July 1, 2008

Is Your Knowledge Management Strategic?

In honor of Canada Day, here's a Canadian perspective on developing a knowledge strategy. Courtesy of Knowledge Flow, we have an article published by the Queen's University School of Business entitled Creating a Knowledge Strategy for your Organization: A Special KM Forum Report.

This article provides a useful overview of knowledge management. For example it begins with a helpful explanation of the differences between knowledge management processes, knowledge management enablers and knowledge management drivers. For those of us who do not have a theoretical bent, here's a thumbnail sketch:

KM Processes:

* the methods "an organization uses to create, harvest and refine, store and retrieve, distribute and share, and apply and leverage knowledge"

KM Enablers:

* organizational factors (e.g., structure and culture)
* technology

KM Drivers:

* mission and business strategy
* the firm’s intellectual resources

Michael Zack, a professor who studies how firms use knowledge and knowledge management, suggests that until now most firms have focused on KM Enablers. In other words, they've tried to create the right structure and culture for knowledge sharing and then they've tried to implement the right technologies to facilitate this knowledge sharing. However, in Zack's view, this work has been fundamentally flawed in that it has occurred largely without reference to essential KM Drivers: the overall mission and business strategy of the firm. To explain how fatal this flaw is, Zack gives the example of Polaroid, a company that in his view had great commitment to KM and did a terrific job of fostering a collaborative and sharing culture. However, because that collaboration and sharing was not directed towards the business strategy of mastering digital imaging, the firm lacked the requisite knowledge to compete in this area and, ultimately, went out of business. What a waste.

Zack is unequivocal in advocating a single-minded focus on KM Strategy. As recounted by the authors of this article,
In short, stated Zack, a company can do KM extremely well but not focus it on the right things. In order for it to have an impact on firm performance, KM must be linked to business strategy at all levels in the organization. If an organization has a poor business strategy, KM may not be able to make a difference. However, if it has a good business strategy, KM can support it. Knowledge and learning must support and inform an organization’s competitive position. This is what will give a firm a strategic advantage and this in turn, will add value.
So what is a Knowledge Strategy and how do you formulate it? According to Zack, you begin by determining what a firm needs to know to compete. A firm's ability to compete is directly related to its knowledge.
Managing the gap between what a company needs to know to execute its strategy and what it actually knows is the most strategic role of KM. The more knowledge is tied to strategy, the greater the value of KM will be. The link between strategy and knowledge is a knowledge strategy. This is different from knowledge management, which focuses on the processes whereby knowledge is created, harvested, stored, distributed and applied. KM supports the management of knowledge needed by the firm, which in turn supports the firm’s knowledge and business strategy. A knowledge strategy focuses on knowledge content gaps, while knowledge management emphasizes knowledge process gaps. These two must be aligned if a firm is going to use knowledge competitively.
If you're serious about developing a Knowledge Strategy, you will have to do the following analysis:

Assess knowledge gaps:

* What does the firm need to know?
* What does the firm actually know?
* What do the firm's competitors know?

Assess your knowledge resources:

* What knowledge is worth developing?
* What knowledge is worth acquiring?
* What knowledge is worth capturing to facilitate transfer?
* How will the firm derive value from this knowledge?

Assess your learning cycles:

* How quickly and how well does your firm learn as compared to its industry at large?
* Does this provide a competitive advantage or should your firm pursue learning more aggressively?

The article reminds us that this analysis is not something you do once and then put on the shelf. It is more in the nature of a continuous assessment. Just as the firm is dynamic, the knowledge strategy must be dynamic-- reflecting the changing environment and any shifts in business strategy. Above all, this analysis needs to be done in close cooperation with senior management. This is not an exercise to be undertaken by knowledge managers operating in a vacuum without the deliberate input of the people designing the business strategy.

By focusing on strategy, knowledge managers move from the ranks of knowledge plumbers to the ranks of knowledge architects. Are you ready for this change in status?

And, while you're chewing on that thought, Happy Canada Day!

1 comment:

Mike said...

Thanks for posting the summary. If you are interested in learning more, read my articles “The Strategic Advantage of Knowledge and Learning”, International Journal of Intellectual Capital and Learning, Vol. 2, No. 1, 2005, pp.1-20; "Rethinking the Knowledge-Based Organization", Sloan Management Review, Vol. 44, No. 4, Summer, 2003, pp. 67-71; and "Developing a Knowledge Strategy", California Management Review, Vol. 41, No. 3, Spring, 1999, pp. 125-145