By Matt Brown

Knowledge management is a discipline that promotes an integrated approach to identifying, capturing, evaluating, retrieving, and sharing all of an enterprise’s information assets. These assets may include databases, documents, policies, procedures, and previously un-captured expertise and experience in individual workers.
~ Duhon, Gartner Group, 1998

What good is it to know something unless it has been written down or recorded?  In the oft-used “run over by a bus” scenario, knowledge can be lost when the person who knows something is removed from the equation.

Where, why and when is recording knowledge important?  In our work for an array of federal agencies, we are constantly discovering new knowledge about systems and processes that must be captured, recorded and passed on.  As reporting structures change, people move to new positions and systems are upgraded or replaced, we must be able to recall and reuse the information that the collective “we” have learned, in order to improve efficiency, provide consistent and excellent service and to keep from making the same errors or mistakes that may have been made in the past.

The concept of “knowledge management” encompasses both formal and informal knowledge – that is, both the documented information from process manuals and procedures and the knowledge learned from actually performing in the role.  Both are vital for improved service, yet it’s often easy to focus only on the expected, written information and ignore the informal or experiential learning.

How do we prevent this loss of knowledge when people shift jobs or new systems are implemented?  Encourage technical teams to document all policy, procedure, and process information and then give them the time to do it.   Many in the technology industry are loath to set aside the time to document how they do their jobs.  They are too busy building, repairing, or patching the enterprise infrastructure every day.  Even when someone is interested in documenting a new observation or knowledge we are too concerned with the flow and format of what they give us, rather than the insight it provides and how to share it with others.  This makes even the most interested technician throw up their hands and say forget it, it’s not worth the effort.

Let me give you an example:

A team member who works on services finds a fault/failure with a file server.  They ask coworkers if they’ve run across this issue in the past.  This is a reasonable course of action and demonstrates the power of informal, tribal knowledge.  In this approach it’s assumed that nothing is written down but someone knows the answer.  When or if the collective wisdom cannot answer the question, the technicians turn to the manufacturer’s service manual to see if the issue is documented.  At long last (and honestly often as a first resort) the technicians Google the issue to see what others have done when this issue presented itself.

Assuming the technician finds the answer, they make the repair and work resumes.  A couple of observations:  Is this the best way to solve the problem?  Clearly not.  Does the problem get solved? Most likely, yes.  Does the eventual solution get recorded so that the knowledge is shared for future occurrences?  Typically, the answer is no, and we can expect the cycle to repeat the next time the same issue arises.

Now, consider the same scenario, but with a vibrant knowledge management capability.  A technician becomes aware of an error, and recognizing that most incidents are recorded for future investigation, he or she turns immediately to the knowledge management system, where they discover past occurrences and the recommended solutions. If the existing problem is not addressed in the knowledge base, the technician is responsible for solving the problem and documenting the issue and how it was resolved.  Knowledge management helps solve a problem quickly and efficiently, building a knowledge base of information about any and all problems and their resolutions.

What does it take to have a great knowledge management capability?

Suppose we as leaders were to really embrace knowledge management?  Instead of the guesswork and rework many technicians and IT support specialists have to do today, we’d have a solid knowledge management capability.  Building a knowledge management capability requires:

  • Gathering all of the “how to” and “tips and tricks” your techs have amassed over the years
  • Hiring a technology writer or two to turn that information into clean and easy to understand artifacts
  • Storing and categorizing those artifacts in a central location that EVERYBODY can access. This critical database becomes a Knowledge Base (KB)
  • Promoting the efficiency of the new knowledge base to everyone who encounters a problem.
  • Encouraging the technicians to review the information and give them a way to submit changes/corrections/updates

Of course this cycle repeats itself because knowledge management is a never-ending cycle. Technology changes continually and often quickly.  However, any IT organization can become far more effective and efficient with good knowledge management capabilities.

Benefits of Knowledge Management

In our experience working in large government contracts, knowledge management delivers almost immediate benefits.  Building and maintaining a knowledge base requires very little effort, as long as the majority of technicians will document the problems they encounter and how they resolved them.  Once a critical mass is reached, the ability to resolve issues increases dramatically.  In some instances we’ve seen response times and resolution times drop from days to minutes.

Knowledge management is easy to implement, exceptionally valuable and has a very high return on investment.  It can assist in resolving issues more effectively and efficiently, document the growth and history of IT issues, assist with onboarding, and reduce the learning curve for new support personnel.  Plus, it provides the management team with a more restful night’s sleep.  No longer do they have to worry that all the accumulated knowledge walks out the door at the end of a shift, or risk losing knowledge because of an unfortunate intersection with a bus.