"The underlying cause of most, if not all, of the mistakes in KM is
the serious oversight of not including a knowledge audit in their overall KM plans and initiatives."
(Dr. Ann Hylton)
In their keenness to embark on a knowledge management (KM) initiative many organizations skimp on conducting a knowledge audit.
Yet an audit can uncover important insights about the state of knowledge in an organization and how it flows.
This in turn can help shape a viable KM strategy band prioritize a KM action plan.
An audit does not have to be an in-depth and expensive affair.
Yet it does have to be systematic.
This Insight provides an overview of a knowledge audit and the steps involved.
What is a Knowledge Audit?
The terms information audit and knowledge audit are often used interchangeably.
Whereas an information audit looks at information resources, such as those held in documents and databases, a knowledge audit goes a step further and considers all forms of knowledge, including tacit knowledge held in people's heads.
Some audit practitioners use as their focus the state of KM practices within the firm, and the wider KM context.
Although covered to some extent in what we call an audit, these are an adjunct to the main focus on knowledge areas (domains of knowledge) which contribute to business success.
KM practice are covered in our Know-All KM Assessment.
The following are typical benefits that arise from performing a knowledge audit:
- identification of key areas of knowledge that need managing effectively to improve business performance
- unearthing gaps in knowledge provision
- identifying duplication of effort in accessing or maintaining information
- generation of a high level map of knowledge which can be used as a basis for intranet navigation or a taxonomy
- diagnosing blockages in knowledge flows across the organization
- identification of key knowledge holders whose loss would be detrimental to the organization
- the provision of a benchmark against which KM progress can be evaluated.
5 Steps to Success
Although there will be some iteration, the following steps outline a suggested sequence for carrying out a knowledge audit:
- Scoping and planning: how wide and deep the audit should be; what areas to cover;
how much effort to invest.
- Fact-finding: the core activity that involves collecting data on knowledge needs,
accessibility and quality of knowledge, knowledge flows and blockages; it also
reviews contextual factors that impact on effective knowledge management.
- Analysis and interpretation: identifying critical knowledge areas needing more
attention, for example based on their overall importance versus their current
usefulness; uncovering knowledge gaps and duplication.
- Developing deliverables: as well as a report, these may include lists and
characteristics of knowledge resources and sources; the output of an audit typically
feeds into a KM strategy and action plan.
- Stimulating action: simply reporting on the state of knowledge resources will not
change them for the better; this stage is about follow-up and putting any
recommendations into action.
And having completed an audit once, the results should be reviewed occasionally, such as when updating the KM plan, after a project has been completed or when there is a major organizational change.
The methods used are a combination of qualitative and qualitative and may include:
- Questionnaires - one type looks at the kinds of knowledge are needed and their current state; another one considers the state of various sources
- Semi-structured interviews - to find how staff go about their jobs, what knowledge they use when making decisions etc.; interviews usually unearth key cultural and other organizational factors that may influence implementation
- Workshops - an effective way of getting out a lot of data in a short space of time - see, for example, our workshop Succeeding With KM
- Focus groups - to gain deeper insights on a particular class of knowledge assets or a KM practice
- Document analysis - the organization's ambitions, plans, processes etc.; the existence or otherwise of certain key documents itself says something about a firm's knowledge culture
- Review of core IT systems - analyzing the intranet and its usefulness is often a good starting place; but don't overlook email - it's amazing how sloppy practices inhibit an organization's effectiveness.
Examples of Success
Here's a few examples of organizations where a knowledge audit has led to improved KM performance and business success:
- Davies Arnold Cooper - this small legal firm did KM in an ad-hoc way; an audit identified a clear way forward as well as saving over £40,000 in hard-copy publications.
- Overseas Development Institute - this 'think tank' identified 'pools of expertise' which it was able to categorize; it identified a number of practical approaches to making this knowledge be better shared and deployed.
