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Why Employees Should Not Be The Focus For Knowledge Management

This blog is in continuation of my last blog, which foregrounded the need for KM to look beyond employees. While I put forward my argument, let us appreciate the fact that like any field of management, knowledge management is also a ‘work in progress’ and keeps evolving in the light of new findings and by questioning underlying assumption. One such assumption, which is a ‘cardinal assumption’ is the focus on employees. My submission is that employees should not be the focus of KM.  Before pulling down ‘employee-focused’ approach from its pedestal, lets us quickly look at organizations and expectation from them.

Industries are always on a journey towards efficiency and effectiveness. The products that we use keep becoming efficient and effective; the same case with production technology, the way raw materials are procured, the way products are sold. There is a regular improvement in the way these tasks are performed at the industry level. For organizations to stay competitive, they have to lead the industry or keep pace with it. This movement of the industry is a reflection of the learning that is happening and embedding into the way tasks are performed. Organizations grow by learning through practice, adoption of external learning and embedding the same into the way the tasks are performed. This embedding results in enhanced tools, processes and employee knowledge (know-how, know why and know what). The moment an organization stops keeping pace with industry by not learning or embedding those learning, it starts coming down.

The graph given below is a simple representation of what has been mentioned.

How does this improvement happen? As and when we perform a task, we try to find what went right, what went wrong and based on the insights improve the next time we perform the task. We may also look at the industry, find the best practices and adopt it, based on merit. This step by step improvement keeps the organization efficient and effective.

Now let us understand what happens when KM is employee focused. Usual KM interventions are content management, lessons learned practice, knowledge sharing and collaboration. In this, the objective of content management and lessons learned is to capture the learning of the organization and make it available to employees for reuse. However, this gives onus of reusing learning to employees. We have found that the rate of reuse of content from repositories are very low. It hovers below 20% and this can go down as organization size increases. Hence if a reusable asset repository can save 10,000 hours of effort in a month, it may be actually saving only around 200 hours because of employee focus. There are examples of organizations taking a proactive step towards ensuring reuse, by having knowledge sharing sessions before start of any project. This will definitely improve the reuse percentage, however it is still employee-oriented and when projects are running on tight timelines, this approach gets sidelined.

Another focus of KM is to promote sharing and collaboration among employees. This has been successful in bringing employees together, breaking down silos and promoting learning, but they fail to systematically improve the way tasks are performed. With a good sharing and collaboration platform, employees will be able to resolve their problems and work faster. However, note that the platform is helping the employees resolve problems faster and not getting rid of the problem for ever. The same problem may occur for other employees and the platform will help, but ‘reinvention of wheel’ will keep happening across the organization. A study by McKinsey shows that employees spend 33% of their time looking for information or searching/gathering information. In this one wonders how much of the time could have been saved if an attempt was to resolve the problem for ever.

What is required is to focus beyond employees and find a more effective way of ensuring that the learning of the organization gets used in the organization.

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