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Breathing New Life Into KM Through Digital Workplace Design

Let’s face it, the field of knowledge management or KM for short is way past its prime. Don’t believe me? Just check out this Google Trends chart dating back to 2004, which shows KM’s steady decline in popularity.

Google Trends Chart for the term “knowledge management” (2004-2017)

But apparently the thousands of us that actually do KM every day, whether it’s in our job title or just a useful set of tools applied in another field, didn’t get that memo. Why? Because KM is alive and well and probably more relevant than ever. We don’t always call it KM and it often passes unnoticed in the shadows of far sexier terms like digital transformation (now that’s an enviable Google trend line!) but I am 100% certain that it’s poised to make a huge comeback (the reasons for which I’ll explain in a moment).

...KM is alive and well and probably more relevant than ever.

And I admit, as a KM practitioner that got my start back in 2009, I’ve had a love-hate relationship with the term knowledge management. For those who have never heard of it before, it sounds vaguely threatening and yet unknowable. When I was trying to convince executives at my organization that we should invest in KM as a core business function they were perplexed. Where would this knowledge come from? Why did it now need to be managed when we were “fine” before? What value could such a mysterious activity possibly add?


So, like many of my peers, I embarked on a crusade to spread the gospel of KM far and wide, rattling off the long list of benefits that a focused, unified approach to KM across the organization would bring. The primary aim? Turning as much tacit knowledge (that which resides in people’s heads) into explicit knowledge (that which is readily accessible) and putting it all in a neat and orderly place where everyone could find it. Simple, right?

Thanks to our friends at Google, our general expectation for how long it should take to find something is roughly half a second. Unfortunately workplaces are still way behind in this regard.

Fast forward to present day. Digital workplaces have exploded with a variety of tools for real-time communication. Thanks to our friends at Google, our general expectation for how long it should take to find something is roughly half a second. Unfortunately workplaces are still way behind in this regard. Finding things, whether it’s people, content or information, typically takes way too long. And when you do find something, how do you know if it’s the right something or just some outdated, dusty file that should have been retired years ago?

“I can’t get anything done in this place!” is a common refrain.

What seemed like just another inconvenience a few years ago is now driving people to seethe with frustration or even quit their jobs. “I can’t get anything done in this place!” is a common refrain. And the blame game is endless. Staff point to IT, saying their systems are poorly designed and outdated. IT points at staff, saying that they wouldn’t have so many problems if they just learned how to use the darn software properly. HR tells leadership that they’re not inspiring their staff, leading to poor employee engagement. Leadership points to managers, saying they’re not doing enough to increase their team’s productivity.

This is a new, super-charged, tech-powered version of what in essence is a way of helping people be more productive and happy at work.

Amidst this chaos and hostility, surprisingly, is where KM is poised to make its big (re)entrance. And let me explain, this isn’t your uncle’s version of KM. This is a new, super-charged, tech-powered version of what in essence is a way of helping people be more productive and happy at work. It's called Digital Workplace Design.

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To explain the differences between KM then and now, here’s a breakdown of what I like to refer to as “old school” versus “new school” KM.

Old School KM

Origins: Introduced in the early 1990s during the dawn of KM but still spotted frequently today in popular KM literature and practice.

Key Characteristics: 

Emphasis on content, not people

This type of KM is all about the content. The dream was having beautiful, well-organized electronic libraries of content that everyone in the organization could easily navigate. Where does this content come from? Naturally from staff, who dutifully take time out of their busy days to write down their reflections on lessons learned and best practices in fine prose for the benefit of all. The reality? More often than not, a chaotic mess of content of questionable quality that no one has time to sift through, let alone contribute to.

Top-down, prescriptive

There is no way to maintain a well-organized system of content creation and storage without a lot of rules. Rules about what to write and how it should be formatted and yet more rules about how it should be shared and stored. While, just like a dictatorship, this may lead to a veneer of orderliness and abundance, underneath the surface there is rampant insubordination and passing of non-sanctioned information in response to urgent needs.

