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Designing a less dysfunctional knowledge management system

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Designing a less dysfunctional knowledge management system

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This definition of a Knowledge Management System (KMS) can be found in Wikipedia:

"a (generally IT based) system for managing knowledge in organizations for supporting creation, capture, storage and dissemination of information. It can comprise a part (neither necessary or sufficient) of a Knowledge Management initiative."
I am personally not too fond of this definition. First of all, it makes it seem like a knowledge management system can exist and function independently from the people who are using it. In addition, as a Druckerian I believe in Peter F Druckers expression that "you can’t manage knowledge. Knowledge exists between two ears only." This is why I would rather see a knowledge management system as a dynamic network of interconnected individuals who share and learn together, supported by various forms of information technology. With this definition it is easy to see that every enterprise has a knowledge management system. What differs is how well it functions, which is today heavily dependent on how well it is able to make proper use of information technology to sustain and improve itself.

Large and dispersed enterprises typically involve multiple organizations and their performance thus relies on a successful orchestration and alignment of all the efforts within and across the different organizations. In practice this requires the integration of multiple professional informal networks and this integration is primarily done by allowing people from different organizations to meet and connect with each other to establish communication. Until recently, an organization’s capability to connect people with each within the organization and with other organizations involved in an enterprise has been very limited and costly. So this was a task done by managers, sales people, formally appointed experts and other people who had the possibility to travel and meet a lot of people in their daily work. They aggregated the connections in their own networks, and connected the enterprise. These people acted as hubs, or what Malcolm Gladwell calls connectors, helping to connect people and expertise across the workforce. Although their function adds immense value, it is easy to see how easily they can become bottlenecks when there is a need to speed up and broaden the flow of information and that they exercise immense power over the performance of the enterprise, a power that could be misused in various ways.

The natural approach to avoid these kinds of bottlenecks is to create ways to increase the number of direct connections between people and allow people to build and connect their networks so that information can flow across networks. Until recently this hasn’t been practically or financially feasible.

Now back to Drucker again. All the knowledge within an enterprise, residing in the heads of its people, can only be "managed" in the sense that people create and maintain digital representations of their knowledge in various forms (from simple text messages to documents and rich media) and that they find ways to exchange, aggregate, organize and maintain those representations together. To their help they have information technologies which help to extend their human abilities to do all these things. Modern information technologies allow us to represent our knowledge in various forms and share them as well as accessing the representations created by other people, no matter where they are located or what team they belong to. In theory, that is.

In practice, a knowledge management system cannot function properly or produce the required results if all the layers of an enterprise – such as processes, organization, practices, information and IT solutions - aren’t designed to be as open and transparent as possible. If any of those layers is designed in a way that makes it closed and opaque, it will make the knowledge management system dysfunctional. The ability of the enterprise to quickly adapt to its environment and respond to external stimuli, such changing behaviors of the market, will be limited. If there is not enough inflow and exchange of information within the system, few ideas will be created within the enterprise and it will be hard to make the ideas which are created reach those who can make them happen. Teams will become silos and revert to group-thing which lead to suboptimal decisions and keep their knowledge and ideas to themselves, operating as an enterprise of their own with their own purpose and goals. The enterprise becomes like a federation of states without proper common governance and with trade barriers that hinder free trade and thereby the development of wealth for the federation as a whole as well as for the individual countries.

Enterprises have now the opportunity to apply social principles and technologies to improve the performance of the enterprise as a knowledge management system. It is now practically and financially feasible to increase the number of direct connections between people and allow people to build and connect their networks so that information can flow across those networks more smoothly. Besides making this possible, social technologies also allow us to represent and share our knowledge in much easier and richer ways, many times as a byproduct when we simply try to get things done together. Our social interactions happening through social technologies further enrich the representations of our knowledge with more information (or metadata) that make the representations easier to find, interpret, understand, use and reuse.

This does however not come automatically. All layers of the enterprise, from the organization to the IT solutions, need to be designed for maximum transparency and connectivity. They also need to be designed to encourage and make it really simple for people to connect and interact across all structures, thereby making it more likely that there will be a continuous exchange of valuable information and knowledge across the enterprise. Only then will they have a functioning knowledge management system that allows them to proactively deal with the challenges of today’s global and ever changing business environment.

Opinions expressed by DZone contributors are their own.

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