from a system that helps you find the right person with the right knowledge.

As Ifoda explained, the three pillars of KM are not equal: 70 percent is people, 20 percent is process, and 10 percent is technology. Some knowledge is made explicit through databases and processes, but the majority stays in our minds. So how do we go beyond explicit knowledge, the tip of the KM iceberg, to the wealth of tacit knowledge buried underneath?

UNDP’s solution was to base their KM system around user profiles. Each employee can see the expertise, projects, and outputs of colleagues. Think of it like a KM social network, which provides a user-friendly platform to easily identify the person who holds the insights you’re looking for. An internal blog, crowdsourcing conference themes, and thematic webinars are just a few of the initiatives that support UNDP colleagues’ connections with one another.

Still, people-based KM systems have their challenges. Incentivizing people to participate seems to be one of the biggest obstacles for Ifoda and many other organizations spanning cultures around the world. Incorporating new knowledge at a rapid, ever-quickening pace, keeping up with technologyaligning knowledge management objectives with organizational strategy, and encouraging a shift in culture from knowledge accumulation to knowledge sharing are difficult tasks.

In beginning to build Reboot’s KM system over the past few months, I have started to work through these challenges by turning to my colleagues in New York and Nigeria who would be using the system.

I have sat with people from our various working groups and asked what they would want from a KM system. I’ve tried to learn about their tasks and what most frustrated them in their day-to-day work. When possible, I’ve stepped into their shoes and helped with their projects to get a taste for what their needs really were. These first-hand interactions have allowed me to better identify priorities and the most suitable character for a Reboot KM system.

Our session with Ifoda gave us new ideas and confirmed the importance of engaging with people, in all their complexity and inefficiency. Recording lessons learned and managing comprehensive databases of guides or past work is helpful, but it’s no replacement for real knowledge sharing. Having a conversation with someone who originally earned the knowledge provides important context. What they record are only data points.

My hunch is that encouraging and facilitating conversation, while seemingly less efficient than systematizing knowledge inputs and outputs, is the most effective way to go.

When all is said and done, we can only search for the information we think we need. Often, the most valuable questions are those we don’t know enough to ask. That’s where we need other people to help us.

Futher reading.