Dependent on formal taxonomy

Traditionally, finding content in a structured document repository has required the use of a highly detailed taxonomy. The term taxonomy is borrowed from the scientific practice of classifying organisms and consists of a hierarchy of keywords, often several layers deep, that reflect topics and other concepts that a user might search for. The issue with these static, manually assigned taxonomies is that they are time consuming to implement and can easily fall out of date as organizational changes take place or terminology shifts.

Outside the flow of work

This is probably one of the biggest reasons old school KM efforts often fail. It has to do with those dutiful staff mentioned earlier, who must take time out of their hectic day to write down their reflections and learnings for the benefit of others. The problem is, most organizations do not provide protected time for these activities. In some cases, it can be nearly impossible given that every hour has to be billed to a client or project code. Those who do take the time are true heroes but are a rare find. And at the the end of the day, is what they’re sharing responding to an actual need?

Content repositories = graveyards

Document graveyards result from producing content that doesn’t respond to a specific need and then storing it in a static repository. Essentially, where documents go to die. And this is the sad reality of old school KM efforts, which invest so much time and effort into generating and classifying content only to see it never get used. In addition to becoming a dead zone, these repositories can fall victim to entropy, or a gradual decline into disorder. Staff compliance with filing conventions often softens over time and those that set out to enforce these rules begin to lose heart and ultimately give up on their beautiful dream.

New School KM a.k.a. Digital Workplace Design

Origins: Inspired by the initial wave of collaborative “Web 2.0” enterprise applications in the early 2000s that included social networking features similar to Facebook and other social platforms.

Key Characteristics:  

People-centered

KM theory has always stressed that people are the holders of the most valuable knowledge within an organization. Digital workplace design seeks to make this knowledge more accessible by treating people, not content, as an organization’s most valuable asset.
This means connecting people who know with those who need to know in and outside of an organization to support continual, demand-driven knowledge exchange. It also means using design principles and aspects of human psychology to provide the most favorable conditions for the behavior change that needs to occur.

Leverages social networks

We all belong to multiple social networks, both professional and personal. These tend to be based around things we share in common with others (like a love of foosball or an obsession with pretty cupcakes!) and are therefore the perfect conduit for meaningful, demand-driven knowledge exchange. The new KM seeks not only to support these networks but also to extract additional value from them beyond their immediate membership. In other words, networks can become engines of idea generation and knowledge production that can be harvested in a way that distributes value across the entire organization. 

Bottom-up and spontaneous

Humans are by nature playful beings who enjoy the unexpected. We all love surprise parties, right? (Well, maybe not so much.) By creating safe, open spaces for interactions to spontaneously occur, the new KM begins to break down traditional communication hierarchies. Gone are the days where being heard meant finally getting in front of a decision maker or leader after several fretful months. Now voices can stream in from disparate and diverse parts of the organization, generating rich discussions that are relevant and informative to leadership and staff alike.

In the flow of work

KM expert Carla O’Dell talks about this concept in her book, The New Edge in Knowledge, and it’s the key to adoption of any KM process. And thanks to the principles and methods of human-centered design, we can develop systems and approaches around the way people work, not in spite of them. If done right, serving as a key contributor or consumer of critical knowledge becomes a pleasurable experience that saves rather than wastes time for all involved.

Supports innovation and social learning

Innovation and learning are probably the two most sought after outcomes of any KM effort. But they have been understandably elusive. Innovation efforts often fail because they lack a social, interactive component which is the very stuff that fuels idea generation. And learning is rarely defined and measured by the rate and nature of interactions related to performing one’s job yet that is exactly where most learning takes place. Digital workplace design uses the power of the network to both spark and nurture innovation and learning in a way that amplifies their value across the organization.

Where to go from here?

So hopefully I’ve convinced the skeptics among you that there is great opportunity for KM practitioners. The concept of digital workplace design offers a fantastic opportunity to drive some much needed transformation in your organization. 

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