Organizations typically struggle to manage and leverage their internal knowledge for four different reasons. The key issues that challenge them are:
- The workforce is aging. Most companies haven’t done a very good job of extracting the tribal wisdom that’s stored in the heads of their veteran employees. To compound that problem, older workers typically aren’t adept at socializing their personal expertise in the same way that perhaps a younger worker might be.
- Globalization is a continued struggle. This issue is perhaps a bit cliché these days but, globalization remains a struggle for many organizations. Different companies have workers in different geographies that speak different languages. The cultural norms may not extend to fostering knowledge management.
- Firms are still using legacy systems. Many companies are using outdated legacy systems that simply don't foster knowledge management. These systems were not developed in order to foster knowledge management and they really tend to fall down when folks try to extend them to a knowledge management environment.
- Organizational departments remain largely siloed. Information typically is very siloed in most companies. Often, certain departments may have their own servers and then other departments may have their server located elsewhere. These servers don't talk to one another and don't coordinate with one another, so they don't foster knowledge management.
In assessing the impact of knowledge management on corporate top and bottom lines, one need only look to history for the answers. There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that can be reviewed and factored into the problem. In the 1990s, for example, computer-aided design (CAD) was all the rage. And while CAD was great at helping individual end users model their designs, it wasn’t good at telling the next person why those designs were modeled in that fashion or what the thought process was. CAD didn’t capture that level of information.
In the 2000s, there was a big focus on product lifecycle management (PLM) software. This software is great at helping companies consolidate and secure documents, but it serves as an “input” system. It's all about command and control. What we really need is an “output” system that enables easily accessible information.
Also popular in the 2000s and even now are enterprise resource planning (ERP) software systems that most of us think of as a necessary evil (myself included). Although some companies have attempted to do very limited knowledge management with their ERPs, at this point most firms realize that these systems do a poor job of managing knowledge.
So, as you can see, CAD, PLM, and ERP all solve the wrong problems and wind up negatively impacting both top and bottom lines. Workers spend their time fighting the nuances and quirks of the systems, for example, instead of putting their time and energy into innovation.
Overcoming Knowledge Management Issues
There are several ways to overcome the challenges associated with knowledge management, but most of them require a mindset shift on the organization’s part.
Historically, knowledge management has been all about search and retrieval. In that paradigm the onus is really on the end user to know a lot of information ahead of time. He or she needs to know the answers to questions like: What type of document am I looking for? Where is it located? Do I have access? Has it been tagged with the proper metadata fields so that I can search upon that information?
This type of system really only works when there's a very small corpus of information. These days, companies are dealing with terabytes and petabytes of information, and the search and retrieval paradigm tends to really just start to break down once you get to that scale. Companies want (and need) to be relieved of that burden. They don't want to have to think about where a document is located, whether it has been tagged properly, and if users have access to it.
To innovate and achieve engineering excellence, companies must be aware that there are research and discovery platforms available that allow their users to simply ask questions and get answers in return. It’s as simple as that.