- Department of Work and Pensions (UK) - an audit identified large volumes of redundant or obsolete information; it helped them shape the design of a new intranet and highlighted the need for a more relevant search capability.
- Nestlé Oy - an audit with a focus on intellectual property helped the firm understand the value and potential of its intellectual property prior to a merger.
- Northop Grumman - facing staff cuts, a division of this aerospace company learnt what knowledge to preserve; interestingly it found that the majority of staff identified their best source of knowledge, not as documents or information resources, but tacit knowledge.
These and other case studies are covered in detail in our K-Guide: Knowing What You Know.
Guidelines for Success
There is no 'magic wand' or detailed prescription for conducting a successful audit since every organizational situation is different. However, there are some recurring themes found in organizations whose audits prove beneficial:
- Be realistic - you need to scale the audit to the resources that you have available; it's better to focus on covering well a few knowledge areas or organizational departments rather than trying to cover the whole organization.
- Choose appropriate methods - while questionnaires have a certain appeal, use the judiciously; it's likely that different methods will be needed to address different aspects and to suit the preferences of different people.
- Don't underestimate the time for analysis - invariably auditors find the 'easy bit' is collecting the data; the tricky bit is making sense of it; don't skimp this aspect; it has a key influence on the outcome.
- Engage effectively throughout the exercise - brief well at the start; keep contributors and stakeholders informed throughout; follow up assiduously.
- Have on tap the right support and expertise - managers will often say 'yes' to an audit without adequately resourcing it or bring in external expertise that might be required; support is also needed from managers to allow staff time to participate.
- Be flexible - don't dogmatically follow a set methodology; circumstances change, people move on or are unavailable; always have a 'Plan B'
- Remember: an audit is both a project and an organization intervention - therefore use good project management techniques, such as resource planning, scheduling and After Action Reviews; as an intervention, it may raise expectations, so 'expectation management' is important.
'Ten Ways to Add Value to Your Business', David Skyrme, Managing Information, Vol 1, No. 3, pp.20-25 (March 1994).
'Information Resources Management', Nick Willard, Aslib Information,Vol 21, No. 5 (May 1993).
'Knowledge audit methodologies with emphasis on core processes', Alonso Perez-Soltero
et. Al., European and Mediterranean Conference on Information Systems (EMCIS) 2006,
July 6-7 2006, Costa Blanca, Alicante, Spain. Accessible at http://www.iseing.org/.
'The Information Audit As A First Step Towards Effective Knowledge Management: An
Opportunity For The Special Librarian'. Susan Henczel, Inspel, 34(3/4): 210-226 (2000).
Practical Information Policies, Liz Orna, Gower Press (1990) - a strategic management perspective on information management. More
Managing Information as Resource, CCTA (1990) - a practical guide showing policy guidelines and how to conduct an information audit. More
'InfoMap: A Complete Guide to Discovering Corporate Information Resources, C.F.Burk and F.W.Horton, Prentice Hall (1998) - the first and still the classic on the practical details of
auditing and classifying information resources. More Details.
NetIKX (formerly the Aslib IRM Network) - a community of interest in information and knowledge management.
© Copyright. David J. Skyrme, 2007. This material may be copied or distributed subject to the terms of our copyright conditions (no commercial gain; complete page copying etc.)
Related Insights on these pages include No. 8 Information Resources Management, No. 11 The Knowledge Asset,
No. 24 Measuring the Value of Knowledge or see full list. See also Knowledge Management resources.
K-Guide: Knowing What You Know And Need To Know: How to Conduct a Knowledge Audit. A comprehensive 50-page 'how to' guide that elaborates on the above outline. It includes details of the steps, sample questionnaires and interview guide, more guidelines, avoiding pitfalls and seven more detailed case studies describing each organization's approach, results and lessons learned.
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Management Insights are publications of David Skyrme Associates, who offers strategic consulting, presentations and workshops on many of these topics.
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various articles, publications and presentations.