When thinking about the practical applications of knowledge management (KM) and how to develop targeted approaches to achieving specific KM-related outcomes, look no further than the KM lifecycle. If your organization has KM challenges, and every organization does, think of the lifecycle as a way to diagnose the symptoms that you observe.
By stepping backward through the cycle, you will no doubt identify one or more areas where your organization is falling short of where it needs to be to ensure a healthy flow of knowledge throughout the organization.
A quick Google search will yield countless versions of the diagram above. There is no definitive version. But in my experience, as a KM practitioner in the nonprofit sector for nearly two decades, I think this one covers the bases adequately without being a) too simplistic or b) so laden with detail that it makes one want to abandon the practice of KM all together!
So with that, here is a brief explanation of each step in Ideal State’s version of the knowledge lifecycle.
Practical KM starts with identifying what knowledge is deemed “critical.” Or, at least, critical enough to warrant the efforts that will be spent to capture it in some meaningful way. It is not necessary or feasible to boil the ocean of knowledge that exists in any organization. Nor is it desirable to be so selective that you risk missing valuable but unexpected gems. A definition of critical knowledge that I often use is the following:
Critical knowledge is knowledge that, if not shared or applied, could result in negative consequences or missed opportunities for the organization or those it serves.
So while that may be somewhat helpful, it still leaves a lot unanswered around how an organization can strategically marshall its limited KM resources to support a thriving knowledge ecosystem. For that, I recommend a further step.
At least once a year, the organization should define areas of knowledge, based on themes, populations served, geographies, programmatic areas, types of experience, or other relevant criteria, that will be the focus of active capture efforts. It’s amazing what can happen after these constraints are defined. With this call to action, staff can innovate and organize around the best possible way to harvest valuable knowledge in these defined areas.
Whether the products that result are formal publications, a vibrant discussion board, a mini-conference, or all/none of the above, this clear intention is where all good KM starts.
So you’ve defined the areas of highest value to the organization, now it’s time for harvesting. Today we have a variety of ways that knowledge can be captured. The most familiar is the written word. But even there we have loads of options. Are these pre-existing, lengthy reports that contain what’s deemed critical, among many other things? Are they published research, conference abstracts, internal memos, donor reports, all of the above?
As KM practitioners, we’re not setting out to create unique and separate workstreams from what the organization normally does to fulfill its obligations and conduct its business. For that reason, we should think opportunistically. An example, “We do loads of program evaluations. Every evaluation has a section related to [fill in the blank]. What if we extract this info from evaluations that fall under the priority areas deemed critical and conduct a meta-analysis to draw related observations and lessons?”
Aside from the written word we have other mediums, like video. Perhaps a knowledgeable staff member is leaving and you’d love to capture their perspectives on an area of ongoing importance to the organization after their departure. Video is a powerful tool for collecting valuable information that can be automatically transcribed and used in a variety of ways.
Bottom line, be creative. Use what’s available. And when you reach a dead end, think like a journalist and “get the story” however best you can, even in the face of limited resources.
This is where the sense-making begins. Yes, that 100-page report contains loads of information but only one fiftieth deals with the area of interest. Or that hour-long video you recorded of Sam talking about their 20-year history with the organization, only 10 minutes-worth addresses some critical lessons that should be taken forward into future projects.
For starters, if you have been charged with synthesizing vast reservoirs of information into valuable and usable knowledge, you must be aware of your own biases. Perhaps you worked with Sam and thought their insights weren’t that great after all. Or perhaps you disagree that what the organization deems most critical at this moment is in fact of greatest importance. This is again where thinking like a journalist (or at least the romantic notion of an impartial journalist) comes in handy.
Simply pass on that which you believe will best serve your audience, in a way that they can easily take in and understand. In this step, language matters more than ever. Are you distilling knowledge shared by scientists for a non-scientific audience? Then you must translate the meaning in words your audience will understand. Is there data that is beyond the capacity of your audience to analyze? Break it down for them in layperson's terms.
There is an art to knowledge synthesis that requires you to genuinely understand and care about how and how much the delivery of this knowledge will serve your audience.
Yes, how something gets labeled and stored matters. But not necessarily in the way you might think. Depending on what decade you first came into the workforce, organizing could mean everything from putting it in the right folder or using the right file naming convention, to simply sending it out to the universe in the hopes it gets “picked up” by the great Google search engine in the sky.
In an organizational context, organizing means maintaining an information environment where knowledge resides where people expect to find it. Do you have an intranet where people go to look for information of this type? Great! Make sure it’s discoverable there. Do you have an enterprise search tool that relies on certain metadata and/or tags being applied to things that show up properly? Fantastic! Make sure that you apply that metadata and/or tags so that it comes up as a result when certain terms are searched and filters applied.
Put another way, if you think your job is done once you produce a synthesized knowledge product, no matter how amazing it might be, think again.
This step generally happens in parallel to step 4 Organize. Typically in an organization, sharing is more prevalent. I’ve just created an exemplary knowledge product of some kind. Excellent! I type up an email and blast it out to my colleagues. Chances are that 98% of them are disinterested at this particular time so they ignore it. But for a few folks, this is exactly what they needed to know at this particular time. Sweet serendipity!
Sharing is great and important. We should all be equipped to promote the work we produce and attract the right audiences to it. And there are a multitude of creative ways to do that. Just don’t forget that sharing is useless without its counterpart - good organization - which will ensure that it is discoverable when and where people need it the most.
The moment we have all been waiting for! Someone sought out the knowledge that was so carefully captured, organized and/or shared and actually used it! Maybe they took those lessons and used them to inform their strategy or modified a time-tested template to their heart's desire. In any case, what they were able to draw upon truly met the need.
As a KM practitioner, these are the moments we live for. It signifies a job well done.
To the extent you can, try to capture proof of this exchange taking place. Perhaps looking at content stats combined with check-ins with various individuals or teams that happen to be heavy consumers of knowledge-rich content. It might also be worthwhile to put a call out to staff to report back on things they found to be particularly useful and applicable to their work, as well as those that were not. After all, KM practice should be focused on serving the needs of others, not a lofty ideal of what KM should be that is disconnected from the operating realities of your organization.
And of course, if the use of this particular knowledge tidbit gave rise to insightful observations or addendums to aforesaid knowledge, capture that as well! And just like that, the circle of knowledge continues.
So as I stated at the beginning, using the knowledge lifecycle to diagnose the state of your organization’s KM practice is a great way to come up with actionable areas for improvement. If any of the described activities in these steps are a far cry from what happens at your organization, now is the time to bring the focus to the one or more areas where things are falling particularly short.
For best results, revisit the cycle annually to diagnose challenges and think about the ways in which you and your collaborators can address any persistent gaps. Using this simple but effective method of reflection linked to clear action, you’ll be well-equipped to generate and sustain the usefulness and accessibility of knowledge throughout the organization.